Darjeeling Himalayas represents an ecologically and ethnically rich region of Eastern India. Geologically, geographically and biologically the region along with adjoining Sikkim Himalayas is contiguous with the Nepal and Bhutan Himalayas; as well as the North East region of India. Darjeeling is the gateway to NE India via the narrow Siliguri corridor and shares international boundaries with Nepal, Bhutan and China. Darjeeling represents an unique region of Eastern India with respect to strategic location, security and defense concerns, abundant natural resources, rich agriculture, diverse socio-cultural identity and heritage, unparalleled scenic beauty with huge tourism potential along with spectacular mountains, valleys, forests, wildlife representing rich biodiversity.
The Darjeeling Himalayas represents a unique Himalayan ecosystem from the bamboo forests of the foot hills; and from the sub Alpine and Alpine meadows to the extreme snow clad ridges and is rich in flora and fauna. Plants such as bryophytes (mosses, hornworts, liverworts), pteridophytes (club mosses, spike mosses, horsetails, quillworts, ferns, tree ferns), gymnosperms (cycads and conifers); and a vast array of flowering plants (angiosperms) like rhododendrons, orchids, euphorbias and wild roses to mention a handful. Ten dominant angiospermic plant families from the region are Fabaceae, Asteraceae, Euphorbiaceae, Rubiaceae, Rosaceae, Urticaceae, Lamiaceae, Scrophulariaceae, Lauraceae and Acantahceae.
The region is also rich with both terrestrial and aquatic algae and fungi species and a wide diversity of lichen species representing crustose, fruticose and filiform types. The animal diversity includes spectacular diversity of birds (such as raptors, parakeets, swallows, rollers, warblers, babblers, sparrow, mynahs, thrushes, swifts, sunbirds, hornbills, bee eaters, floricans, flycatchers, sunbirds, hornbills, flycatchers) and insects (particularly worth mentioning are the diverse species of beetles, moths and butterflies). The spectacular mammalian species inhabiting this majestic ecosystem are clouded leopards, Indian leopards, jungle cats, golden cats, fishing cats, marbled cats, red pandas, civets, mongooses, badgers, Himalayan black bear, Himalayan squirrel, Himalayan serrows, Himalayan porcupines, Assamese macaques, Rhesus monkeys, gaurs, chital deer, barking deer, sambars to mention only a few.
The region witnesses the annual migration of several teals, ducks, gulls and plover species. Several economically and medicinally important fungi and plants are known from this region that could have huge boost for the pharmaceutical, nutraceutical and functional food industries. Unfortunately, the remote ridges, inaccessible interspersed mountainous valleys, high altitude forests and meadows are grossly under explored and could hold many more rare and endemic species of flora and fauna. A number of important natural history expeditions have been conducted in the past in the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir; and remote areas of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh by several national/international/non-government departments, organization and agencies specializing on wildlife, forest and ecosystem conservation.
Unfortunately for some unknown or undisclosed reason, such necessary expeditions for locating and updating information on flora, fauna and local natural resources have been completely missed out. No significant status update is currently available for several vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered as well as endemic species of flora and fauna from Darjeeling Himalayas. It will be absolutely interesting to review the status of bryophytes, pteridophytes, gymnosperms and angiosperms in the Darjeeling Himalayas. Furthermore, the current status of rare mammals like red panda, clouded leopards and common leopards will be absolutely significant from the perspective of long term sustenance of the ecosystem. Recently camera traps placed in remote localities of Ladakh, Sikkim, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh have been able to capture images of elusive snow leopards, tigers, common leopards, clouded leopards etc in habitat that previously did not have any such records of these species. Such sincere attempts and technical approaches need to be encouraged in various remote habitats and premier inaccessible ecosystems of the Darjeeling Himalayas for assessing the status of rare and endangered species.
While most of the political parties are presenting them as deeply concerned for the political future of Darjeeling; none seems to be concerned about the fragile local ecosystems and environment of the region. The unprecedented rise in human population in all divisions of the district, both in the foothills as well as the hilly areas have serious negative anthropogenic impacts on the fragile local environment. All the successive state governments as well as local administration have facilitated the construction of houses and hotels to promote tourism in the region without following any construction or building regulation or norms in a highly seismic zone and in a region that is prone to landslides, flash floods and mud floods will have serious consequences in the not so distant future.
The region has exponentially developed without any long term environmental planning and all political parties are responsible in promoting this. They just cannot shrug off their responsibilities for making this entire region vulnerable to both natural and anthropogenic disasters that may impact the lives of countless people towards an uncertain future. Rapid deforestation of the region to build legal and illegal tea gardens and various commercial plantations, promotion of illegal real estate business and expansion of agricultural lands even within fragile ecoregions have drastically impacted local forests and wildlife.
Several endangered and endemic species of the region could not be easily located or found any more. Rapid deforestation has made the region extremely vulnerable towards massive landslides in the future. Several noted organizations of repute at both the national as well as international levels have projected severe environmental consequences for Darjeeling unless corrective measures and necessary remediation projects are implemented accordingly in time. Darjeeling could develop an organic farming model like Sikkim and reduce the impact of toxic synthetic chemicals on the local environment.
Unfortunately, none of the feuding political parties in their fight for dominance in the region has included environment protection as a priority in their agenda for development or election manifestos. Securing political future of any region is undoubtedly important; however, if the environmental question is comp0letely ignored situations similar to recent natural calamities such as that in Uttarkhanad in India or Nepal earthquake could completely devastate this vulnerable region. Both the political parties and ordinary citizens of Darjeeling need to seriously think about these important questions too while looking for securing the life and opportunities of the next generation of the hill communities. Hence political advocacy and activism as well popular support is essential for protecting the extremely fragile and highly vulnerable and unique ecosystems of the Darjeeling Himalayas.
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