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The Nehru Memorial Museum & Library


‘Rising Himalayas and Struggling High-altitude Life: Human-wildlife interaction in the mountains’ , 16th May, 2014


The Indian plate collided with the Eurasian plate about 50 million years ago. The consequent rising of the Himalaya and the Tibetan plateau led to a dramatic change in the climate of Asia. The massive upheaval created numerous niches, and a fascinating assemblage of mega-herbivores with their predators occupied these niches by moving into higher areas, constantly adapting to the thin, frigid air and other high-altitude conditions. Many of these mega-herbivores like the woolly rhinoceros evolved in the Himalaya- Tibetan plateau region and then expanded to other parts of Eurasia once the ice-age began, creating a larger extent of colder habitats for these animals. Today's wild yak and Tibetan wild ass are some of the remnant species of this fascinating Pleistocene herbivore assemblage. The Himalayas also influenced the distribution and diversity patterns of avifauna in Asia. The Himalayan mountain ranges, the biggest physical mass on the planet, serve as the largest barrier to bird migration in the world. Before the Himalaya came into existence, the ancestors of the present-day birds perhaps flew across the Tethys Sea to reach their wintering areas on the Indian island, which was then drifting northward. The migration must have become easier as the island came closer to the Eurasian land-mass. But the rising Himalaya created a massive physical barrier for migratory birds. Several species like the bar-headed goose kept pace with the rising mountains, evolving enhanced respiratory features. The question now is, will these fascinating species of birds and mammals continue to evolve more efficient systems to keep pace with the rising Himalaya (currently at about 1 cm per year), or will it be too much for them, given that all their resources are increasingly being usurped by humans. For instance, bar-headed goose, the highest flying bird in the world, relies on a chain of wetlands to fuel its flight over some of the highest peaks in the Himalayas. However, most of these wetlands are increasingly being drained for irrigation and industrial activities. Similarly, prime habitats of animals like the wild yak are being converted to agricultural land and pastures for Pashmina goats. Pastoral people also affect wildlife populations directly through retaliatory killing of predators like the snow leopard. Therefore, the future of these wild animals looks rather bleak in the wake of increasing needs and changing aspirations of the Himalayan people. There is an urgent need to strike a balance between human endeavours and wildlife conservation if we want to bequeath some of our natural wealth to the future generations.


Dr. Tsewang Namgail obtained his masters in wildlife biology from the University of Tromso, Norway, and a Ph.D in community ecology from the Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Subsequently he was a postdoctoral researcher at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in San Francisco and Las Vegas working on a range of taxa including migratory ducks and reptiles. Currently, he heads the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLCI), an organization aimed at conserving the snow leopard, its prey and habitat. Recently he was a visiting scientist at the Wageningen University. He is co-editing a book on migratory birds in the Himalayan region for the Cambridge University Press. Dr. Namgail has done pioneering ecological work on several taxa in the Trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh. However his main focus has been birds and mammals. He has published over 20 scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals. He serves on the editorial board of two Springer journals: Ecological Research and Pastoralism: Research, Policy and Practice.

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