- Despite being extremely rich in wildlife and biodiversity, all is not well in in Nepal’s Limi Valley, an area of global importance for highland wildlife, both flora and fauna.
- The valley is facing an increasing number of anthropogenic and natural threats, the most prominent being human-wildlife conflict and the illegal wildlife trade. In spite of these challenges to conservation, however, the area also provides ample opportunities to address the issues it is facing.
- The Limi Valley is in need of well-thought-out, long-term conservation initiatives. However, any initiatives aimed at conserving the unique biodiversity of the area in the long-run must address the complex issue of human-wildlife conflict. This will involve working directly with local people in alternative livelihood and income generation activities.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Around 18 kilometers southeast of Tibet’s Lake Mansarovar, a sacred lake for both Hindus and Buddhists, there lies yet another pilgrimage site, albeit of a different nature: The Limi Valley, on the other side of the border with Nepal, is considered sacred not because of religious significance but because of its extraordinary richness in highland biodiversity.
Located in the administrative district of Humla, the Limi Valley is part of the western end of the Tibetan plateau, where it extends inside the geographical boundary of Nepal. Thus denizens of the valley are both geographically and culturally close to Tibet. Chyakpalung, which translates to ‘a place where wind blows like crazy’ in English, is the heart of this mystical, high-altitude river valley.
The sparse human population is concentrated in four small human settlements (Tila, Haltze, Dzang, and Tungling) towards the south and south-western portion of the valley, with a total of 161 households inhabited by about 900 people of Tibetan origin. The people here have their own traditional way of life, with agriculture and livestock-rearing as the primary sources of livelihood.
At the mind-boggling altitude of around 4,000 meters, these human settlements — built with rocks and stones in unique, archaic designs that blend with the landscape — feel like something frozen in time, a surreal dream. The denizens of the Limi Valley have to travel a long way – almost 15 kilometers – by foot on narrow trails across hills and mountains to reach the nearest motorable road, which can bring them to Simikot, the district headquarters, and its small airport.
Because of this limited connectivity, during winter months, when there is heavy snowfall, the Limi Valley remains completely disconnected from the rest of the country for four to five months. Thus a traveler from outside the valley, called a Rongba in the traditional language of the region, has to be very determined to reach this place. And if they are lucky enough, this visit will give the Rongba, without doubt, the treat of a lifetime.
However, despite being extremely rich in wildlife and biodiversity, all is not well in in this Trans-Himalayan paradise. The Limi Valley is an area of global importance for highland wildlife, both flora and fauna, but it is facing an increasing number of anthropogenic and natural threats, the most prominent being human-wildlife conflict and the illegal wildlife trade.
In spite of these challenges to conservation, however, the area also provides ample opportunities to address the issues it is facing.
In 2013, Friends of Nature carried out an expedition to Limi Valley, which led to the discovery of wild yak, a flagship highland ungulate long believed to have gone extinct from the country. The expedition was also instrumental in bringing to light the extraordinary richness of highland biodiversity in the area, which was very much unknown to the outside world until then. A total of 20 mammal and 66 bird species were documented during the 2013 expedition, including the wild yak and a bird species (black-necked crane) that do not occur anywhere else in the country. Other globally important species recorded include snow leopard, Himalayan wolf, kiang, argali, and Himalayan brown bear.
The following years witnessed more such expeditions that contributed to further information on wildlife of the area. One of the rarest mammals in the country, the Tibetan fox, was photographed in 2015. During the same year, Tibetan lark, a highland bird species, was recorded, a new record for Nepal.
Wildlife under threat?
The Limi Valley’s wildlife is facing a number of threats. The richness of wildlife that we boast of often becomes a source of severe headache for people who live in the Limi Valley. In my time there, I found that nearly one-fourth — 23 percent — of the total population report crop loss from wildlife. Blue sheep do not shy away from venturing onto farmland while snow leopards and Himalayan wolves do not hesitate to take livestock whenever the opportunity arises. For people whose livelihoods often rest upon rearing livestock, this is a very serious issue. And to settle the score, they do not back away from retaliating and killing the culprit (and the culprit’s kin) by one means or another. This problem is compounded when people from outside Limi visit the area and get involved in hunting and the wildlife trade.
More often than not, people kill these majestic carnivores based on the pretext of human-wildlife conflict, when the actual motive of the killing is the rampant illegal wildlife trade across the border to China. When my colleagues and I first visited the area in 2013, we came across reports of people from outside Limi killing four snow leopards for the illegal wildlife trade. The magnificent Himalayan wolves are also victim to this trade.
Another important issue that has come up in the past decade is the construction of a nearly 90-kilometer-long road to connect Limi Valley to the Huma district headquarters in Simikot. While it is undeniable that the connectivity is essential and important for development, there was no discussion of the negative impacts the road construction could bring to the important wildlife of the area. The construction went ahead without any proper environmental impact assessment, as required by Nepal’s Environment Protection Act of 1996.
Ecological impacts such as fragmentation of habitat is likely to occur due to the road, and this has not been studied yet, either. The construction of the road is gaining full steam and the project is expected to be complete soon. Timber smuggling to Tibet is on the rise due to the road, as well.
Biodiversity aside, the area also is staggeringly rich in Himalayan/Tibetan/Bon culture, signified by monasteries and other structures, some of which are centuries old. Rinchenling monastery, located in the Limi Valley’s Haltze village, was built during the eleventh century. Monasteries at Dzang and Til villages are also more than 300 years old, making them an important part of religious life for people in the area. This was indicated by the reluctance of people of Haltze to relocate even after a devastating glacial flood in 2011 that destroyed the western end of the village, including a part of Rinchenling monastery.
The case for conservation
The Limi Valley is in need of well-thought-out, long-term conservation initiatives. However, any initiatives aimed at conserving the unique biodiversity of the area in the long-run must address the complex issue of human-wildlife conflict. This will involve working directly with local people in alternative livelihood and income generation activities. Insurance programs could be instrumental to reduce the retaliatory killing and trade, as well.
People in the area have tremendous faith in monasteries, which can be used efficiently in conservation, as shown by the experience in eastern Nepal and Tibet. The area offers an excellent opportunity for religious tourism, as visitors can enjoy a great view of the Tibetan plateau, Mount Kailash, and Lake Mansarovar, while Rinchenling Monastery is not to be missed by people who want to visit the oldest Buddhist monastery in the country.
The potential for wildlife tourism and photography is enormous, as well, and should be on the menu of any organization willing to work in this direction. Homestays or community lodges can be promoted in the area with the tagline “Homestay/community lodge at the roof of the world” to cater to tourism. These solutions would require building the capacity of local people with relevant skill sets.
The human population density of the Limi Valley is very small, which is a clear advantage compared to places in lowlands where the density is extremely high and such important areas are often islands of forest amidst a sea of human settlements. There are ample opportunities to develop eco-tourism to enhance local livelihoods, which will have bearing on wildlife conservation.
Failing to address threats to wildlife by availing ourselves of the many opportunities to promote conservation in the Limi Valley would lead to loss of a sacred wildlife habitat in the highlands, a mythical Shangri-La for wildlife.
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• Hovden, A. (2011). If this is what a small glacial lake flood can do, imagine a big one. The Nepali Times. Kathmandu, Nepal
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