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Eastern Himalayas

Overview

This enchanted Shangri-La stretches across Nepal, Bhutan, northeast India, southeast Tibet and northern Myanmar. The region is home to iconic species such as the snow leopard, Bengal tiger and one-horned rhino, as well as millions of people.

  • Continent
    Asia
  • Species
    Asian elephant, Snow leopard, Ganges River dolphin, Red panda, Bengal tiger, Greater one-horned rhino

The Himalayas is the highest mountain range in the world, and has 9 out of 10 of the world’s highest peaks, including Mount Everest. These mountains, referred to as the Third Pole, are the source of some of Asia’s major rivers and also help to regulate our planet’s climate. For centuries people here have developed a unique culture that weaves nature and people together into the same fabric of life. The region is the birthplace of the Buddha, and is full of sacred natural sites such as secret valleys and high mountain lakes that predate ancient Hinduism.

The Himalayas face many challenges, and governments are under pressure to provide for their people and secure their natural heritage. Forests are strained as demand continues to grow for timber and food crops. Protected areas are becoming isolated pockets, and international criminal networks are emptying forests of rare wildlife to feed the voracious illegal market. The impact of global climate change is melting the once mighty Himalayas at a rate faster than ever recorded in human history, jeopardizing a vital source of freshwater for billions of people in Asia.

WWF has worked in the region since the start of the conservation movement and the founding of our organization in 1961. By joining hands with governments, local communities and supporters around the world, we have made progress for wild species and natural landscapes. But more needs to be done to forge a sustainable future for the Eastern Himalayas.

Looking at nature through a new lens

WWF was invited to be a Glass Explorer last year through the initial Giving Through Glass program. WWF's Sabita Malla tested the technology to help rhino conservation.

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Species

The Eastern Himalayas harbor an amazing diversity of life. There are 163 globally threatened species found in the Himalayas, including Asia’s three largest herbivores – Asian elephant, greater one-horned rhinoceros and wild water buffalo – and its largest carnivore, the tiger. The region is home to:
• 10,000 types of plants
• 300 mammals
• 977 birds
• 176 reptiles
• 105 amphibians
• 269 freshwater fish
The Himalayan grasslands have the densest population of Bengal tigers, which live alongside Asian elephants and one-horned rhinos. The mountains offer refuge for red pandas, golden langurs and takins. This is the only known location in the world where Bengal tigers and snow leopards share habitat.

People & Communities

Eastern Himalayas People and communities

WWF works closely with communities across the Eastern Himalayas because they are the true stewards of nature. Local ownership, alternative sources of income, women's empowerment, and long-term sustainable livelihoods are all elements of our work.

Power for the People

WWF celebrated a major milestone in 2006 when the government of Nepal handed over the management of Kangchenjunga Conservation Area to the local communities. This historic action was an important landmark in the Eastern Himalayas. It demonstrated the government’s commitment to the delegation of power to local communities. This victory was led by WWF’s conservation heroes Mingma Norbu Sherpa and Dr. Chandra Gurung, who both passed away in a tragic accident on their way back from Kangchenjunga. This continues to be a model for community-led conservation. There is less pressure on local forests and people have a positive attitude toward wildlife conservation. Wildlife poaching and illegal harvesting of valuable medicinal plants have decreased. The people actively monitor wildlife and stop illegal activities.

Culture of Conservation

Culture of Conservation

The breadth of natural biodiversity in the Eastern Himalayas is complemented by a rich mosaic of cultures, traditions and people. Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and animists have lived closely with nature for centuries and have created a culture of conservation. Ancient traditions and livelihoods of many communities remain woven into the balanced use of natural resources. They depend on these resources for their livelihoods, and value ecosystem services such as freshwater, erosion control, and agricultural and subsistence harvests. The people ensure that their traditional activities are sustainable by practicing small-scale agriculture and effective community management.

Adapting to a Changing Environment

The region faces serious threats from poverty and an increasing population. Almost half of India’s immense population lives within 310 miles of the Himalayan range along the Gangetic plains. The need for food, shelter and industries to support modern lifestyles is exerting tremendous pressure on nature. Localized cutting and clearing of wood for agriculture is depleting large areas of forest and stripping steep slopes of trees. Intensive livestock grazing damages sensitive alpine meadows. Climate change is melting the mighty mountain glaciers, which jeopardizes the source of freshwater for more than 700 million people in the region.

Threats

Eastern Himalayas

Illegal Wildlife Trade

In addition to deforestation and other habitat loss, poaching is the main threat to wildlife in the region. Tigers and rhinos are the most at risk because of their high commercial value in the black market. Smaller animals such as deer are sometimes poached for meat, and fish are frequently poached in protected areas. Poachers use nets and poison that can contaminate whole rivers. There are approximately 15 transboundary hotspots for wildlife trafficking between Nepal and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region.

Habitat Loss

Eastern Himalayas Habitat Loss

Local farmers use stall feeders to feed water buffalo and keep them from grazing on grasslands and forests.

The conversion of forests for agriculture and exploitation for timber, fodder and fuelwood threaten the biodiversity in this region. Charcoal production in low elevation areas and intensive grazing at higher elevations also threatens forests. The need for firewood is not only a burden for nature, but also for people. Women usually spend hours in the forest looking for firewood, which increases their chances for conflict with wildlife. Many rural people depend on cattle for their livelihoods but do not have sufficient land for grazing. It is common to see cows, water buffalo and goats grazing in forests. Forests can sustain a small amount of grazers, but current numbers are unsustainable. Grazers often eat saplings and destroy future forest regeneration.

Human-Wildlife Conflict

The frequency of human-wildlife conflict increases as human populations grow and more land is cleared. Levels of conflict heighten and tolerance decreases when traditional practices are interrupted. WWF and other conservation organizations work to eliminate human-wildlife conflicts. For example, a community-managed livestock insurance plan compensates villagers for livestock losses from snow leopards. As these conservation measures take root, snow leopard numbers are on the rise.

Climate Change

Climate change is impacting people and threatening wildlife in the Eastern Himalayas. Many glaciers are melting and forming lakes prone to bursting and downstream flooding. Traditional water springs have dried up, limiting the water supply. Farmers’ crops suffer from changing patterns of rainfall, which threatens the food security of the local people. Warmer temperatures and changing humidity have brought insect pests and disease to areas where they were previously absent.

What WWF Is Doing

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WWF also focuses on building an informed and empowered generation of young conservationists in Nepal.

WWF helps to protect, restore and reconnect natural landscapes across the Eastern Himalayas. Our goal is to make sure plant and animal species can thrive and at the same time local communities are able to maintain and improve their livelihoods. This includes the sustainable use of natural resources from forests, grasslands and freshwater systems. We work with the governments of Bhutan, India and Nepal, as well as local communities, to protect forests, animal habitats and freshwater sources. We also work to empower communities to protect sacred lands.

20 Years in Nepal

Three people in a small room—that was the start of WWF’s office in Nepal in 1993 even though we had been supporting conservation efforts in the country from the 1960s. Two decades later, we have a nearly 100 staff and work that extends to the government, conservation agencies and local communities. WWF has been part of many significant advances in conservation, all of which have been possible because of the power of partnerships.

Conservation gains in Nepal include the success of landscape level conservation such as the ambitious Terai Arc, Sacred Himalayan landscape programs led by the government with support from WWF, and community-based conservation efforts whereby local communities now lead and support nature conservation.

Forest and river, Nepal.

Restoring the Terai Arc Landscape

 Nepal’s Terai Arc region is home to endangered rhinos and elephants, and the world’s highest concentration of tigers. WWF is connecting 11 protected areas by restoring the forests between them, which provides habitat corridors needed for species survival. We also empower local communities and improve livelihoods by establishing community forestry groups that enable communities to benefit from forests by managing and restoring them.

Safeguarding Bhutan’s Natural Landscape

More than 70 percent of Bhutan’s land is covered by intact forests. Bhutan has an ambitious plan to maintain almost 400,000 acres of ‘wildlife highways’ that connect protected areas across the country. As the only international conservation organization with a permanent presence in Bhutan, WWF collaborates with the royal government to address Bhutan’s economic and environmental needs. We also engage and raise the technical capacity of the local people through education.

Preserving the Sacred Himalayan Landscape

Eastern Himalayan Landscape

The Himalayas are an important source of fresh water for millions of people in South Asia. Its alpine meadows and conifer forests harbor an array of rare plant life and endangered species. WWF’s Sacred Himalayan Landscape taps into the spiritual beliefs and conservation ethics of local communities to restore essential habitats and protect endangered species such as the snow leopard. We help local communities and local governments manage their forests, streams, soils and wildlife more sustainably. We also directly improve people’s lives through activities such as the establishment of women’s groups that focus on literacy and sustainable income generation skills.

Conserving the Tibetan Plateau’s Vital Ecosystem

The Tibetan Plateau is a deceptively fragile ecosystem of immense biological and cultural importance. This high altitude Serengeti is home to the snow leopard, red panda and vast herds of wild yak, gazelle and antelope. The glaciers and wetlands of Tibet are the source of many of Asia’s most important rivers, including the Yangtze, Mekong and Brahmaputra, all of which ensure fresh water to nearly half of humanity. These rivers and glaciers are now imperiled by climate change. WWF focuses on implementation of adaptation strategies aimed at ensuring the long-term viability of these river source areas.

Protecting Northeast India’s Forests

Old-growth forests extend from Bhutan into northeast India, where a growing population and infrastructure projects threaten some of the largest and last intact forests in Asia. WWF applies its experiences from community-based conservation in the Terai Arc and Bhutan to protect the forests of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, restore critical elephant habitats, and reduce incidents of human-elephant conflict.

“Our work in the Himalayas ensures the well-being of people and species through the conservation of entire ecosystem processes.” 

Jon Miceler WWF Managing Director, Eastern Himalayas

Projects

  • Bhutan

    Bhutan is at the heart of the Eastern Himalayas, which supplies one-third of the world’s freshwater. And the country’s forests help keep climate change at bay by absorbing carbon dioxide. Bhutan is one of the world’s 10 most biodiverse countries. But Bhutan’s natural resources are on the brink of being more threatened now than ever before, despite the government’s political will and conservation milestones. Why? The country has changed more in the last 50 years than the past 500 years combined.

  • Conserving Snow Leopards, Securing Water Resources, and Benefiting Communities

    In October 2012, WWF began a four-year project to conserve snow leopard habitat, promote water security, and help communities prepare for climate change impacts in Central Asia. The USAID-funded, $4.7-million Conservation and Adaptation in Asia’s High Mountain Landscapes and Communities project will conduct field activities in and build alliances among six of the snow leopard’s 12 range countries: Bhutan, India, Nepal, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan. The project will run through September 30, 2016.

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