Indian Subcontinent--Pakistan, China, Afghanistan, India

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The Karakoram-West Tibetan Plateau Alpine Steppe [PA1006] contains some of the highest densities of ungulates in the region, including the endangered Marco Polo sheep. The alpine vegetation supports numerous mountain sheep and goats, which in turn provide a substantial prey base for the endangered snow leopard. A majority of this ecoregion is prime habitat for the snow leopard and, like its ungulate prey, this large predator often comes into conflict with the region's domestic animals that use the same rangelands. A resolution to this conflict will help ensure habitat for the region's native flora and fauna.

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    55,300 square miles
  • Status
  • Habitats

Location and General Description
This ecoregion makes up a majority of the Karakoram high mountain region to the west of the Himalayas in Kashmir. It includes snow and glaciers of some of the world's highest mountains (such as K2) as well as the lower-elevation alpine, sub-alpine, and interdispersed coniferous vegetation. The predominant mountain ranges are the Karakoram Range, Ladakh Range, Chang Chenmo Range (China), and Deosai Mountains.

Mountain slopes support mainly unstable, excessively drained shallow to moderately deep gravelly, loamy soils on bedrock and are subject to severe sheet, rill, and gully erosion. The mean annual precipitation varies in the ecoregion but ranges from 200 to 900 mm, 90 percent in the form of snow (Shengji 1996; IUCN 1993).

Within this broad mountain ecosystem, small distances result in large changes based on altitude, aspect, geology, and soils, giving rise to a wide variety of microclimates and biodiversity. The predominant vegetation is characterized by sparse grasslands and herbaceous vegetation on mountainous slopes. On the alpine slopes or in sheltered ravines, Salix denticulata, Mertensia tibetica, Potentilla desertorum, Juniperus polycarpus, Polygonum viviparum, Berberis pachyacantha, Rosa webbiana, and Spiraea lycoides dominate. In the highest elevations, above 4,500 m, the vegetation thins out. Common species found at these altitudes include Delphinium cashmerianum, Glechoma tibetica, Silene longicarpophora, Potentilla fruticosa, and Nepeta spp. (Shengji 1996; IUCN 1993).

Shrublands and patchy forests are found in the valley bottoms. The primary plant species include Hippophae rhamnoides, Myricaria elegans, Salix viminalis, Capparis spinosa, Tribulus terrestris, Pegamum harmala, Sophora alopecuroides, and Lycium ruthenicum (Shengji 1996). A steppe juniper forest, once common to most of central Asia, remains in relict populations on cliffs and sloped land. These forest fragments are dominated by Juniperus macropoda and J. indica (IUCN 1993).

Biodiversity Features
The unique microclimatic features and harsh climatic conditions force plants to adapt to survive. This gives rise to numerous endemic plant species. In Pakistan, an estimated sixty-six plant species are endemic to the Kashmir region, and montane plant species make up 90 percent of Pakistan's endemic flora (Ali 1978).

Most of the species found in this ecoregion are wide-ranging species found throughout most of the high mountains or Tibetan Plateau of the Karakorams, Hindu-Kush, and Himalayas. However, a single endemic mammal is found in this ecoregion: the woolly flying squirrel (table 1). This squirrel is found at high elevations in sparse Pinus or Picea forests. Brown bear is found in the lower elevations, especially in the forest of the Deosai plains of Pakistan.

Table 1. Endemic and Near-Endemic Mammal Species.

  Family Species
Sciuridae Eupetaurus cinereus*

An asterisk signifies that the species' range is limited to this ecoregion.

Ungulates are the most diverse set of species in this region and include the Marco Polo sheep (Ovis ammon poli), the largest of its genus. Most of the ungulate species in this ecoregion are endangered or vulnerable (IUCN 2000). They include markhor (Capra falconeri), ibex (Capra ibex), and urial (Ovis orientalis). An additional ungulate found in this ecoregion is the Tibetan argali (Ovis ammon hodgsoni).

The snow leopard (Uncia uncia) inhabits the high elevations of the Himalaya and Kashmir regions. This ecoregion includes prime habitat for the snow leopard and is therefore vital to its survival. The snow leopard is adapted to the high altitudes by having an enlarged nasal cavity, shortened limbs, well-developed chest muscles for climbing, long and dense hair, and a tail up to 1 m long (75-90 percent of head-body length) (Hemmer 1972; Fox 1989; Jackson 1992). In general, their most common prey consists of wild sheep and goats but also includes pikas (Ochotona spp.), hares (Lepus spp.), and gamebirds (chukar partridge and snowcocks) (Hemmer 1972; Schaller 1977; Jackson 1979; Mallon 1984; Fox 1989).

Additional mammals found in this ecoregion include the Altai weasel (Mustela altaica), stone marten (Martes foina), brown bear (Ursos arctos), Himalayan black bear (Selenarctos thibetanus), lynx (Felis lynx), fox (Vulpes vulpes), and wolf (Canis lupus).

There are no endemic bird species, and bird richness is low. Common bird species of the montane region are found here and include rosefinches (Carpodacus spp.), Guldenstadt's redstart (Phoenicurus erythrogaster), Himalayan monal (Lophophorus impejanus), raptors, and vultures. Passerines such as the black-throated thrush (Turdus ruficollis) or robin accentor (Prunella rubeuloides) winter in this ecoregion (IUCN 1993).

There are no amphibians, but at least three lizard species are found in this ecoregion: Agama himalayan (common), Scincella ladacensis (sparse), and Phrynocephalus theobaldi (stone deserts) (IUCN 1993).

Current Status
Protected areas cover large swaths of montane habitat in this ecoregion, but most of these protected areas do not conserve the most important ecological areas (table 2). Governments have haphazardly designated protected areas, and nature conservation has been given a low priority.

Table 2. WCMC (1997) Protected Areas That Overlap with the Ecoregion.

  Protected Area Area (km2) IUCN Category
Karakoram 1,790 IV
Hemis National Park/WS 1,400 II
Hemis National Park/WS 3,890 II
Khunjerab II 2,269 II
Gya-Meru WS 80 ?
Tingri WS 50 ?
Lungnag WS 940 ?
Rupshu WS 190 ?
Naltar WS 210 IV
Kargah WS 240 IV
Chassi/Bowshdar GR 480 ?
Naz Bar GR 410 ?
Sherqillah GR 130 ?
Danyor Nullah GR 160 ?
Pakura Nullah GR 140 ?
K2 National Park 2,330 ?
Nar Nullah GR 160 ?
Astore WS 750 IV
Baltistan 330 IV
Askor Nullah GR 150 ?
Kanji WS 90 IV
Boodkharbu WS 100 ?
Rangdum WS 280 ?
Agram Basti 270 IV
Total 16,839  

Ecoregion numbers of protected areas that overlap with additional ecoregions are listed in brackets.

There is no consistency in nature conservation policy in this region, and most protected areas have no management plans because personnel lack the expertise and training to develop them. Population and grazing pressures exert enormous pressure on the region, and people still use the land within protected areas for grazing livestock, collecting firewood, cutting trees, and hunting illegally (Shengji 1996).

Only two protected areas within the snow leopard's range can support viable populations. A viable population is defined as more than fifty breeding adults. These areas are Khunjerab II in Pakistan and Taxkorgan IV in China. Protected areas account for only about 10 to 15 percent of the snow leopard's total range (Fox 1994).

The effects of war can be seen in this region as well. On the positive side, natural pastures and natural vegetative cover have had a chance to recover because of decreased grazing pressures, but the forests have been decimated.

Types and Severity of Threats
Trophy hunting for markhor, ibex, snow leopard, and game birds (such as falcons) is prevalent in this ecoregion and has decimated their populations. Ibex and snow leopard face extinction in this ecoregion because of hunting pressures. There is a demand from the Chinese medicinal trade for snow leopard bones to use as substitutes for tiger bone (Liao and Tan 1988). The furs from snow leopards have been commonly used for coats, and furs have been seen on sale throughout China and Taiwan (Low 1991; Jackson 1992; Fox 1994).

Livestock rely on rangelands for forage, and overgrazing of natural vegetation is a common. Domestic grazing competes directly with native ungulates for precious resources, and grazing is a greater threat than hunting to this ecoregion's native species. In elevations up to about 1,500 m, the pastures are grazed throughout the entire year. The higher elevations, between 1,500 and 3,300 m, are grazed only in the summer.

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
We identified two ecoregions-Karakoram-West Tibetan Plateau Alpine Steppe [PA1006] and Central Tibetan Plateau Alpine Steppe [PA1002]-in MacKinnon's (1997) Trans-Himalayan biounit. These ecoregions extend into China. All the Himalayan ecoregions are part of Udvardy's Himalayan highlands biogeographic province.

References for this ecoregion are currently consolidated in one document for the entire Indo-Pacific realm.
Indo-Pacific Reference List

Prepared by: Colby Loucks
Reviewed by: