Southern Asia: Central Nepal to northern India

The Western Himalayan Alpine Shrub and Meadows [PA1021] ecoregion has large areas of habitat suitable for conserving viable populations of the high-altitude Himalayan predator, the snow leopard (Uncia uncia), and the large montane ungulates such as blue sheep (Pseudois nayur), Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus), Himalayan musk deer (Moschus chrysogaster), and serow (Capricornis sumatraensis), which form its prey. Wild yak (Bos grunniens) used to inhabit the innermost ranges of the western Himalayan alpine meadows adjacent to the Tibetan Plateau. These large beasts are now considered locally extinct throughout most of their former distribution and have not been recorded in Indian territory recently. Most of the ecoregion's mammals are small species, such as the Himalayan palm civet, pale weasel, Himalayan weasel, pikas, and voles, that scurry about the undergrowth and among the boulders.

In spring and summer the meadows, known locally as the bughiyals, become a resplendent tapestry of contrasting blue, purple, yellow, pink, and red flowers of delphiniums, gentians, poppies, roseroots, louseworts, anemones, and asters. The shrub layer closer to the treeline is bright with the flowers of Rhododendron shrubs.

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    27,100 square miles
  • Status
    Relatively Stable/Intact
  • Habitats

 Location and General Description
This ecoregion represents the Himalayan alpine meadows and shrublands between about 3,000 and 5,000 m, and to the west of the deep Kali Gandaki River gorge in central Nepal and on to the northern Indian State, Uttar Pradesh. About a fourth of this high-elevation ecoregion is bare rock and ice.

This alpine area was formed during the early Pleistocene, after a long geological process that thrust up the Inner Himalayas (Ram and Singh 1994). The beginning of the process dates back to the Cretaceous, when the drifting Deccan Plateau collided with the northern Eurasian continent, causing the latter to buckle upward (Wadia 1966). The Himalayan Mountain Range now comprises three parallel east-west-directed zones: the Outer, Middle, and the imposing Inner Himalaya, which contains the tallest peaks in the world.

There is a general trend of decreasing moisture levels from east to west along the length of the Himalayan Mountain Range. The southwestern monsoon that provides most of the moisture originates from the Bay of Bengal and expends most of its precipitation in the eastern Himalayas. Therefore, the west receives less rainfall, usually ranging from 1,500 to almost 1,900 mm (Ram and Singh 1994). The treeline responds to the drier conditions in the west by being almost 1,000 m lower than in the east.

The ecoregion experiences cold winters during which snowfall blankets the slopes. Snowmelt during April and May results in additional moisture. The summers are mild. Cloudy days and fog are common, with clear skies limited to a few hours during the day. Climate and aspect influence vegetation. The north-facing slopes, which are less exposed to sunlight, are cooler and retain more moisture. These harbor a more typical Himalayan flora. But within this general trend, the complex topography also creates rainshadows, resulting in very localized climatic variations.

The early vegetation in this region was dominated by Quercus semecarpifolia and Betula utilis, but periodic climatic changes and glaciation events have given rise to the present alpine vegetation (Ram and Sing 1994). The forest-alpine transition is now marked by krummholz-type vegetation of Rhododendron campanulatum, Rhododendron barbatum, Salix spp., and Syringa emodia (Ram and Singh 1994). The alpine scrub flora is dominated by several colorful, dwarf rhododendron species, among which are other shrubby species such as Hippophae rhamnoides and Cotoneaster microphyllus (Shrestha and Joshi 1997). Along the transition area with the alpine conifers lower down, junipers (Juniperus spp.) contribute to the floral diversity. Many of the rhododendron species in these western Himalayan habitats are different from those found in the eastern extent of this long mountain range.

The rich meadow flora is dominated by herbaceous plants, especially species of Anaphalis, Aster, Cynanthus, Jurinea, Morina, Potentilla, Gentiana, Delphinium, Gentiana, Meconopsis, Pedicularis, Anemone, Aster, Polygonum, Primula, and Saussurea (WWF and IUCN 1995; Shrestha and Joshi 1996; Polunin and Stainton 1997). Willows (Salix spp.) line the sides of shallow, montane streams. At higher elevations, species of Saxifraga, Allium, Corydalis, Eriophyton, Stellaria, Soroseris, and Cremanthodium grow on the alpine scree with scattered rocks and boulders. A steppe-type vegetation of Caragana pygma, C. gerardiana, Lonicera spinosa, Juniperus squamata, J. indica, Ephedra gerardiana, Hippophae tibetana, Myricaria rosea, Lonicera spinulosa, and Berberis spp. is found in the northern extents of the ecoregion.

Biodiversity Features
The ecoregion contains several localized hotspots of floral diversity and endemism. Notable areas are the Valley of Flowers, Nanda Devi (India's second-highest mountain), Tinker Valley, Rara-Shey-Dolpho, Dhorpatan-Annapurna, Pokhara, and Gorkha-Himalchuli.

The snow leopard (Uncia uncia) and the Tibetan wolf (Canis lupus) roam these high-altitude landscapes, hunting large ungulates such as the goral (Nemorhaedus goral), serow (Naemorhedus sumatraensis), Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus), argali (Ovis ammon), and blue sheep (Pseudois nayur). This ecoregion probably represents the eastern limit of the distribution of the brown bear (Ursus arctos); there have been unconfirmed reports of this species from western Nepal.

The forty mammal species known in the ecoregion do not include any endemics. But several species are threatened, including the snow leopard, serow, Himalayan tahr, argali, and Himalayan goral (IUCN 2000).

The bird fauna is richer, with almost 130 species, including one that is endemic to the ecoregion (table 1). This near-endemic species is shared with the other western Himalayan ecoregions (Western Himalayan Broadleaf Forest [IM0403] and Himalayan Subtropical Pine Forests [IM0301]).

Table 1. Endemic and Near-Endemic Bird Species.

  Family Common Name Species
Phasianidae Cheer pheasant Catreus wallichi

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

Other birds that are typical of these high-altitude ecosystems and can be used as focal species for conservation management planning include the blood pheasant (Ithaginis cruentus), western tragopan (Tragopan melanoephalus), Satyr tragopan (Tragopan satyra), and Himalayan monal (Lophophorus impejanus), which inhabit the shrubby ground cover, and the large avian predators, lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus), golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), and Himalayan griffon (Gyps himalayensis).

Current Status
Because of its remoteness and inaccessibility, much of the ecoregion's habitat is still intact. There are eleven protected areas that cover more than 8,500 km2 representing about 25 percent of the ecoregion area (table 2). These include several large protected areas (e.g., Shey-Phuksundo, Annapurna, Kedarnath, Nanda Devi, and Dhorpatan). Three large protected areas also overlap across adjacent ecoregions (table 2).

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

  Protected Area Area (km2) IUCN Category
Royal Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve [IM0502] 870  
Govind Pashu Vihar [IM0403] 240 IV
Govind 490 II
Lippa-Asrang WS 60 IV
Raksham Chitkul 30 IV
Gangotri 270 II
Kedarnath 970 IV
Valley of Flowers 70 II
Nanda Devi 810  
Shey-Phoksumdo National Park 3,590 IV
Annapurna Conservation Area [IM0501], [PA1003] 1,260  
Total 8,660  

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

Types and Severity of Threats
Grazing and trampling by large herds of domestic livestock, including cows, buffalos, horses, sheep, goats, and yak, are beginning to severely degrade the natural habitat (Ram and Singh 1994; WWF and IUCN 1995; Rawat 1998). As livestock herds increase in number and size and exceed the carrying capacity in the lower habitats, pastoralists have begun to drive the herds into these alpine meadows, increasing the degradation threats here (Ram and Singh 1994; Rawat 1998). An overnight campsite for pastoralists and their livestock as they migrate up and down the mountains can lay bare an area up to a hectare (Singh 1991, cited in Ram and Singh 1994).

Overexploitation of rare medicinal herbs is another conservation threat in the area (Rawat 1998). Most of the collection sites are already under heavy grazing pressure, and the harvest of medicinal plants places additional stresses on this fragile ecosystem.

Adding to the localized degradation threats are several historical trade routes between India, Nepal, and Tibet that are still heavily used in this region. The accessibility brings with it associated degradation threats such as fuelwood collection and heavy use by people and pack animals. Because the ecoregion includes national borders, concentrations of defense personnel exploit its natural resources, especially timber and fuelwood.

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
In a previous analysis of conservation units, MacKinnon (1997) divided the Himalayan Range into four subunits along the longitudinal axis, namely the Northwest Himalayas (I2a), West Nepal (I2b), Central Himalayas (I2c), and Eastern Himalayas (I2d). In our analysis, we combined the alpine scrub and meadows in units 12b and 12c. All the Himalayan ecoregions are part of Udvardy's Himalayan highlands biogeographic province.

We considered the Kali Gandaki River to be a biogeographic barrier, as widely acknowledged, and took this as the eastern extent of the ecoregion. We used MacKinnon's (1997) digital map of the original vegetation (and aided by a DEM) to identify the extent of the alpine meadows shown in biounits I2b and 12c, which were then defined as the Western Himalayan Alpine Shrub and Meadows [PA1021].

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

Prepared by: Gopal S. Rawat and Eric D. Wikramanayake, with contributions from Pralad Yonzon
Reviewed by: