Mountain Biodiversity of Manipur

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By Dr. R.K. Ranjan Singh

Mountains have been described as islands of biodiversity surrounded by an ocean of monocultures and human-altered landscapes. Indeed, varieties of flora and fauna species found in mountain habitat have disappeared from plains and lowland regions, crowd out by human activities. Today, mountain covers only about 25% of the Earth’s surface and are home to about 12% of the human population. They host a significant component of the world’s biodiversity and many of the food staples on which humans depend originated in mountain ecosystem. Slope and ruggedness of the terrain, together with absolute altitude, determine many of the fundamental characteristics of mountain environments. Position on the Earth’s surface imposes further diversity on these basic features, primarily through the effects of latitude and continentally on climate and local weather patterns, so that some mountains are almost permanently wet, other dry and other highly seasonal. Geological substrate adds a further dimension on diversity by influencing the soil type and the potential erosion.

About 10% of the world’s population depends directly on the use of mountain resources for their livelihoods and well-being, and an estimated 40% depends indirectly on them for water, hydroelectricity, timber, mineral resources, recreation and flood control. Mountains are the earth’s unique freshwater reservoirs. They store immense amounts of water and hold them to gradually release to support the lives downstream. Despite their critical importance for the well-being of humanity, mountains receive little attention in the international development agenda.

The mountain landscapes of Manipur have fashioned an equally fascinating array of human cultures, sensitively interplay with the intrinsic rhythms of nature: the inexorable pulsations of the earth below, tempered by the elements above. The mountain ranges of Manipur occupy 80% of the total surface area of the state and are home of the 29 sub-tribes of the Tibeto-Mongoloid group. In a sense, the state of Manipur may be described as a mountainous state. These mountains have significant ecological, aesthetic and socioeconomic importance not only for those highlanders but also for the people living beyond. Till today the mountains of Manipur are the home to indigenous highlanders with varied culture, values, dialects and indigenous knowledge systems. This remarkable socioeconomic and cultural diversity is matched by a high degree of environmental diversity with huge variations in climate, soil, vegetation and wildlife within the region. Isolation a relatively inaccessible in the recent past has helped in protecting and preserving the endemic species in the mountain ranges of Manipur. There are more than hundreds of rice cultivars, medicinal plants and herbs are still productively cultivated and use by the highlanders. These precious reserves of genetic diversity are our insurance for the future, particularly as the global economy continues to turn lowland habitats into fields of high-yielding food crops – monocultures that feed the ever-increasing demands of the growing population of the state but are vulnerable to evolving pest and pathogens.

Because of their shape and size, the mountains of Manipur support a wide range of micro-climate zones. Climbing just 50 m up on the mountain slope of Manipur will be able to experience of as much as climatic variety as traveling of 50 km across flat terrain. The micro-climate zones of the Manipur mountains are like narrow bands, each stacked on top of the other. Every rise in altitude generates different conditions, supporting unique and often isolated ecosystems with some of the world’s greatest variety of plant and animal life. Much of the North East’s remaining native biological diversity especially of species and ecosystems is in the mountains of Manipur. Great diversity of endemism is largely due to the extreme heterogeneity of environment (micro-climate and soils) because of the rapid altitudinal changes (altitudinal vegetation belts) and abundant micro-habitats.

The mountains of Manipur are located in the heaviest rainfall region of the world and belong to the catchment areas of two major drainage systems of Asia’s nine giant river systems, i.e. the Brahmaputra-Barak and the Irrawaddy-Chindwin. These catchment areas provide the natural flow to the rivers and the gravity helps them to flow into the valley of Manipur forming the cradle of diversified cultural heritage. They supply water for domestic consumption , hydropower, forming lakes and wetlands allowing agricultural practices and also regulate the hydrological regime of the state. During the rain mountain and its forest cover allow to be absorbed the rain water and percolate down to the aquifer layers for enriching the ground water table. In a sense, the mountains of Manipur are outflow areas, where not only physical mountains products, soil, fuel wood, timber, minerals, agricultural products, non-wood forest products move down slope to the valley, even young an educated people were migrated downwards to the valley as a flow out.

The earth’s climate has been changing after being warm through much of history over the last 130 million years. Increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere generated by human activities since the Industrial Revolution, and particularly since 1960s has thus led to increase in the earth’s mean global temperature. The present phenomenon of global climate change, the conditions within each of these narrow bands of micro-climatic zones are also changing. Already scientists have witnessed examples of species moving uphill in search of more suitable habitat. Further, climatologists also believe that a predicted rise in global temperatures of three half degree centigrade would be equivalent to an ecological shift upwards of about 500m in altitude. Those confined to the tops of mountains or below impassable barriers may face extinction as their habitat grows smaller. These similar kinds of syndromes are visible at the peaks of Mt. Koubru, Mt. Esso, Mt. Khongho, Mt. Godai and Mt. Sirui, etc. the rarest species are most at risk of extinction.  Among those species, high-altitude butterflies may be mentioned herewith.

Healthy mountain forests are crucial to the ecological health of the state of Manipur. they protected watersheds and supply fresh water to all over the state and more particularly to the valley of Manipur. They also harbor untold number of wildlife, provide food and fodder for the inhabitants. In the past decade, mountain forests have been disappearing at an astounding rate. Deforestation, while a complex phenomenon is generally driven by population growth, unstable urbanization and its unplanned extension of infrastructural development. After centuries of population growth and intensive land use, mountain forests have been reduced to small patch of green. Ongoing agricultural practices are unsuitable, contribute to deforestation, and accelerate hillside erosion, threatening mountain biodiversity and impairing the natural processes of forest ecosystems.

Human activities like endless abuse and misuse of mountain slopes and forests clubbed with the current trend of global climate change are profoundly degrading the mountain biodiversity of Manipur. As the slopes of the mountains were endlessly and recklessly deforested by different anthropogenic activities causing mass soil wash on the slopes of the mountains while the river beds and wetlands in the valley were silted with the debris brought down from the mountain. At the same time mountains of Manipur will become more dangerous as the surface runoff accelerate soil erosion as well as mudflows in places like Gopibung, landslides along the national Highways and frequent flash floods in the valley. As a result, the state of Manipur will be affected, first by frequent flash floods and then by drought making harder and harder economic activities both in the mountain regions and the valley of Manipur. Natural resources, accompanying environmental, and ecosystem services and increasingly degraded. The natural processes of change always mercifully slow enough in the recent past to enable a creative reordering of human activities have, over the past decades of radically new techno-economic structures, acquired a speed that threatens to destabilize many critical subsystems of biodiversity in the state mountain. The most serious result is an almost irreversible erosion of the regenerate capacity of vital ecological niches crucial for the sustenance of the mountain areas accessible and profitable for logging, fuel-wood, charcoal and mining. These activities may bring large benefits to the mountain communities, but it can also be devastating to fragile mountain ecosystems, mountain cultures and environments.

Secondly, mountain-dwellers cultivate thousands of varieties of crops and plants, many of which thrive only at specific elevations and micro-climatic zones. However, with the pressure of market economy and urbanization processes, they encourage cross-fertilization between wild and cultivated varieties. Varieties of vegetables, fruits, other HYV crops and flowers were introduced and cultivated popularly in Senapati and Ukhrul districts. Sometimes mountain ecosystems have no naturally evolved defenses against invading species. Often, these alien invaders are introduced by human visitors or as a consequence of planting non-native crops or ornamental plants. Under such circumstances varieties of native flora and fauna were completely extinct and some are on the verge of extinction from the mountains of Manipur. To save the situation, mountain friendly policies and laws are vital to protect mountain ecosystem and support mountain people.

Lastly, mountains of Manipur are the barometer of climate change in the region. these fragile ecosystems are highly sensitive to changes in temperature and variation on precipitations. Indeed, many climatologists believe mountains provide an early glimpse of what may come to pass in lowland or valley environment. For this region, it is vital that the biological and physical components of the mountains of Manipur are strictly monitored and studied and also to establish a department of Mountain Science in the University to study and for monitoring the biodiversity and the physical component of the mountains of Manipur.

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