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Environmental Conservation through Transboundary Initiatives: The Case of Kailash Sacred Landscape

Ram Pandit*, Janita Gurung#, Srijana Joshi#, Binaya Pasakhala#

*Ram Pandit is an Environmental and Resource Economist at the University of Western Australia, Perth, and has research interests in environmental conservation.

#Janita Gurung, Srijana Joshi and Binaya Pasakhala are with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) based in Kathmandu, Nepal. Janita is the Program Coordinator of the Kailash Sacred Landscape Initiative, Srijana is an Ecosystem Specialist, and Binaya is a Governance and Institutions Analyst.

Environmental conservation through transboundary landscape approaches has been gaining traction globally. In the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region (HKH), the Kailash Sacred Landscape (KSL) Conservation and Development Initiative was launched in 2010 with the twin objectives of conservation and development through transboundary cooperation among key stakeholders. The KSL covers approximately 31,000 km2 of transboundary area inhabited by 1,300,000 people across India, Nepal and China (Tibet Autonomous Region). It is a human-dominated landscape characterised by high-altitude forests and rangelands, and is vitally important for biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services provision. Globally threatened species such as snow leopard (Panthera uncia) and Himalayan musk deer (Moschus chrysogaster) are found in this landscape. It is the source of water for four of Asia’s major rivers: the Indus, the Sutlej, the Brahmaputra, and the Karnali. In addition, it harbours two culturally important sacred sites – Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar – for pilgrimage, particularly from Nepal and India.

The initiative promoted a range of targeted activities to conserve biodiversity, provide ecosystem services, mitigate climate change, and support local livelihoods. Such activities include restoration of forests and rangelands, protection of endangered species and their habitats, adoption of sustainable land management practices, protection of heritage sites and promotion of cultural tourism. A recent review of the landscape initiative indicated that the transboundary landscape approach has been successful in environmental conservation, improved provision of some ecosystem services, and supporting local livelihoods. Restoration of forests and rangelands has contributed to climate change mitigation through carbon sequestration; sustainable management of farms has improved provisioning and regulating of ecosystem services; and conservation activities and ecosystem management have contributed to protection of endangered species and their habitats. Medicinal plants, other non-timber forest products, and fodder are some of the key provisioning services generated in the KSL through restoration activities. Improved provision of honey, a forest by-product, and associated pollination services has also been observed in the landscape. The effect of landscape restoration, including water source protection, on regulating ecosystem services has resulted in rejuvenation of springs and increased availability of water in the landscape.

The age-old pilgrimage to Kailash and Manasarovar, made mainly by Hindus and Buddhists, is a non-material cultural and spiritual service offered by the KSL. Increased tourism activities in the KSL could potentially have trade-offs between local livelihood support (through tourism, hotel and trekking services) and climate change impacts (through waste generation and forest degradation for fuel and other purposes). Raising environmental awareness, and developing and implementing sustainable tourism practices will help to minimise the unintended impacts of cultural tourism.

Shifting snowlines, rapid melting of snow and permafrost, and formation of glacier lakes are significant threats posed by climate change in the KSL. Climate change modelling in the KSL projects an upward shift in elevation of bioclimatic zones, decreases in area of the highest elevation zones, and large expansions of the lower tropical and sub-tropical zones by the year 2050. This change would represent a major threat to biodiversity conservation, water availability to thousands of communities in the downstream, and natural resource-based livelihood options in the future. For example, the already observed decline in production of caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) – a highly valued, commercially traded medicinal plant in the landscape – is attributed to both overharvesting and climate change, affecting livelihoods of local people.

The KSL is also home to some unique indigenous communities in the HKH, including the Limay community of Humla District in Nepal, and the Van Raji and the Rung communities of Pithoragarh District in India. Climate change affects their traditional livelihood practices such as agriculture, transhumance, and harvesting of forest and rangeland products.

To overcome potential challenges and to sustain conservation and development outcomes, program activities need to be tailored and modified considering complex conservation challenges, changing climatic conditions, and traditional knowledge and practices of local communities in the landscape. Furthermore, building resilience and multifunctionality is essential for creating impacts. For this, emphasis should be placed on consultative and integrated approaches in program design and implementation, as well as monitoring and evaluation at local and regional levels involving key stakeholders (government agencies, I/NGOs, indigenous and local communities). This will allow for successful lessons to be up-scaled within the landscape and applied to other part of the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region.

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