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BIODIVERSITY OF PALAS VALLEY

Overview

The biodiversity of Palas has representations of Paleartic and Oriental faunal regions. Palas is florally rich and has representatives from Sino-Himalayan, and Central Asian as well as a number of Paleotropical elements in the lower elevations.

 Palas valley is most notable for its population of the Western Tragopan pheasant (Tragopan melanocephalus) and it is thought that the largest remaining population is found in Palas valley. Palas is also what biologists call a ‘hot-spot’ which means that it is the center of biological diversity in the region.

Avifauna

The BirdLife Biodiversity Project has identified 221 Endemic Bird Areas (EBAs) worldwide, places which support concentrations of unique species. These areas are documented in two BirdLife publications. Most of the 221 EBAs are islands or isolated areas of a particular habitat, and especially Montane or other tropical forests, where unique species of animals and plants have globally evolved. In total, they cover only about 4.5% of the entire world's land area, but about 26% of bird species are entirely confined to them. EBAs represent areas where relatively limited destruction of natural habitats could lead to mass extinctions of species. There are 56 EBAs in the Asian region, including 8 in the Indian Subcontinent.

 Palas lies within one of these priority areas for the conservation of global biodiversity, the Western Himalayas EBA. This EBA extends from northern Pakistan and adjacent parts of Afghanistan to western Nepal, and supports 11 bird species, which are found nowhere else in the world.

 Palas Valley includes the largest single tract of this habitat in Pakistan, much of which is relatively undisturbed. Nine of the 11 characteristic species of the Western Himalayas EBA occur in Pakistan. Recent surveys have found that eight of these species have populations in the Palas Valley, and there are unconfirmed reports that the ninth species also occurs there (Barker et al. in prep.). Palas is therefore one of the most Important Bird Areas in Pakistan.

Western Himalayan endemic species recorded in Palas Valley

Family

Common Name

Species

Phasianidae

Western tragopan

Tragopan melanocephalus

Timaliidae

Brook’s leaf-warbler

Phylloscopus affinis

Timaliidae

Tytler’s leaf-warbler

Phylloscopus tytleri

Aegithalidae

White-cheeked tit

Aegithalos leucogenys

Aegithalidae

White-throated tit

Aegithalos niveogularis

Fringillidae

Spectacled finch

Callacanthis burtoni

Fringillidae

Orange bullfinch

Pyrrhula aurantiaca

Sittidae

Kashmir nuthatch

Sitta cashmirensis

 An annotated list of bird species can be found in Annex II.

Mammals

Palas also contains many rare and/or threatened mammal species of the western Himalaya, including the Kashmir Grey linguor Presbytis entellus, Brown Bear (Ursos ascots), Black Bear Selenarctos thlbetanus, Wolf Canis lupus, Snow leopard Uncia uncia, Common Leopard Panthera pardus, Leopard Cat Felis bengalensis, Musk Deer Moschus moschiferus and Markhor Capra falconeri.

 Many other species occur in abundance, including: rhesus macaque Macaca mulatta, Red Fox Vulpes vulpes, Jackal Canis aurea, Himalayan Ibex Capra ibex, Grey Goral Naemorhedus goral, Stone Marten Martes foina, Yellow-throated Pine-marten Martes flavigula, Stoat Mustela erminea, White-footed weasel Altai hylopetes, Weasel Mustea altaica Small Kashmir Flying Squirrel fimbnatus, Giant-red Flying-squirrel Petaurisa petaurisa, Royle’s Pika Ochotona royle), Indian crested porcupine Hystrix indic, long-tailed marmot Marmota caudate, Black Rat Rattus rattus, Turkestan Rat Rattus turkestanicus, House Mouse Mus musculus, Wood Mouse Apodemus sylvaticus, Birch Mouse Sicita concolor,  Burrowing Vole Hyperacrius fertilis and Shrew Crocidura guldenstadtii, Vole Alticola roylei, Sorex thibetanus, and at least two species of bat Pipistrellus.

Reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates

Though the Himalayan herpetofauna is not particularly rich, and the Pakistan amphibian fauna is relatively impoverished, however, Palas appears to contain most if not all expected species of reptiles and amphibians.

 At least 3 species of amphibian and 6 of reptile are so far confirmed. No work has yet been done of the fish of Palas; a mixture of South-Asian and Central-Asian 25 species and a number of species endemic to the High Asian sub-region can be expected.

 Work on the Invertebrate fauna of Palas has barely begun, but a high diversity of Insects, spiders and mites, molluscs, annelid worms, etc. can also be expected. Work on butterflies (Lepidoptera) and dragonflies (Odonota) has so far confirmed at least 20 species of the former and 8 of the latter (7 Anisopterans and a Coenagridae Zygopteran).

The significance of Palas for plants

IUCN and WWF (1994-1995) identify the Kashmir Himalaya the westernmost reaches of which (defined floristically), Palas would certainly be as a centre of plant diversity and endemism. Surveys by HJP in collaboration with Pakistan's National Herbarium 1991- 1995  and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew  indicate that Palas is an area of outstanding botanical importance.

 By virtue of its location, the Palas flora shows affinities to no fewer than four phyto-geographic realms. The wide altitudinal range in Palas (c.800 m to c.5550 m) supports a great diversity of plant communities, including: subtropical woodlands and scrub; deciduous, coniferous and mixed temperate forests; sub-alpine birchwoods; alpine scrub and meadows; rock, scree and permanent snowfields; a rich variety of wetland habitats including glacial outflow and wet alpine meadows, fast-flowing streams and rivers, lakes and waterfalls. Many of these plant communities remain relatively undisturbed by human activity.

 Beginning documentation of such a diverse flora has been an immense task and HJP identified and collected herbarium specimens of over 400 species of flowering plants and ferns. These include three species unique to Palas and new to science: Jasminum leptophylum, Delphinium sp., Pseudomertensia sp. The former has already been submitted for assignation of and IUCN threat category, species otherwise known from only one or two type-specimens (e.g. Rhamnellus gilgitica), threatened 'Red Data Book' species, species listed under CITES and other rarities, and many remarkable extensions of range.

 Rarities include the largest known naturally reproducing population of the threatened West Himalayan Elm Ulmus wallichiana, a tree species of potential economic importance as a furniture wood and ornamental tree. In addition to flowering plants and ferns, a great diversity of other lower plants (mosses, liverworts, etc.) and fungi is also expected. 

STATUS OF NATURAL RESOURCES

Value of Palas forests

The great altitudinal and climatic range of Palas supports a wide diversity of natural plant communities, including: subtropical dry oak Quercus dominated forests and scrub; temperate forests (deciduous, mixed and coniferous); sub-alpine birch Betula woods; alpine scrub and meadows. The Revised Working Plan for Palas Forests gives a (temperate) forest area for Palas (including Kolai) of over 400 sq km, or 28% of the total area. The forests of Palas are remarkable in their contiguity, diversity of plant associations, and near-primary condition.  Cultivable land makes up only c. 5% of the total land area.  There are extensive alpine rangelands. Palas has an abundance of water, with permanent, snow-fed rivers.

 The forests of the Western Himalaya - particularly the temperate forests - have been reliably identified as a ‘biodiversity hotspot', a global priority for the conservation of biodiversity.  Surveys between 1987 and 1995 leave little doubt that the Palas forests represent Pakistan's most outstanding remaining tract of temperate forests.

 Over 140 bird species have been recorded in Palas, including seven of the eight ‘restricted range' West Himalayan species.  Palas contains the largest known population of the globally threatened Western Tragopan Tragopan melanocephalus.  Palas also contains many rare and/or threatened mammal species of the Western Himalaya, including Kashmir grey languor Presbytis entellus, Brown Bear Ursos arctos[1], Black Bear Selenarctos thibetanus, Wolf Canis lupus1, Snow Leopard Panthera uncia1, common Leopard Panthera pardus1, Leopard Cat Felis bengalensis, Musk Deer Moschus crysogaster and Markhor Capra falconeri.  Many other species occur, many in abundance.  Palas also exhibits a rich diversity of reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates.  IUCN identify the Western Himalaya as a region of high floral endemism, and surveys indicate that Palas is also an area of outstanding botanical importance.  Surveys have so far identified over 400 plant species, including three species new to science and many rarities; the total number of plant species in Palas probably exceeds 600.  Palas contains the largest known population of the threatened West Himalayan elm Ulmus wallichiana.

Timber

The temperate forests of Palas are an important and potentially silviculture sustainable source of timber - Deodar Cedrus deodara, Silver Fir Abies pindrow, Spruce Picea smithiana and Blue Pine Pinus wallichiana, for Pakistan's construction industry.  However, current timber harvesting practices are not silviculturally sustainable.  The Palas forests are currently managed under the Revised Working Plan for Palas Forests (RWP), which divides the forested area of 400.43 sq km into 235 compartments. Of these, 101compartments comprising 42.5% of the area are placed in Selection Working Circle and 134 compartments comprising 57.5% of the area in Improvement Working Circle. The RWP prescribes a total annual yield of 812,000 CFT over a 15 year period (1988-89 to 2002-2003), worth c. Rs 162 million per year at current prices.  However, costs are high in relation to this return, particularly for the more remote compartments, and particularly if the adverse impact of timber harvesting on non-timber forest values (both direct and indirect values) is properly included in the analysis.