Cold air, colder water, an unending view from the window, a night sky packed with stars, and blissful silence through most of the day. I was living with a people who are as cheerful as they are strong, in a landscape that is as beautiful it is harsh. Thanks to the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), I spent four wonderful months in the village of Kibber in the summer of 2012, studying how hardy high-altitude plants interact with each other to help shape the arid rangelands of the Spiti Valley.
When the environment is stressful, plants find it difficult to grow. Even a casual glance at any mountain slope in Spiti makes that abundantly clear – the mostly bare, rocky ground is a sharp contrast to the verdant green slopes of the Greater Himalaya, just a few mountain ridges away. Plants in Spiti have to make do with scarce supplies of water, harsh sunlight (yes, too much sun can be stressful for plants) and thin soils, while dealing with herbivores that chomp down on anything green that is more than two centimetres off the ground.
These are difficult conditions in which to construct a life, yet the plant life in Spiti thrives. The grasses and herbs are capable of massive regrowth after being grazed, fuelled by large stocks of nutrition accumulated in their roots. And there is surprising diversity and beauty everywhere you look. A casual collection of plant specimens by a colleague and me during field work yielded around 40 different grasses, mostly unidentifiable by us, and over 120 flowering plants, only half of which we could identify by their Latin names.
The altitudes between 4,000-5,000m are dominated by a dwarf shrub locally called thama or dhama, or Caragana versicolor to science, which covers up to 40 percent of the ground in some areas. Caragana is a fascinating form of life and an ecosystem by itself. It is a prickly bush, the kind you wouldn’t want to sit on even by accident. And yet, within this thorny canopy, many other plant species found in the rangelands appear to thrive. NCF researchers had long been curious to find out whether Caragana benefited these other plants, potentially helping them grow and survive better in these extreme conditions. I decided to try and find the answer.
The plants in these high altitudes have only a short growing season. I hurriedly reached Kibber in the middle of May, hoping to immediately start work as the plants began growing after the long winter. I discovered that the temperatures were still dropping to freezing every night, and the plants had barely risen from their slumber. The 24-hour bus journey from Shimla, where I had to transport over half my weight in luggage and equipment, was a bleary-eyed adventure that passed in a haze. The journey was soon forgotten in the warmth and kindness with which I was received at Chhota Lama's house in Kibber, my home for the next four months.
My initial days were spent getting used to washing clothes in freezing water and walking around in low oxygen. There was a great deal of huffing and puffing for frustratingly small amounts of movement. Practising my tabla and providing music support in parties helped me get to know the people of the village, and I found they were as beautiful and diverse as the plants that brought me here. In my view, living in such a harsh environment has made the people of Kibber very hardy and strong, and extremely welcoming, with a warmth that cannot be matched by the people who live neeche in the lower altitudes) – basically everyone else in the world). In a few weeks, my lungs, muscles and blood acclimated to the high altitude, and by mid-June I could set out with Tenzin Sherap, my able and knowledgeable field assistant, to start off my field surveys.
Luckily, my stay coincided with NCF's nature education camps, held annually on the Chomoling plain, a half hour’s climb from Kibber. The camps could always use extra hands to help, and Chomoling was conveniently located midway between the village and my field sites. Sherap and I jumped at the opportunity and spent a most memorable two weeks there. It was fascinating to watch Spitian school children discovering and learning about nature in their own neighbourhood. Something interesting happened every day. A Red Fox stole our cheese and Lifebuoy soap from the ration tent; a squall collapsed the kitchen tent on top of us all; we spent evenings listening to and accompanying old Hindi songs... Towards the last few days of the camp, eight of us made a two-day trip to climb Kanamo, a nearby peak standing at nearly 6000m. We had an amazing climb, and were heartily welcomed back to camp with a victory cake, made in a pressure cooker, without half the regular ingredients, at 4400m!
Throughout this time, Sherap and I kept at our work. Measurements of the plant community within and outside the low canopies of Caragana shrubs showed some interesting patterns. In our research paper published earlier this year, we documented that the Caragana canopy, standing just 5-15cm tall, supports 25 percent more plant species than similar areas of open ground outside. Good. Our casual observations were clearly right! Most of this diversity is located along the edge of the shrub, in the narrow space between the outermost stems and the end of the canopy. This positive effect of Caragana on grasses and herbs is stronger at higher altitudes, indicating that the shrub could be helping plants survive better in harsher climates.
Rare species tended to be more abundant within the shrub than outside, further increasing the effect of Caragana on plant diversity. So why are more plants growing inside Caragana, instead of on their own? There might be multiple reasons. The dense shrub canopy traps fallen leaves, and the nutrients from these decomposing leaves enrich the soil for the growth of other plants. This soil could also hold more water after the scanty rains. The thorny exterior of Caragana protects these plants from being grazed and trampled by herbivores, especially when they are small. However, the story isn’t happy for everyone. We found that removing all the other plants growing within the canopy of Caragana increased the extent of flowering of the Caragana shrub, suggesting that the presence of the other plants imposes a cost on Caragana.
The value of Caragana extends much beyond the benefits it brings about for other plant species. While Caragana itself is hardly eaten, these grasses and herbs that grow within it constitute important forage for the livestock and wild herbivores of the region. People have been directly dependent on it as well. Prior to the use of kerosene, Caragana was used as a fire starter in Spitian households. It is still used to line the rooftops of traditional mud houses to reduce water infiltration, especially along the joints of the walls and the roof. With the easy availability of kerosene and wood, these days the shrub isn’t harvested much, but that could change in the future. Considering that Caragana grows very slowly, but plays an important part in the diversity of these rangelands, it would be useful to keep the shrub in mind while planning the future of this landscape.
I went to Spiti for the mountains, the snow, the animals and the plants. I realised when I was there that I’m going to keep coming back, especially for the people – their simple happiness, unbounded kindness, and their intricate yet dynamic relationships with nature despite their very hard lives. My time there made me aware of the complexities of engaging with and carrying out conservation that is both sensitive and responsible to local communities. NCF has positively impacted the lives of both people and wildlife in the Trans-Himalaya, and given many people the opportunity to be a part of this journey. I am much richer for it, and look forward to many more learnings from the wonderful people and the magical landscape of Spiti.
An earlier version of this story first appeared in Harvest in the Himalayas – Personal Journeys and Reflections from Spiti Valley (2017) published by Nature Conservation Foundation.