Conserving Spiti’s natural heritage
Wildlife & Birds – Spiti is home to unique and endangered species of wildlife such as the Snow Leopard, Himalayan Wolf, Ibex, Blue Sheep, Red Fox, etc, and a variety of indigenous and migratory birds. Most of these animals are in the list of endangered species and some of them like the Himalayan Wolf have been given the status of being critically endangered. Since food is hard to get by in these harsh geo-climatic zones, the carnivores target the local livestock for their food requirements. Over the ages the relationship between the local community and the wildlife has got strained due to this reason. Ecosphere’s initiatives are focussed on conserving these endangered species by reducing the conflict between the locals and wildlife. A two pronged approach of gradually bringing about a shift in community attitudes towards these predators is being undertaken by linking economics to the wildlife through tourism and by research and bettering the communities grazin g and herding practices.
Wildlife trails have been developed focussing on the local fauna and training of local youth boys as naturalists, specialising in wildlife are organised regularly to ensure that they not only understand the significance of these species for their ecosystem, but also are able to earn a livelihood from the same. The promotion of such trails and education of the local community about the importance of these carnivores in maintaining a healthy food chain and subsequently the much desired ecological balance is an important area of intervention for Ecosphere.
Fossils – Spiti’s geological history dates back to more that 500 million years, when it lay submerged under the ancient sea Tethys. Remnants of that distant past can still be witnessed in the Spiti valley, which is regarded as the most fossil rich area in the world, as per the Geological Survey of India and the Geological Society of America. Research by these organisations has shown that in Spiti stratigraphical layers in some of the mountains goes back to 500 million years. However, with the rich occurrence of fossils in most trekking routes, the locals have been indulging in sale of these fossils as they are in great demand by the tourists. In order to sensitise the local community about the importance of conserving this rich cultural heritage, Ecosphere has facilitated the process of passing Panchayat (village level third tier of administration) resolutions whereby the sale and purchase of fossils is banned and punishable by monetary fine and even imprisonment. T he development of a fossil centre area around one of the villages, entry to which is being monitored by the local youth body, has also been an important intervention for the preservation of this rich natural heritage. The funds generated from the same is utilised in remunerating the youth boys taking tourists on a guided tour into the fossil reserve. The funds are also being utilised for the purpose of building a fossil museum and the development of interpretation literature. The local community has been educated about the fossils and information about the brief geological history of the region has also been imparted for interpretation purposes. Ecosphere has also developed fossil replicas as a plausible solution for preventing the sale of the same. Local mud artisans from Spiti are now being trained to make these replicas as a means of alternate income generation for them as well as a means to prevent their skills from completely dying out. Langza village which was the hub for numerous mud artisa ns and gets its name from this activity, has witnessed a complete dying of this craft with very little demand left for the products. Ecosphere is now working with the few artisans remaining to revive the craft and develop products (such as the fossil replicas) that could be picked up by tourists visiting the region.
Medicinal & Aromatic Plants – There are about 450 species of Medicinal & Aromatic Plants (MAPs) found in the Spiti valley. Most of these plants are either endangered or critically endangered. Spiti has a rich tradition of local medicine system called the Amchi system, which is part of the Tibetan system of medicine having their roots in the Ayurvedic system. The Amchis (local doctors) have been using the various MAPs for preparing different medicines in a sustainable manner. However, with increasing demand of these MAPs in the pharmaceutical and nutraceutical industry, various people have been visiting the Spiti valley for procuring the same for sale in the outside markets. This has already led to the extinction of some plants, as per the information provided by the Local Amchis (doctor). The Panchayat resolutions banning the plucking and sale of MAPs has helped to generate awareness amongst some of the members of the local community towards the importance of conserving the bio-diversity of the region. Ecosphere attempts to impart knowledge to the local community about the significance and role of MAPs not only in maintaining the bio-diversity of the region, but also sustaining the age old tradition of the local Amchi system. Camps have been held in some of the villages where the local Amchis have talked about the sustainable harvesting of some of the MAPs for treating of common ailments. Ecosphere has conducted various naturalist guides trainings for the local youth of Spiti, in which prime importance has been given to inculcating eco ethics besides the specifics such as identifying the local flora, gathering information about their usages and subsequently realising their importance in terms of their conservation significance. Botanical tours focussing on the local flora and medicinal and aromatic plants is another way of ensuring the conservation of these resources. These trails have been developed in collaboration with the Amchis (local doctors) who are experts on these subjects. The involvement of the Amchis as field experts enables them to earn an additional source of income which in turn contributes to the continuity and preservation of the Amchi system of medicine (Tibetan system of medicine/ Swa Rigpa) in the region.
Glaciers – With snow being the most important source of moisture for power, agriculture and drinking purposes in the Spiti valley, the importance and significance of glaciers needs to be exaggerated beyond imagination to both the locals and the outside world. There are various glaciers in this Trans-Himalayan belt that have been receding under the pressure of global warming/ climate change. Some of the important glaciers in the valley are the Samudra tapu, the Bara & Chota Shigri, Gyundi glacier, etc, etc. Most of these glaciers have receded at alarming rates and the pace is accelerating. The development of trails focussing on the glaciers and educating the visitors about the importance of the same in maintaining the crucial ecological balance can be critical in contributing towards mitigating some of the impacts of global warming. The significance of the same can be gauged from the fact that the lifestyles of people living in the urban centres is contributing most towards the depletion of the ice caps and recession of glaciers. Hence the importance of educating the visitors in actual physical classrooms and imparting practical knowledge with respect to how the glaciers contribute to the local economy and subsequently to the national economy and furthermore to global environments and economies as well. Ecosphere is working on developing a system of assessing the carbon footprint of each and every trip that we offer and in turn offset the same through investments in its myriad projects. Some of the initiatives that are being worked upon for the same are development of solar passive houses to minimise fuel wood consumption, development of solar power, etc.
Wetlands (Lakes) – The discovery of a turquoise lake amidst stark, barren desertscape brings enchantment and delight to the wandering spirit and succour to the needy. Spiti has innumerable small glacial melt lakes, besides a few big ones. These are mostly temporary and dry out mid way through the summer. However, their importance can be gauged from the fact that they provide for the necessary moisture during the early half of the agricultural season, besides being important breeding grounds for migratory birds. The bigger lakes however are more permanent and not only are important tourist destinations but also reservoirs of water for the local populace (humans, birds and animals alike). The importance of the wetlands can be gauged from the fact that not only are they visited by migratory birds but one also finds maximum floral diversity around these wetlands. The locals have great respect for these lakes as the desert conditions and the rain-shadow location of the Spiti valley doesn’t provide for enough moisture, essential to sustain the basis of the local economy, agriculture and livestock. With increase in the number of tourists visiting these areas, it was imperative to develop and implement certain ethical codes of conduct in order to ensure the sanctity of these wetlands and the conservation of the life system it supports. Ecosphere has been implementing these codes in the Spiti valley and ensuring the preservation of these beautiful wetlands. Some of the codes that have been enforced pertain to responsible camping, ensuring that single tracks are followed, prohibiting washing in the immediate vicinity of the lake, use of detergents, soaps , shampoos and other chemicals, etc.
Agricultural Bio-Diversity – Till the recent past Spiti was a subsistence based agro-pastoralist society. The main local crops grown were barley, black peas, wheat and mustard. However, with the transition into a cash economy most of the agricultural bio-diversity has given way to monocultures of crops that cater to the cash needs of the local populace. As a result most of the traditional crops such as black peas, mustard etc are on the verge of extinction and have given way to green peas and apples. This will not only affect the ecology of the region but will also adversely affect the socio-economic structure of the Spiti valley, which was primarily a subsistence based agro-pastoralist economy. However, in contemporary global economic structures it is not only impossible but also not desirable to pursue the blind insistence on preserving the traditional past. There has to be a balanced approach in amalgamating the old traditions with the modern and ensuring the preservation of the rich diversity of the region amidst the growing impacts of globalisation. In order to maintain the agricultural bio-diversity of the Spiti valley and to preserve the traditional agricultural practices, Ecosphere has initiated work pertaining to generating awareness about the importance of organic practices and the value of cultivating the traditional crops. For this purpose efforts are being made to develop markets for traditional crops such as black peas and barley which have had no cash value till now. This has perhaps been the single most important reason for their decline.
Garbage Management – Although the population of Spiti is a mere 10,000 and the amount of garbage produced is also minimal, yet in the past few years with the increase in the number of tourists visiting the region, the amount of garbage being generated has also increased manifold, mostly in the few urban centres such as Kaza, Tabo and Kibber. In some of the villages the conservation fund that is generated through the homestays and camping, is utilised towards garbage management in the villages. A good example is Langza village, where before the beginning of the tourist season the local youth boys all get involved in cleaning the village. They have dug garbage pits in 2 different locations and ensure that the villagers use it through out the season. A similar cleaning exercise is also conducted once at the end of the season. During treks the guides, porters and cooks have been adequately informed about the importance to follow the right ethics pertaining to sustainable garbage management. The staff is required to bring back all the garbage generated during the trek, besides collecting all other garbage found during the trek on different routes or in campsites. We also encourage our guests to collect garbage during treks ensuring their participation in garbage management as well. Food waste is all given to the animals and nothing is left behind, in other words we try and follow the principle of ‘Leave no Trace’ trekking. In Kaza all the waste is given to the local association (The Public Welfare Society, Kaza) involved in garbage disposal.
One of the major contributors to garbage accumulation in the Spiti valley is plastic mineral water bottles. As a means of reducing this particular waste, Ecosphere is in the process of setting up a basic water purification unit at Kaza to provide UV treated and RO (Reverse Osmosis) purified water. Ecosphere intends on setting up another one at Kibber Village which receives a large influx of tourists as well. This shall be done with the Youth body of the village enabling them to earn an additional source of income as well apart from enabling the reduction of plastic mineral water bottles in the village. At the homestays, pressure boiled water is provided to the visitors and they can fill their water bottles instead of carrying heaps of plastic mineral water bottles from Kaza.
Water – One of the critical questions facing the local community of Spiti pertains to water security. With the winter snow being the only source of moisture, Spitian’s rely heavily on snowfall for irrigation, drinking water and even for fodder. One of the major areas of concern for the local community and the development sector in this region is ensuring water security for the local populace. Options for water harvesting include construction of Zings (local ponds for storing water from snow melt) and artificial glaciers. Our aim is to be able to sensitise the local community and the administration on issues pertaining to conserving water and ensuring that the pressure on the same is minimised through a contextual policy. In the Ecosphere Homestays we ensure that we retain and promote the dry composting toilets that don’t use any water and in turn are eco-friendly and are used as manure in the fields. One of the activity’s that Ecosphere envisages on undertaking is an ecological and social carrying capacity analysis for Spiti to assess the number of tourist inflow Spiti can accommodate. Ecosphere is also working on investing from its tourism earnings into appropriate infrastructure for water harvesting and conservation.
Camping and Trekking – Ecosphere follows a strict policy of ensuring responsible practices during its treks. Some of the norms that we follow are:
- The first and foremost principle is to look for low impact campsites.
- It is preferable to camp at an existing campsite rather than a new one.
- Keeping at least 20 meters away from watercourses and tracks.
- Keeping all pollutants and garbage away from watercourses.
- Garbage is all brought back and the principle of leave no trace is followed.
- Garbage found on the trek route is collected and brought back by our trekking staff. We also encourage our guests in collecting garbage during the treks.
- Usage of modern camping equipment such as waterproof tents and foam sleeping-mats.
- Use of solar lanterns, solar cookers and other eco-friendly equipment.
- Use of bio-degradable and natural products such as soaps and detergents.
- Pitching tents properly is extremely important as it ensures that there is no need for digging trenches around tents which is usually damaging for the campsites.
- Pitching of toilet tents at appropriate distance from water sources is extremely important to avoid contamination (minimum distance should be atleast 80-100 meters is kept).
- Fecal waste is buried.
- We ensure that we leave the campsites better than how they were found.
- While trekking one must always stay on the track to minimise damage to plant life. It is also advisable to not follow multiple routes if there is a well defined trekking route. One should also preferably walk on the middle of the route to prevent causing erosion of the track. Walking on hard surfaces, such as rocks and scree, is preferable to soft ground which could have fragile and sensitive vegetation that can get damaged by trampling. In open areas where there are no defined trek routes it is advisable to spread out as it will disperse the impacts. A plant/ flower stepped upon only once has more chance of survival than being trampled by the entire group.
- Maintaining silence during trekking in areas with wildlife is one of the most important codes of conduct encouraged by us.
- Ecosphere tries to ensure the concept of minimal impact trekking and camping. We are also in the process of always looking for more innovative ways of ensuring responsible practices during all our treks and camps.
Pastures (Grazing areas) – Since Spiti has traditionally been an agro-Pastoralist economy, livestock plays a pivotal role in the region. Panchayat resolutions have been passed to levy tax on pack animals that are brought from outside by tourist groups. The funds generated have been saved by the villages as a contingency amount for future shortage and also for the creation of grazing reserves. Our aim is to be able to segregate a grazing reserve which becomes a grazing area for other wild herbivores and where impacts of grazing can be minimised and monitored.
Non-conventional Energy – Investing in renewable energy is one of the most crucial aspects of mitigating the impacts of global warming and ensuring that future sustainability is established. The Spiti valley is fed by 3 major tributaries namely Pin, Lingti and Parechu rivers. Besides water, sun and wind are the other two most important renewable energy sources in the valley. However, currently only hydro power has been developed in the valley and it has not been able to meet with the needs of the local energy requirements due to various reasons pertaining to weather and geo-physical situation of Spiti. Spiti has almost more than 250 days of sunshine and solar energy can substantially contribute to the energy needs of the region.
Our projects pertaining to energy efficiency, such as construction of passive solar houses, green houses, setting up of solar water heating and cooking systems, solar lighting and lanterns, etc in the region contribute to reducing carbon emissions. These in turn provide travelers with an option of offsetting their carbon through investments in these projects.
An important aspect pertaining to the usage of renewable energy pertains to the construction of passive solar houses in order to reduce the usage of fuel wood thereby mitigating the impacts of climate change. With the construction of these solar passive houses we have managed to reduce carbon emissions