Western Himalayan Temperate Arboretum For Conservation Of Native Flora At Shimla

The world is changing at an accelerated rate. These changes are quickly but surely reshaping the surface of the planet. The native habitat with its diversity of plants is slowly getting buried beneath layers of steel and concrete. Each one of us must have experienced such harmful changes in the biodiversity of the region where we grew up. Perhaps the woods or pastures you ran in as a child, climbed trees, the places you built tree houses, plucked wild colorful flowers and tangy fruits from bushes and breathed in the fresh scent of spring wildflowers are gone now, perhaps forever. Your memories of walking in a pristine forest which was the epitome of a delicate but complex web of life, providing home for vast diversity of flora and fauna. These lush forests that once carpeted the globe and provided a blueprint for life to continue have over the last few decades gradually faded into oblivion. It is just not possible for all of us to imagine what will happen to the remaining biodiversity, which is being systematically destroyed during our lifetime and replaced by our vision of a farcical convenient world. But the truth is that such a scenario is not inevitable.

Biodiversity has been supporting ecosystems essential for human and animal life, including climate regulation, water, food security and protection from natural disasters. It provides free of charge services to society which include clean water, pure air, soil formation and protection, pollination, crop pest control, and the provision of foods, fuel, fibers and drugs. As elsewhere, these services are not widely recognized, nor are they properly valued in economic or even social terms. Reduction in biodiversity affects these ecosystem services. Losing biodiversity is like losing the life support systems that we, and other faunal species, so desperately depend upon. Human activities, such as direct harvesting of native species, introduction of exotics, and habitat destruction in varied ways, like setting up of hydro electric projects, have caused dramatic losses to biodiversity especially in the hilly terrain of the fragile Himalayas. Healthy ecosystems are particularly important for people living in these mountainous terrain – they depend far more directly on natural resources for their livelihoods and survival. In many regions across the world, natural systems supporting economies, lives and livelihoods are at risk of rapid degradation and collapse. While the poorest people suffer disproportionately from this deterioration of ecosystems, ultimately everyone stands to lose. Government policy and our personal choices will determine how humans will shape the environment for future generations.

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The conservation of biodiversity is fundamental to achieving sustainable development. It provides flexibility and options for the current and future use of our fast depleting natural resources. Biodiversity conservation is basically carried out using two methods, namely in-situ and ex-situ conservation methods.

a. In-situ conservation
In-situ conservation means “on-site conservation”. It is the process of protecting an endangered plant or animal species in its natural habitat, either by protecting or cleaning up the habitat itself, or by defending the species from predators. The population size must be sufficient to enable the necessary genetic diversity to survive within the population.

b. Ex-situ conservation
Ex-situ conservation means, “off-site conservation”. It is the process of protecting an endangered species by removing part of the population from a threatened habitat and placing it in a new location, which may be a wild area or within the care of humans. Ex-situ conservation comprises some of the oldest and best known conservation methods. It is by far the best method of maximizing a species chance of survival, by relocating part of the population to a less threatened location. However, it is extremely difficult to mimic the original environment, given the large number of variables defining the original colony (microclimate, soils, symbiotic species, absence of severe predation, etc.)

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An Arboretum is one of the methods favored for ex-situ conservation of species. Arboreta are scientifically laid out collection of arboreal plant species like trees, shrubs and woody lianas, representing different climatic and phyto-geographic regions. These serve various purposes such as germplasm collection, horticultural studies and means of ex-situ plant conservation. Well organized and aesthetically designed arboreta also play an important role in generating awareness about the plant world and promoting conservation education among the society. Ex- situ conservation and mass propagation of rare species at the botanical garden are complimentary to in-situ conservation.

An arboretum, by definition, is an outdoor collection of trees, shrubs and other woody plants systematically and aesthetically arranged for the purposes of demonstration, research, and education. It is a “living museum” where visitors are welcome throughout the year, to walk about, enjoy and learn more about arboreal flora. The design and layout of the arboretum at Potter Hill would be such that it would aesthetically merge with the landscape and generate awareness about the native trees among the visitors. The ultimate goal is to encourage the planting and conservation of trees and other arboreal plants for a greener, healthier, and more beautiful state.

At present there are about 35 botanical gardens in India. These gardens vary greatly in term of size and number of species. It is seen that most of these botanical gardens in the country are located in the tropical and sub- tropical regions. There are non-existent botanical gardens and ex-situ plant conservation facilities in the western and north- western Himalaya except a few small scattered locations, noteworthy being the PN Mehra Botanical Garden (Punjab University, Chandigarh), Ram Bagh (GNDU, Amritsar), Arboretum of FRI (Dehradun), Shalimar Garden of Kashmir University (Srinagar), NBPGR Botanical Garden (Delhi University).

With the aim of ex situ conservation of temperate western Himalayan tree flora including endemic and endangered species, an arboretum is being established at Potters Hill. The project is being implemented by the Wildlife Wing of the State Forest Department, with the technical assistance from the Himalayan Forest Research Institute, Shimla. The basic purpose of this arboretum will be to conserve the gene pool and it will have a vital role in the rehabilitation of species affected by the numerous developmental/hydro- projects, mushrooming in the state.

Potter Hill, also known as ‘Van Vihar’, near Shimla town has been selected as the site for the Temperate Arboretum. Although, located just 7 km from the state capital; the site has survived the onslaught of urbanization and still retains its unusually rich reserves of temperate flora and fauna, especially the butterflies. It also harbors numerous colorful shrubs, herbs and the elusive terrestrial orchids, providing a riot of colours of their flowers, year-round.

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Already famous as an eco-tourism destination, it will soon be transformed into a living repository of the Western Himalayan temperate tree flora. The Arboretum will help to conserve the rare and threatened tree species of the region and would cater to the interest of common public as well as professionals. The visitor mix shall include students, tourists traveling to Shimla as well as local residents. This site is spread over hundred hectares in area and is adjacent to the Himachal Pradesh University Campus and close to the Summer Hill Railway station. With altitudinal ranges between 1750 and 2250 msl, the area is naturally rich in regional temperate flora. It supports an evergreen temperate conifer forest (Cedrus deodara, Pinus wallichiana and Pinus roxburghii), rich and varied broadleaved forest (Quercus leucotrichophora, Rhododendron arboreum, Pieris ovalifolia, Benthamidia capitata, Swida macrophylla, Aesculus indica, Platanus orientalis, etc), secondly scrub and the accompanying green grassy glades.

The arboretum at Van Vihar will also have multifarious usage and the major ones shall include research, education, general environment awareness and ecotourism. It will also be visited for recreational activity thereby supporting interaction between society and biodiversity. Once established, the arboretum would be the first ex-situ plant conservation facility in the region, and one of the few conservatories – type gardens in the North Western Himalaya. It will provide a homeport, research and propagation facility for the amateur as well a professional gardening community in the region.

The Arboretum will also contribute to raise awareness among policy makers on the wealth of wild fruits-biodiversity with regard to underutilized or neglected species and encourage thus greater attention on this group of species. Other uses, such as landscaping, and role of the species in maintaining cultural and artistic values of communities will be also addressed.

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North West Himalayas, considered as one of the globally recognized biological hotspots, is home to many endemic, rare and endangered plant species. Thus the plant biodiversity richness of this Himalayan region is very important from the point of view of species richness of the country. Endemic species are those with restricted distribution and hence are more prone to extinction. Smaller the area of distribution of a species, the greater the threat, particularly if their habitats are altered or disturbed. Since the temperate region of the NW Himalayas is subjected to several anthropogenic activities such as horticulture expansion, hydro-electric projects, timber extraction, fuel wood collection, collection of medicinal plants and minor products resulting in the destruction of several threatened plants including the native tree species. Thus, habitat destruction will result in the loss of the species which can never be replaced. Hence such regions are areas of top conservation priority because if unique endemic species are lost they can never be replaced. Such ecologically fragile areas have become the focus of global conservation efforts. So an attempt has been made to conserve some of the valuable tree species of the temperate North West Himalayas at Potters Hill by establishing an exclusive arboretum.

Simultaneously, landscaping of the arboretum is being undertaken in a gradual conservative manner. Structures like gazebos, pergolas, amphitheatre and thematic trails have been laid out. More such structures will soon be added to provide aesthetics to the arboretum.  Utmost care has been taken to use eco-friendly material. Wherever possible, the trees have been planted in blocks.

Most of the plant species introduced to the arboretum are economically important and include timber yielding plants, plants yielding edible fruits, nuts, spices, fodder, plants of medicinal value, ornamental value etc.  It also boasts of a number of lesser known tree species (LKTS) of the region.

This unique collection of arboreal flora will be of great help in educating the people, particularly the youth, about the need for preserving one of our most important national assets – the ‘Biodiversity of Temperate Himalayas.’

Dr. Vaneet Jishtu, a field botanist specialising in high altitude himalayan flora, conducts a wide range of research at Himalayan Forest Research Institute (HFRI), where he works. At Shimla he has pioneered in setting up an arboretum, a botanical garden where a vast collection of Himalayan trees have been planted. He lives in Shimla

1 Comment

  • Nodnat says:

    Very informative and well written tract on the WHTA. It is indeed heartening to see the place come up and flourish under the passionate care and companionship of Vaneet Jishtu. I am sure the trees he has nurtured must be quivering with delight when they ‘feel’ him around! With many west Himalayan trees gone and going, the WHTA is perhaps one last hope to ‘shelter’ them with the hope that maybe one day they can be put back in the forests that were once home to them. I am certain that under such dedicated ‘watch & ward’ the WHTA will soon be on the world map of sites of great botanical significance. This should become Himachal’s ‘Kew Garden’ one day.

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