Karakoram-West Tibetan Plateau alpine steppe

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Lamayuru, Ladakh, India. Photograph by Edward Richards

The Karakoram-West Tibetan Plateau Alpine Steppe contains some of the highest densities of ungulates in the region, including the endangered Marco Polo sheep. The alpine vegetation supports numerous mountain sheep and goats, which in turn provide a substantial prey base for the endangered snow leopard. A majority of this ecoregion is prim habitat for the snow leopard and, like its ungulate prey, this large predator often comes into conflict with the region's domestic animals that use the same rangelands. A resolution to this conflict will help ensure habitat for the region's native flora and fauna.

Location and General Description

 

This ecoregion makes up a majority of the Karakoram high mountain region to the west of the Himalayas in Kashmir. It includes snow and glaciers of some of the world's highest mountains (such as K2) as well as the lower-elevation alpine, sub-alpine, and interdispersed coniferous vegetation. The predominant mountain ranges are the Karakoram Range, Ladakh Range, Chang Chenmo Range (China), and Deosai Mountains.

Mountain slopes support mainly unstable, excessively drained shallow to moderately deep gravelly, loamy soils on bedrock and are subject to severe sheet, rill, and gully erosion. The mean annual precipitation varies in the ecoregion but ranges from 200 to 900 millimeters (mm), 90 percent in the form of snow.

Within this broad mountain ecosystem, small distances result in large changes based on altitude, aspect, geology, and soils, giving rise to a wide variety of microclimates and biodiversity. The predominant vegetation is characterized by sparse grasslands and herbaceous vegetation on mountainous slopes. On the alpine slopes or in sheltered ravines, Salix denticulata, Mertensia tibetica, Potentilla desertorum, Juniperus polycarpus, Polygonum viviparum, Berberis pachyacantha, Rosa webbiana, and Spiraea lycoides dominate. In the highest elevations, above 4,500 meters (m), the vegetation thins out. Common species found at these altitudes include Delphinium cashmerianum, Glechoma tibetica, Silene longicarpophora, Potentilla fruticosa, and Nepeta spp.

Shrublands and patchy forests are found in the valley bottoms. The primary plant species include Hippophae rhamnoides, Myricaria elegans, Salix viminalis, Capparis spinosa, Tribulus terrestris, Pegamum harmala, Sophora alopecuroides, and Lycium ruthenicum. A steppe juniper forest, once common to most of central Asia, remains in relict populations on cliffs and sloped land. These forest fragments are dominated by Juniperus macropoda and J. indica.

Biodiversity Features

The unique microclimatic features and harsh climatic conditions force plants to adapt to survive. This gives rise to numerous endemic plant species. In Pakistan, an estimated sixty-six plant species are endemic to the Kashmir region, and montane plant species make up 90 percent of Pakistan's endemic flora.

Most of the species found in this ecoregion are wide-ranging species found throughout most of the high mountains or Tibetan Plateau of the Karakorams, Hindu-Kush, and Himalayas. However, a single endemic mammal is found in this ecoregion: the woolly flying squirrel (table 1). This squirrel is found at high elevations in sparse Pinus or Picea forests. Brown bear is found in the lower elevations, especially in the forest of the Deosai plains of Pakistan.

Table 1. Endemic and Near-Endemic Mammal Species.

Family

Species

Sciuridae

Eupetaurus cinereus*

An asterisk signifies that the species' range is limited to this ecoregion.

Ungulates are the most diverse set of species in this region and include the Marco Polo sheep (Ovis ammon poli), the largest of its genus. Most of the ungulate species in this ecoregion are endangered or vulnerable. They include markhor (Capra falconeri), ibex (Capra ibex), and urial (Ovis orientalis). An additional ungulate found in this ecoregion is the Tibetan argali (Ovis ammon hodgsoni).

The snow leopard (Uncia uncia) inhabits the high elevations of the Himalaya and Kashmir regions. This ecoregion includes prime habitat for the snow leopard and is therefore vital to its survival. The snow leopard is adapted to the high altitudes by having an enlarged nasal cavity, shortened limbs, well-developed chest muscles for climbing, long and dense hair, and a tail up to 1 m long (75-90 percent of head-body length). In general, their most common prey consists of wild sheep and goats but also includes pikas (Ochotona spp.), hares (Lepus spp.), and gamebirds (chukar partridge and snowcocks).

Additional mammals found in this ecoregion include the Altai weasel (Mustela altaica), stone marten (Martes foina), brown bear (Ursos arctos), Himalayan black bear (Selenarctos thibetanus), lynx (Felis lynx), fox (Vulpes vulpes), and wolf (Canis lupus).

There are no endemic bird species, and bird richness is low. Common bird species of the montane region are found here and include rosefinches (Carpodacus spp.), Guldenstadt's redstart (Phoenicurus erythrogaster), Himalayan monal (Lophophorus impejanus), raptors, and vultures. Passerines such as the black-throated thrush (Turdus ruficollis) or robin accentor (Prunella rubeuloides) winter in this ecoregion.

There are no amphibians, but at least three lizard species are found in this ecoregion: Agama himalayan (common), Scincella ladacensis (sparse), and Phrynocephalus theobaldi (stone deserts).

Current Status

Protected areas cover large swaths of montane habitat in this ecoregion, but most of these protected areas do not conserve the most important ecological areas (table 2). Governments have haphazardly designated protected areas, and nature conservation has been given a low priority.

Table 2. WCMC (1997) Protected Areas That Overlap with the Ecoregion.

Protected Area

Area (km2)

IUCN Category

Karakoram

1,790

IV

Hemis National Park/WS

1,400

II

Hemis National Park/WS

3,890

II

Khunjerab II

2,269

II

Gya-Meru WS

80

?

Tingri WS

50

?

Lungnag WS

940

?

Rupshu WS

190

?

Naltar WS

210

IV

Kargah WS

240

IV

Chassi/Bowshdar GR

480

?

Naz Bar GR

410

?

Sherqillah GR

130

?

Danyor Nullah GR

160

?

Pakura Nullah GR

140

?

K2 National Park

2,330

?

Nar Nullah GR

160

?

Astore WS

750

IV

Baltistan

330

IV

Askor Nullah GR

150

?

Kanji WS

90

IV

Boodkharbu WS

100

?

Rangdum WS

280

?

Agram Basti

270

IV

Total

16,839

 

There is no consistency in nature conservation policy in this region, and most protected areas have no management plans because personnel lack the expertise and training to develop them. Population and grazing pressures exert enormous pressure on the region, and people still use the land within protected areas for grazing livestock, collecting firewood, cutting trees, and hunting illegally.

Only two protected areas within the snow leopard's range can support viable populations. A viable population is defined as more than fifty breeding adults. These areas are Khunjerab II in Pakistan and Taxkorgan IV in China. Protected areas account for only about 10 to 15 percent of the snow leopard's total range.

The effects of war can be seen in this region as well. On the positive side, natural pastures and natural vegetative cover have had a chance to recover because of decreased grazing pressures, but the forests have been decimated.

Types and Severity of Threats

Trophy hunting for markhor, ibex, snow leopard, and game birds (such as falcons) is prevalent in this ecoregion and has decimated their populations. Ibex and snow leopard face extinction in this ecoregion because of hunting pressures. There is a demand from the Chinese medicinal trade for snow leopard bones to use as substitutes for tiger bone. The furs from snow leopards have been commonly used for coats, and furs have been seen on sale throughout China and Taiwan.

Livestock rely on rangelands for forage, and overgrazing of natural vegetation is a common. Domestic grazing competes directly with native ungulates for precious resources, and grazing is a greater threat than hunting to this ecoregion's native species. In elevations up to about 1,500 m, the pastures are grazed throughout the entire year. The higher elevations, between 1,500 and 3,300 m, are grazed only in the summer.

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation

We identified two ecoregions-Karakoram-West Tibetan Plateau Alpine Steppe and Central Tibetan Plateau Alpine Steppe-in MacKinnon's Trans-Himalayan biounit. These ecoregions extend into China. All the Himalayan ecoregions are part of Udvardy's Himalayan highlands biogeographic province.

Additional Information on this Ecoregion

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the World Wildlife Fund. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the World Wildlife Fund should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.

 

Glossary

Citation

Fund, W. (2014). Karakoram-West Tibetan Plateau alpine steppe. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/153996

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