Encyclopedia of Earth

Hindu Kush alpine meadow

September 1, 2012, 11:18 pm
Content Cover Image

West of Faizabad, northeast Afghanistan. Photograph by Jerry Hassinger

The Hindu Kush alpine meadow has an expanse of some 10,900 square miles, situated in northeastern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. Most of the lands lie within the Hindu Kush Mountain Range in  the altitude bracket between 3000 to 4000 meters, and correspondingly most of the precipitation is in the form of snow. This ecoregion is classified within the Montane Grasslands and Shrublands biome.

This ecoregion manifests a low rate of vertebrate endemism; however there are ten special status mammals found here, ranging from the status of Endangered to Near Threatened.

Location and general description

The Hindu Kush alpine meadow ecoregion consists of higher elevation terrain of moderate to severe slopes. Vegetation is often sparse or almost lacking, with resulting pastoral usage of low intensity grazing of goats and sheep in some areas. Soils are largely leptosols, but many areas are covered by large expanses of rock outcrop or rocky scree. In the limited areas of arable soils, wheat is sometimes farmed, although growing of opium poppies is the only cash crop. Most of the water available for plant and animal life is supplied by snowmelt. The Helmand River, Afghanistan's largest watercourse, represents the chief catchmentCatchment is the entire area of a hydrological drainage basin. within the ecoregion, with headwaters rising in the Hindu Kush Range, and eventual discharge to the endorheic Sistan Basin, outside the ecoregion. Annual precipitation to the region approximates 1250 millimeters. Soil development throughout the ecoregion is typically thin. 


Biodiversity features

In spite of the high altitudes, cold prevailing temperatures and rocky soils, the soil fertility is good in many parts of the ecoregion; correspondingly, considerable expanse of alpine meadow as well as scrubby woodland is supported. Furthermore many exposed outcrop areas manifest large areas of low growing cushion plants. In addition to the adaptation of the cushion plants to this type of exposed alpine environment, the cushion plants themselves actually modify the microclimate in a manner helpful to most plants and animals of the ecoregion by trapping heat and mollifying the otherwise harsh climate.

caption The Near Threatened argali. Source: F.A.Brockhaus This palearctic ecoregion supports 206 different native vertebrate species. Special status mammals found in the Hindu Kush alpine meadow are: the Near Threatened argali (Ovis ammon), the Vulnerable Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus), the Near Threatened European otter (Lutra lutra), the Near Threatened leopard (Leopardus pardus), the Endangered markhor (Capra falconeri), the Near Threatened mountain weasel (Mustela altaica), the Near Threatened Schreiber's long-fingered bat (Miniopteris schreibersi), the Endangered snow leopard (Uncia uncia), the Near Threatened striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) and the Endangered Moschus leucogaster. Special status birds in the Hindu Kush alpine meadow are represented by the Endangered Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopteris).


The climate of the Hindu Kush alpine meadow poses constraints to human settlement as well as survival of flora and fauna. It is not surprising that the cold, windy environment is a constraining determinant to the palette of organisms that have adapted to this ecoregion. The following table summarizes long term average meteorological data for the Hindu Kush region:

caption Climate data for the Hindu Kush ecoregion. Source: CRU TS 3.1 - University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit (CRU). [Phil Jones, Ian Harris]. CRU Time Series (TS) high resolution gridded datasets, [Internet]. NCAS British Atmospheric Data Centre, 2008, Accessed: 28-July-2011


Since approximately 4000 BC this region was a chief source of mining lapis lazuli. The region represented one of the western elements of the Northern Silk Road, allowing trade routes to open between the East and West as early as the first millennium BC. The Northern Silk Road brought this region into recorded history; much later in the use of the Northern Silk Road, Marco Polo noted that the Badashan Province was noteworthy for its abundance of Balas rubies found under Syghinan Mountain.

Current status

The conservation status of this ecoregion is classified as Vulnerable; moreover, the Hindu Kush alpine meadow is designated as a G200 area, meaning that the region is considered of the highest priority for conservation on a worldwide basis.

Types and severity of threats

caption Northeast Badakhshan, Afghanistan. Photograph by Jerry Hassinger

The ecoregion has been beset with rule by tribal warlords for many decades, starting long before the Soviet invasion. Consequently stewardship of the natural environment has little historic model in modern times. The Badakhshan Province portion of the ecoregion was not actually controlled by the Taliban; however, the zone was one of conflict between the warlords of the controlling Northern Alliance and the Taliban, who sought control over the entire region. That era has left the region bereft of natural resource management. After the Taliban was overthrown by Allied forces, there is no swift road to protection of the ecoregion's environment. Warfare and neglect of the natural environment have not only left scars on the land, but also directed the region's priorities to human survival and overcoming the lack of healthcare, education and nutrition that has resided in this region for most of the twentieth century, if not earlier.

Justification of ecoregion delineation

This ecoregion, generally above 3000 meters of elevation, is located in the high eastern mountains of Afghanistan. The boundaries are derived from the alpine meadows and nival zone in Freitag’s (1971) map of natural vegetation.


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  • CRU TS 3.1 - University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit (CRU). [Phil Jones, Ian Harris]. CRU Time Series (TS) high resolution gridded datasets, [Internet]. NCAS British Atmospheric Data Centre, 2008, Accessed: 28-July-2011
  • H.Freitag. 1971. Studies in the natural vegetation of Afghanistan. Pages 89-106 in P. H. Davis, Harper, and I. C. Hedge, editors.
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Hogan, C. (2012). Hindu Kush alpine meadow. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbf3837896bb431f6ad234