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Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve

Located in the state of Sikkim, bordering Nepal to the west and Tibet (China) to the north-west, this biosphere reserve is one of the highest ecosystems in the world, reaching elevations of 1,220 to 8,586 metres above sea level. The site is one of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots. It includes vast natural forests that support high species diversity with high levels of endemism. The main economic activities are agricultural and horticultural crops, animal husbandry, fish, dairy and poultry farming.

Ecological Characteristics

Situated over the Himalayan trans-axial belt, the Biosphere Reserve’s most common constituents are valleys with numerous ravines, deep gorges and gullies, saddles, crests, knolls and river-terraces. These are mostly found in the lower part of the mountains. At the high reaches, the hill slopes are moulded into gentler alpine meadows. Several lakes of different sizes are also found at this belt. Further up the important topographic features are rocky outcrops at the base of Himalayas, with glacial moraines, scarps, talons, etc. There are 73 important lakes, covering 3.34 km2 area, which embedded in seven watersheds. The glaciers, mountains and peaks take up permanent position at the highest points of the reserve.

The biosphere reserve is a trans-boundary bio-diversity hotspot conservation area. There are about 22 endemic and 22 rare and threatened plants in the area. The reserve also housed some of the newly described plant taxa such as, Myrmechis bakhimensis (Orchidaceae), Craniotome furcata var. sikkimensis (Lamiaceae), Craniotome furcata var. ureolata (Lamiaceae) and Cortiella gauri (Apiaceae). The epiphytes and lianas are abundant here. Besides, there are about 30 species of rhododendrons recorded and out of over 42 confirmed mammal species belonging to 16 families in the area.

Socio-economic characteristics

The biosphere reserve has high religious significance and cultural values. Many of the mountains and peaks, lakes, caves, rocks, stupas (shrines) and hot springs are the sacred and pilgrimage sites. There are no local communities within the biosphere reserve. In the transition zone, there are 8,353 families with a population of 35,757 people living in 44 villages.

The rural economy of the area mostly depends on traditional farming, horticulture and animal husbandry, apart from a few openings through tourism. However, all these activities are low-key enterprises with ephemeral incomes. About 75% of the households are considered to be at subsistence level and they do not much depend on the Biosphere Reserve for their livelihood.  

The Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve became the eleventh biosphere reserve in India to be inducted into UNESCO's World Network of Biosphere Reserve (WNBR) in 2018. India has 18 biospheres out of which 11 have been included in the WNBR so far. The Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve covers around 41 percent of the total geographical area of Sikkim. It occupies around 70 percent of Sikkim's North District and about 30 percent of the Western District. It has one core area and four buffer zones. It also shares an international boundary with Nepal and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. 

The massive biosphere reserve is seen as a testament to the peaceful co-existence of nature and culture. The indigenous communities living in and around the biosphere reserve consider Mount Khangchendzonga, the third highest mountain in the world and after which the biosphere reserve is named, their guardian deity. The Bom Chu and Pang-Lhabsol festivals are celebrated every year in Sikkim to appease the ruling deities of Khangchendzonga and bring peace and happiness in Sikkim. 

The Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve is one of the highest biosphere reserves in the world and is a major biodiversity hotspot with its high levels of species and ecological diversity. Around 86 percent of the biosphere reserve's core area lies in the Alpine zone and the rest fall in the Himalayan wet temperate and subtropical moist deciduous forest zones. The core area of the biosphere reserve is also a Wildlife Protected Area. 

It has a total of 4,500 species of flowering plants which include 424 medicinal plants, 11 types of oaks, 60 species of primulas and 362 species of ferns. Many mammal species under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 of India are found in the Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve. These include the snow leopard, Himalayan black bear, musk deer, blue sheep, barking deer, boral and the Great Tibetan sheep. Along with the state bird of Sikkim, the blood pheasant, over 500 species of birds are found in the reserve. These also include other high-altitude pheasants like the tragopan pheasant and the monal pheasant. 

Biosphere reserves have three main interrelated zones, the core area, the buffer zone and the transition area. The core area consists of a protected ecosystem which is very heavily regulated. The core area contributes to the conservation of landscapes, ecosystems, genetic and species variation. The buffer zone adjoins the core areas and partial monitoring of activities is done. The main activities which are encouraged in this zone are those which have ecological and scientific value. The third zone is the transition area where maximum number of human activities are allowed which are ecologically and socio-culturally sustainable.

The four buffer zones of the Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve are being developed for the promotion of ecotourism. Tree plantation and soil conservation are also being undertaken in these zones. The transition area is the focus of ecotourism, organic farming and socio-economic development.