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Flora & Fauna

Sikkim stretches from the low lands in the south with tropical climate to the mountainous regions in the north with summits that touch the skies. The altitude  varies right from sea level to mountain peaks covering a wide spectrum of  flora and fauna. Nowhere in the world in such a small area can one find flora and fauna of all varieties - Tropical to the Alpines. Sikkim's botanical and zoological richness is awe- inspiring, boasting of more than 4000 species of plants and 30% of all the birds found in the Indian sub-continent .

Truly a naturalist's delight. The hillsides and mountain slopes of Sikkim are strewn with bright patches of myriad colours. The lower mountain slopes are abundant with lush green bamboos and ferns. And the northern valleys are draped with wild cherry, oaks, chestnuts, pines and white magnolia. The higher altitudes are abloom with a carpet of rhododendrons with a splendour of their own. Sikkim's 600 varieties of orchids are a feast for the eye.

Luxuriant forests cover 36% of the land. The lowlands in the south between 800 feet to 5000 feet  experience a tropical climate. Here you find lush green vegetation including  figs, laurel, Sal trees and bamboos. Some of the areas have been cleared for farming. The temperate forest of oak, chestnut, maple, birch, alder, magnolia and silver fir dominates between 5000 ft and 13000 ft. Above 13000ft, is the alpine zone where juniper, cypresses and rhododendrons grow. The perpetual snowline lies at 16000 ft.

More than 4000 species of plant have been recorded in Sikkim. Over 600 species of orchids grow in Sikkim, Epiphytal and terrestrial types, in the tropical and temperate zones. 35 species of rhododendrons grow in temperate and alpine regions, their flowering from May to August covering the hillsides in a riot of colours.

The diversity in the plant world is complemented by a similar variety in the animal kingdom. Over 400 varieties of butterflies and moths adorn the forest with colour and life.  Giant Lammergeier Vultures , Eagles, Whistling Thursh, Minivets, Bulbuls and Pheasants are some from among the 550 species of birds recorded in Sikkim some of which have been declared endangered.

Among the more commonly found animals in the alpine zone are yaks . They are domesticated and reared in North Sikkim mainly for their economic productiveness. Yak milk is used to make butter `churpi', the wool comes in handy as raw material for carpets and blankets. The musk deer, found in the upper temperate regions, is today a species in the endangered list. A common denizen of Sikkim is the muntjac, or the Barking Deer .

Among the more exotic mammals is the Red Panda which lives mostly on treetops. It is found at altitudes ranging from 6,000 to 12,000 feet. The snow leopard is an almost mythical animal. It has rarely been sighted and to date, only two field zoologists have succeeded in photographing this elusive animal in its habitat which can vary from 5,000 feet to as high as 18,000 feet. Blue sheep , flying squirrels, binturong, tahrs , marmots and musk deer are at home in this cool blanket of green.

Most of this beautiful and virgin area comes under the Khangchendzonga National Park.

Sikkim also has large cardamom, orange and tea plantations. The rivers of Sikkim have trout, salmon and carp. Fishing is allowed with a permit.

International Flower Festival
The International Flower Festival is held during the months of March-May, when most of the state's 600 species of orchids, 240 species of trees and 240 species of ferns, 150 kinds of gladioli, 46 varieties of the world famous rhododendrons, equally varied species of magnolias and many other foliage plants are in full bloom.

Major categories are orchids, gladioli, annuals, roses, alpine plants, pot plants, cacti, succulents, creepers, climbers, ferns, herbs and even wild flowers.

Lectures and seminars are held by the experts in each field. A food festival is also organised.

Smriti Van
The concept of Smriti Van is a novel idea of involving society at large in nature conservation. This is a concept in which trees can be planted, including on marriage, birthdays, anniversaries, demise, friendship or in the remembrance of near and dear ones. The concept can be implemented by setting up "Smriti Vans" in all villages / panchayats, urban areas, tourist places, religious places and crematorium etc. The  initiatives for this purpose no doubt have to be

taken by the state government or the local body by making the land available, technical advise and seedlings etc. The planning and implementation would necessarily require active participation of the local community and ultimately the management should be entrusted to the local community, organizations, NGO's or welfare associations etc.

All over the world, people believe in perpetuating the memory by erecting memorials. Trees can be planted as "Live Memorial". Planting of a tree(s), on any occasion would not only satisfy the desire to keep the memory fresh, but also help in the national cause of "Greening and Maintaining the ecological balance as well as atmospheric equilibrium" .The planting of non timber species, which have value in terms of the regular usufruct they give like fruits, flowers, nuts, leaves, fodder and even shade, without having to be felled when mature, will enhance the concept of perpetuation of the memory of an ancestor, who is seen to continue to be a benefactor.

The Matsya Puran says that, "Ten sons are equal to a tree." We can plant several hundreds of trees whose contribution to the state and nation for the cause of Environment and Ecology would be universally acknowledged.

In this program, till date in Sikkim, 40 numbers of Smriti Vans at various places such as: Bulbuley (29 nos) [East District], Rinchingpong- Tagore Smriti Van [West District], Sakyong [West District] and Guru Padmasambhava Smriti Van at Samduptse (Tendong) [South District] have been created and the Yumthang Valley Smriti Van [high altitude, in North District] is being started by May 2001. Till date about 35,000 numbers of seedlings have been planted in the year 1999-2000 & 2000-01 by the various Non Governmental Organizations, Voluntary Organizations, Associations, Religious & Social groups and other Government Agencies as well as by individuals.

For the year 2001-02, the planting season would start from the first week of JUNE , kindly contact any Forests Officials in Districts/headquarter or to the undersigned or S.B.S. Bhadauria, C.F.(FCA) or C.S.Pradhan.DFO (FCA) or M.R.Rai R.O. (FCA) ,Please.

T .R. Sharma IFS
PCCF cum Secretary
Department of Forest, Environment and Wildlife ,Government of Sikkim.

History of butterfly study and collection from Sikkim 

Of the 1,400 species of butterflies found in the Indian Sub-continent almost 700 species have been recorded from Sikkim. 

First ever mention of Sikkim butterflies in the modem literature is in the the Hooker's Himalayan Journals. 

Leaving the forest, the path led along the river(Rangeet) bank, and over the great masses of rock which strewed its course. The beautiful India rubber Fig was common, as was Bassia butyracea the 'Yelpote' o f the Lepchas, from the seeds they express a concrete oil, which is received and hardens in bamboo vessels. On the forest skirts, parasitical orchids and ferns bounded, the Chaulmoogra, whose fruit is used to intoxicate fish, was very common; as was an immense mul berry tree, that yields a milky juice and produces a l ong green sweet fruit. Large fish, chiefly Cyprinoid, were abundant in the beautifully clear water of the river. But by far the most striking feature consisted in the amazing quantity of superb butterflies, large tropic- al swallowtails black, with scarlet or yellow eyes on their wings. They were seen everywhere, sailing majes tically through the still hot air, or fluttering from one scorching rock to another, and especially loving to settle on the damp sand of the river edge; where they sat by thousands, with erect wings, balancing themselves with a rocking motion, as their heavy sails inclined them to one side or other; resembling a crowded fleet of yachts on a calm day. Such an entomological display cannot be surpassed. 

- Joseph Dalton Hooker May 1848. Himayalan Journals Vol. I, p. 143 Published 1855

He also writes about high altitude butterflies as follows: "During my ten days stay at Zemu Samadong (3,000 m), I formed large collection of insects many were new, beautiful and particularly interesting from belonging to types whose geographical distribution is analogous to that of the vegetation. The caterpillars of the swallowtail butterfly ( Papilio machon ) was common, feeding on umbelliferous plants as in England: and a Sphynx (like S. eurphorbiae ) was devouring the euphorbias. The English Cynthia Cardui (the Painted Lady) was common, as were 'sulphurs', 'marbles' Pontia (whites) 'blues' and Thecla of British aspect, but foreign species. Among these, tropical fOnDS were rare except one fine black swallowtail." (presumably P. arcturus ).

First ever serious report on the butterflies of Sikkim was published by H. J. Elwes (1880) in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London . Later, the same author along with Otto Moller (1888) published additions to the butterflies of Sikkim in the Transactions of Entomological Society of London . In the same period L. De Niceville, who was with the natural history section of the Indian Museum in Calcutta also made several trips to Sikkim and its neighbourhood and wrote a series of papers in the Journal of Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal (1881, 1882, 1883 and 1885). Almost at the same period the Gazetteer of Sikhim (1890) was brought out in which G. A Gammie and De Niceville have recorded about 631 species of butterflies found in Sikkim, including those which are found in Darjeeling, Buxa and Bhutan as the area was contiguous with Sikkim state and also the vegetation was similar to that of Sikkim. But how many of these butterflies have become synonyms of some of the other butterflies mentioned in the text. A few other authors like G. W. V. DeRhe-Philipe (1911), H. C.Tytler (1915) and F. M. Bailey (1911) have mentioned about few of the butterflies of Sikkim in their papers in the Journal of Bombay Natural History Society , while describing for other areas. D. F. Sanders (1947) who did extensive collections in Sikkim around 1940s has also published a paper in Journal of Bombay Natural History Soc. , with notes on Sikkim butterflies and their status, but a major list of Sikkim butterflies maintained by him, was available to M. A. Wynter-Blyth and the same has been incorporated in latter's book. 

Other than these publications, the museum collections of butterflies of Sikkim are distributed all over the world, but the major collections are in Natural History Museum(NHM) in London. I had access to the Museums of Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Forest Research Institute (FRI), Debra Dun, ICAR Museum at PUSA New Delhi and Natural History Museum in London and have compiled collection data for over 1500 specimens of about 300 species. The data for those species which are currently common in Sikkim as per our observations have not been compiled. The ZSI museum at Calcutta was so visited but I did not study them except for a cursory glance. 

On the basis of these museum collections it can be concluded that most of the Hooker's collections were carried out between 1880 to 1920. The major collection from this area was by Otto. Moller who was stationed in Darjeeling and had employed local collectors for collection and used to supply these specimens to various European collectors like Rothschild, Fruhstorfer, Godwin-Salvin etc. His collections are now largely in NHM as  most of these above collectors have donated their collections to NHM. G. C. Dudgeon collected extensively from 1889-1900 from Sikkim. Other major collectors are R. P. Bretaudeau and C. Bretaudeau who collected mostly from Lachen-Lachung valleys and their collections are seen in NHM. Various veteran collectors of those days like C. T. (whites) Bingham, H. C. Tytler, F. M. Bailey, F. Hannyngton and W. H. Evans also visited this area several times. Evans visited Sikkim between 1894-1928 at least five times. Earlier two Everest Expeditions of 1922 and 1924, which entered Tibet via Sikkim, had sent naturalist climbers like Maj. Hingston who with the help of local collectors collected a large number of specimens from Sikkim particularly from the higher altitudes which are now in the custody of NHM and the report about the same was published in technical report of the expeditions by Alpine Oub, but the same was not available to me as the library of the Alpine Club was under renovation. B. C. Ollenbach also collected between 1914-1922 from Sikkim and his collections are seen in FRI museum.

The unfortunate thing about these collections is that most of the collectors mention 'Sikkim' as the place of collection and no exact locations or altitudes are mentioned. One reason for this may be that the state of Sikkim was sparsely populated, not so developed, had very few villages with very small population. Even Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim was not much bigger than a present modem village. The places often mentioned in the collections are valleys of rivers like Rangeet, Teesta, Lachen and Lachung, Also the specific places mentioned are Gangtok, Dikchu, Tendong, Thangu, Senchal, Singhal, Rhenok, Troomling, Kupup, AD, Gnathong and Karponang. Another interesting observation from these data is that most of the collectors were not residents of Sikkim but the visitors and had gone specifically for natural history collections. So most of the information available is from March-May and from August- November when the weather is good and very little information is available for June-July (months of the heavy rains) and almost no information is available for December-March except for a small collection by Usha and her friends in December in the recent years.

My own observation limits to seven short visits to Sikkim during August, September-November, March, April of various years and amounts to about 250 species of which many are single sightings. I have tried to cover as much area as possible to survey various kinds of habitat found in Sikkim.

On the basis of these collections and literature I have made a check-list of 689 butterflies and easily ten more could be added,

Biodiversity and Endemism
Although Sikkim is one of the smallest Himalayan states, with an area of 7,299 sq. km. the biodiversity has given Sikkim an unique status. For example, within 30 km of Tholung Valley the altitude rises from 600 m to 5,500 m. Due to this steepness of the mountain and the geographical and climatic conditions, the floral and faunal diversity ranges from tropical species to high altitude cold desert species.

Of total of about 1,400 butterflies recorded from the Indian Sub-continent almost 50% of butterflies are recorded from Sikkim. Of the total area of Sikkim 40% (North Sikkim) is almost inhabitable and is covered with snow for about 4-8 months to perpetual snow and unsuitable for any life. About 30% of the total area of Sikkim which occupies the altitudinal zone from about 200-1,800 m is represented by about more than 75% species butterflies of Sikkim. Remaining species are found in the in-between zone and some of them overlap all the zones.

The subfamily Amathusiinae occurs mainly below 900 m. The region between 600-1,800 m is occupied by the typical hilly region butterflies. The Lycaenidae and Hesperiidae are highly diversified. Many of the type specimens of Hesperiids have been collected from Sikkim and are in NHM. The nymphalids and danaids are abundant in this region. They include butterflies like the Barons, Pansies, Sailers, Sergeants, Tigers, Crows etc. These butterflies have affinity to Oriental fauna. The Swallowtails also abound this region. Pieridae is represented by Gulls, Puffms, Jezebels and Orangetips.

The zone between 1,800-3,500 m has butterfly fauna typical of temperate zones and have affinity to the Palaearctic fauna. The nymphalids which are found in this region are the Admirals, Tortoiseshells, Silverstripes and Silverspots. Hardly any danaids except for the Chestnut Tiger, occur in this region. Lycaenids mostly consist of the subfamilies Lyaceninae, Theclinae and Polyommatinae- Hairstreaks, Sapphires, Hedge Blues etc. Lybithinae occurs mostly in this zone. Punches and Judies are also seen. But the most diversified is the subfamily Satyrinae, particularly the tribes Lethini and Satyrini. Foresters, Walls, Golden and Silver Forks are numerous. As many as 36 species of tribe Lethini are found in Sikkim. Of the Swallowtails very few larger butterflies occur in this region and include the Krishna and Blue Peacocks. The Yellow Swallowtail in Sikkim has been recorded only from the altitudes above 3,000 m, although it occurs up to 2,000 m in other parts of Himalaya.

The zone beyond 3,000 m is occupied by a very few specialised species which are adapted to harsh climatical conditions and have affinity to the Palaearctic fauna. They include Apollos and Yellow Swallowtail of the Papilionidae. The Clouded Yellows of Piriedae, the Silverstripes and Silverstreaks and the Admirals of Nymphalidae and a very few species of blues like Chumbi Green Underwing, Azure Mountain Blue etc. also occur. Satyrinae is represented by the tribe Satyrini consisting of the Arctic and Mountain Arguses and the Great Satyr.

A few butterflies on account of being polyphagus are found from sea level to the high mountains up to about 4,500 m. They are the Indian and the Large Cabbage Whites, Tortoiseshells, Indian Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Dark Clouded Yellow etc.

The Geographic position, i.e. Sikkim is bound by high mountains of more than 4,000 m on three sides, has led to isolation of the the' population occurring in Sikkim. Probably due to this reasons many of them have become distinct subspecies and forms.

There are many Oriental species which do not occur west of Sikkim. The reason for this may be that the great North-South ridge of the Khangchenzonga spur and Singalila act as barrier for dispersal of the species. Similarly many Palaearctic species like Lassiomata, Hipparchia and Dallacha have not been recorded east of Nepal.

Many of the subspecies are known only from Bhutan and Sikkim. Infact the following species have been so far recorded only from Sikkim -Lethe trisigmata, Lethe atkinsoni, and that too from high altitudes of Lachen and Lachung Valleys. But this does not necessarily mean they are endemic to Sikkim only as the surrounding regions like Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh, South Tibet have similar biodiversity. But hardly these areas have been explored in detail for butterfly fauna also a very few records are available from these regions in last hundred years.

Current status
Compared to earlier records definitely there is a great reduction in numbers as well as species. The main reasons for this is increase in human population and developmental activities and urbanisation.
The lower valleys particularly in those areas which are less disturbed still have a great number of species. The best altitude to observe butterflies is between 900-1,800 m. Most of the swallowtails, nymphalids are abundant here.

The Amatheusiinae needs a special survey to assess the presence of these species in Sikkim as most of the moist bamboo forest habitats are lost.

The best places for looking out for butterflies is the Rangeet Valley and lower altitudes of the Teesta Valley. In the list the places marked with an asterix are very fruitful areas for the butterflies.

The exact current status for most of the species cannot be assessed as the total observation period of my visit was about 1,500 hr. The months of visits were also mostly September - November , except for one visit in August to higher altitudes and one in March-April. Also during my earlier few visits not much of observation on Lycaenids, Hesperiids and Satyrins were carried out as I was not very conversant with these insects. So unless a thorough study in all the seasons is carried out it is not possible to really assess the status, as many butterflies are single brooded or breed only at some particular time of the year. So this treatise is an attempt to help the interested reader to start the observations and send in their observations. May be after a few years of vigorous data collection, particularly by the people stationed in Sikkim itself, we can come to some conclusion and I hope by that time it would not be too late to carry out any protection measures.

Medicinal Plants

Nardostachys grandiflora, commonly known as Spikenard and Jatamasi in Nepali. It is a perennial shrub about 40 cm in height and thrives above 12,000 ft. It finds a wide spectrum of uses as a tonic, antispasmodic, diuretic, laxative. Its roots are used to prevent epileptic fits. The roots are also used as incense specially; for religious offerings.

Aconites, commonly known as Monkshood and Bikh locally is found at altitudes between 7,000 ft and 13,000 ft. Growing to an height of about 3 ft, they are very poisonous. Their roots are however effective against rheumatism and fever but care has to be taken to administer the correct dosage.

Artemisia vulgaris, commonly known as Indian Wormwood and Titopati locally grows upto altitudes of 6000 ft. Attaining a height of about 4 ft, their leaves are used as an antiseptic.

Piper longum, commonly known as Long Pepper and locally as Pipla grows on the foothills of the Himalayas upto an altitude of 3000 ft. It is a creeping herb. Its fruits are used as a tonic and a medicine for diseases like asthma. The roots are .used as antidote for snakebites.

Picrorhiza kurrooa, known as Kutki locally grows at altitudes ranging between 10,000 ft and 16,000 ft. It grows to a height of about half feet and its roots are used as a purgative and have also been found effective against malaria.

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