Sunday, May 21, 2023 07:45 [IST]

Last Update: Sunday, May 21, 2023 02:15 [IST]



Our highest altitude record holders are in danger

May 19th (3rd Fri) was Endangered Species Day throughout the world.  Just came to know that in North Sikkim scores of Sikkim Snow Toads are getting crushed under the convoys of vehicles going up to holy Gurudongmar Tso from Thangu, endangering the tiny population of this world's highest altitude amphibian we have in Sikkim. This is their breeding season. We need to urgently address this issue. Hope the upcoming Saga Dawa Festival honouring sentient beings helps the cause and our vehicle drivers are more cautious.

Sikkim, the very word is magical and attracts tourists in hordes.  Most of the rush is for visiting our high altitude lakes mostly Tsomgo Lake in East Sikkim and high altitude areas of North Sikkim in Lachen and Lachung Valleys.  In fact almost every visitor makes a bee-line for our holiest lake Gurudongmar Tso and Tso Lhamo, situated as they are, in the Cold Desert in North Sikkim.  In addition to the holy lakes, visitors can also get glimpses of some of Sikkim’s, indeed the world’s rarest animals like the Kiang, Tibetan Argali, Tibetan Gazelle, Tibetan Fox and birds like Golden Eagles and Bearded Vultures. 

But, how many of us know that our highland wetlands areas are home to the world’s highest altitude amphibians called Sikkim Snow Toads.  Our own high altitude world record holders!  There are two species in Sikkim, one carrying our state’s name; Scutiger sikkimensis found in and around Thangu, and Scutiger boulengeri which breed in the holy waters of Gurudongmar Tso and Tso Lhamo.

Around three decades ago, we used to encounter only tadpoles in these areas even during peak breeding season of July-August.  Thirty years ago I just could not identify this fantastic biodiversity treasure because there were no adults to be found.  I contacted ace herpetologist Mr. J. C. Daniel the Curator of BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society) who suggested they might be over-wintering as tadpoles instead of metamorphosing into adults.  He put me in contact with Alain Dubois an expert on Nepal’s amphibians who suggested I breed out the tadpoles, as not much research was done on high altitude amphibians here.  During my 1995 Sebu La expedition and subsequent 1996 RBGE (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh) expedition in the same region, I kept track of these strange tadpoles, and actually got three down to Gangtok in a bucket I personally hauled and transshipped over three terrible landslide areas Reil Khola, Meyong and Lanthey Khola, safely to Gangtok and bred them out into adults, which I released into our natural pond in Forest Colony at Balwakhani.  They were small, much smaller and prettier than the S. sikkimensis Snow Toads I found at Thangu.  I put photos out over the Internet, checked the distribution of another Scutiger further North of Sikkim, a species called Scutiger boulengeri, whose distribution touched the northern tip of Sikkim.  I contacted the international amphibian community, where Dr. Anne Marie Ohler also suggested my toads could be S. boulengeri.

Around the time NCBS and ATREE started their projects in Sikkim, I discussed this with Dr. Ajith Kumar, one of my mentors from WII days, and now theirs.  Surely there must have been bouts of warm weather in the past when adults could successfully reproduce.  Now the seasons were getting warmer and my tadpoles were finally metamorphosing into adult Snow Toads. This was such a clear sign of a warming climate.  But how much do we really know about the breeding biology of these high altitude denizens?  What do they eat, how do they survive in such sub-zero temperatures for years? How long lived are they?  Who eats them?  I found that amphibian researchers in our parts were keener to collect specimens rather than spend time in the field studying what made these super-amphibians tick. Even from the collected specimens one could have studied what anti-freeze was in their system that allowed them to survive under ice and snow for most part of the year.

Today we hear that they are getting crushed under the wheels of vehicles rushing to the lakes, vehicles also of the military and paramilitary forces. So many of these precious lives, these Sikkimese natural treasures are being lost.  Time to take immediate steps to alert the drivers about the daily tragedies of road kills through the authorities and put a full stop to the carnage.  We cannot afford to lose these endangered lives at the altar of ignorance.

(The author is a senior wildlife expert & environmentalist from Sikkim)

Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi