JARS v51n3 - Rhododendrons: Their Conservation in the Wild

Rhododendrons: Their Conservation in the Wild
Tony Schilling
West Sussex, England

Text based on a paper presented at the ARS Annual Convention in Oban, May 1996

People frequently come up to me at the end or one of my Asian lectures to remark upon the natural beauty I have illustrated. Much of what they say often rings true, but what of the down side - the bleaker picture which one has not portrayed? After all, who really wants to be "entertained" by scenes of degraded eco-systems, erosion and Man's rape of the natural environment?

Warren Berg, Peter Cox, and other members of the ARS who have written of their journeys amongst the Sino-Himalayan rhododendron forests all make reference to the massive over-logging of the mountain sides and voice their concern at what they see as shortsighted and unsustainable practices. I readily echo their concerns, as one of my most overriding memories of the 1997 Sino-British Lichiang Expedition to S. W. China was of the near-continuous convoys of heavily laden timber lorries we passed en route to Tali (Dali) and later as we travelled further west towards the Mekong/Yangtse Divide.

When one pauses amidst the unsullied swathes of rhododendrons which plaster the flanks of the central Bhutanese hillsides it seems unnecessary to feel concerned for the mountain forests of Asia - that is, until one remembers that this wondrous sea of beauty is an exception and not at all representative of what is happening in nearby countries, especially Nepal and China.

Conservationists are often dubbed as exaggerating scare-mongers by those who believe that Nature is "the great healer" always providing mankind with everything it requires or demands and all this in spite of the abuse that is rained down upon Her.

When I first walked the long trails to Everest and elsewhere in Nepal in 1965 I seldom met another foreigner. Nowadays on the same route one meets hundreds, even thousands, of foreigners trekking through the beauties of the Himalaya and, whether intended or not, eroding a small amount of the fragile beauty they have come to enjoy.

Eroded slopes beneath Lhotse-Nuptse
Eroded slopes beneath Lhotse-Nuptse (juniper, berberis,
rhododendron scrub), Nov. 1977.
Photo by Tony Schilling

Ideally we are told that one should "take only photographs and leave only footprints," but this philosophy invariably falls down unless one is totally self-sufficient; even then one must not forget that there is no such thing as "zero impact." Like it or not we are all, by the actual fact of our being there, personally responsible.

The realisation that our natural environment is under threat from exploitation is no new thing. Almost one hundred years ago Augustine Henry wrote about the destroyed forests of Yunnan Province in S.W. China (thereby prompting Wilson to be sent forth on his first collecting expedition) but, compared to the problems the world faces today, Henry's observations of 1898 pale into insignificance.

Since that time the deforestation of Yunnan has continued unabated. S.W. China's timber is being extracted from virgin rhododendron/conifer forest adjacent to the borders of Tibet (Xizang) at a horrific rate in order to satisfy an ever increasing home market. Such is the demand that already 40 percent of the natural forest on the western flank of the botanically famous Cangshan (Tali) range had already been destroyed. Such destruction has already caused a decrease in rainfall thereby adversely affecting local agriculture.

Raped forest, Da-cai-ba,
N.W. Yunnan, China. June 1987
Raped forest, Da-cai-ba, N.W. Yunnan, China. June 1987.
Photo by Tony Schilling

The same malpractices can be readily seen in the Central Himalayan region of Nepal where a burgeoning population demands more than the environment can sustain and the problems are seemingly out of control.

In order to live people require firewood for cooking and heating and additional land in order to sustain their ever increasing numbers Consequently the newly cultivated terraces climb higher and still higher up the denuded hillsides, and monsoon rains cause severe erosion at the annual rate of 30/75 tons per hectare. Even 30 years ago when I first went to Nepal the "cocktail party talk" made sick jokes about the fact that the country's most significant export to India was its priceless topsoil. As tourism has accelerated Nepal's environmental problems have increased in tandem; after all, foreign visitors also need sustenance and indirectly take their toll of domestic firewood.

Recent research shows that Nepal is currently losing 400,000 hectares (990,000 acres) of forests per annum much of which includes the warm and cool-temperate forests and the sub-alpine woodland which are homes to the majority of the native rhododendrons. Most at risk is the area around the temperate margins of cultivation (+- 8,000 ft.) where the broad-leaved forest merges with the rhododendron/conifer forests, a sobering thought when one pauses to reflect on the fact that 90 percent of Nepal's national energy requirements comes from these forests.

Woodcutters in R. arboreum forest.
Gurkha Himalaya C. Nepal, April 1983
Woodcutters in R. arboreum forest.
Gurkha Himalaya C. Nepal, April 1983.
Photo by Tony Schilling

Personal observations made, in the Gurkha Himal of Central Nepal in 1983 brought home to me all too vividly how unstoppable the insidious progress of "man the destroyer" seems to be. The primeval forests of Quercus semecarpifolia and Rhododendron arboreum which occur thereabouts were the finest I have seen anywhere, but every day along the trail we were constantly aware of the rhythmic dull thud of axe blades on living wood. It may be tempting providence by even mentioning that it was a godsend that chain saws were not in evidence.

Any reader who has plants of R. arboreum (Schilling 2649) in their gardens can gain some small comfort from the fact that my ARS distributed seeds actually came from this threatened forest. Recipients have in their possession a small but precious representative of this lovely corner of the Himalayas where this superb and variable species grows over 80 feet tall. If ever there was an urgent case for a National Nature Reserve dedicated to this species surely it is on the flanks of the Dorandi Valley in Central Nepal.

Portering firewood near Braga,
Portering firewood near Braga,
Annapurna; Himalaya, C. Nepal.
Photo by Tony Schilling

Elsewhere, especially in the drier inner valleys of the Everest and Langtang National Park, the dwarf rhododendrons of the high alpine scrub are under similar pressures. These alpine scrubs which occur between 1 2,000 feet and 16,000 feet make up particularly delicate and vulnerable eco-systems. Low precipitation coupled to a low mean average temperature and a short growing season dictates the xerophytic nature of these dwarf woody plants. If left untouched this alpine vegetation would remain as a stable, slow growing alpine ecosystem, but unfortunately the pressures of population coupled to over-grazing and the increase of mountain tourism have all taken their toll and prove that the conservation policies of the National Parks are inadequate.

This fragile vegetation makes ideal kindling material, subjects such as R. setosum , R. anthopogon , R. lepidotum and Cassiope fastigiata being particularly favoured whilst the more robustly branched Juniperus indica makes ideal firewood for the Sherpa lodges cooking needs.

The resident ethnic Sherpa communities are permitted by law to cut these materials for their daily domestic needs but, with the large influx of lone trekkers (large trekking and mountaineering parties must carry in their own fuel), the Sherpa "needs" have become exaggerated out of all sustainable proportion. Consequently the once pristine swathes of vegetation are rapidly being cut at an alarming rate and, if nothing urgent is done to rectify the problem, the whole eco-system will soon be damaged beyond recovery. Tourism is a two-sided sword for, although it may boost some local economies, it also creates grossly inflated prices and corrupts ethnic integrity; indirectly it also destroys the habitat of dwarf rhododendrons and the many other complex biological entities which make up these specialised habitats.

Nepal boasts more than 300 endemics within its estimated 6,500 species including rhododendrons with extremely limited natural distributions such as R. lowndesii and R. cowanianum but, in spite of increasing environmental pressures, none seem to be under immediate threat of extinction. However, their actual habitats give very real cause for concern, for once these become permanently damaged the "life support system" which maintains the environment necessary for their stability will cease to function.

This argument also rings true for other ecological zones such as the cool temperate forests where the large-leaved rhododendron species thrive within the cool protective arboreal canopy. Once the trees are felled these specialised species usually decline as they generally resent exposure. Just as the tiger is pushed ever closer to extinction by the loss of its natural environment so also will specialised groups such as these be diminished by serious ecological changes. However, Nepal's story is not all negative. Various organizations such as the Sir Edmund Hillary Himalayan Trust and the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation are making significant efforts in order to address the problems of this poor and densely populated Himalayan kingdom. Efforts are being made towards realising sustainable development without further degradation of the environment. Proper forest management within national and community forests is recognised by the Nepalese government to be the most important issue. Coupled to this must be the encouragement of education programmes, research into alternative energy and the better organisation and control of tourism. One can but hope the enthusiasm of such bodies will prove infectious throughout the entire country and apathy does not take over from the initial verve.

It is all too easy to criticise countries such as Nepal but it is not only the developing nations which should come into the focus of our attention, for others could equally become involved if their present political policies relating to the environment were to lose direction. Hopefully the future of R. lochiae is currently secure in Queensland, Australia, as is R. catawbiense in the Appalachians of eastern United States and R. niveum in the forests of Sikkim. But if the protective canopy of their national protection was to be suddenly torn away the picture could change rapidly.

Ironically some rhododendrons have amazing powers of regeneration. Rhododendron decorum readily survives forest fires in China and, if left alone, will break back into growth from the base within a very short space of time, whilst closer to home R. ponticum is seemingly unstoppable in regions such as Snowdonia in N. Wales where it has escaped across many miles of hillside and become a serious weed; but these are exceptions rather than the rule.

So, after all this soul searching, what should we believe the true position to be? Are rhododendrons really under threat? The answer is that although many of them are becoming ever more vulnerable through the pressures of Man few at the time of writing are actually on the verge of extinction. One exception seems to be R. glanduliferum , which, according to recent reports (P. Cox, 1996), is down to approximately 30 plants in three localities in N.E. Yunnan.

Public awareness had come a long way since the first United Nations Environmental Conference was held in Stockholm in 1972. During the last 25 years there have been many other conferences of a similar nature, and an international network of specialist agencies had been built up - all dedicated to creating a more environmentally aware world. If only earnest conversation (not to mention report writing) could be transformed into effective conservation ! It is already seven years since the First Earth Summit was held in Rio where much was said about the state of the natural world, but still one has doubts that the long-term political will for global change is really there.

I recently asked a Chinese colleague what he felt about the subject. Was there a hopeful light at the end of the tunnel? Would mankind learn from past mistakes? His embarrassed reply to my questions were, not surprisingly, in the negative. With his usual wisdom the Dalai Lama of Tibet recently stated, "Ultimately the decision must come from the human heart, so I think the key point is to have a genuine sense of universal responsibility." Let us hope that the world will wake up to what the North American Indian and other native peoples with a similar sympathy for Nature have known for eons; our environment should be revered and respected and in order to survive we must live in harmony with it. This is a fundamental law of nature which we ignore at our peril. To put it in fiscal terms, we cannot continuously overspend without eventually going bust.

Only time will tell whether or not our vast but fragile rhododendron world will survive for others to enjoy. If it does not our successors will lay the blame on us for allowing it to disappear, for in this age of environmental awareness we can no longer make the argument that we didn't understand. If we fail, future generations will probably ask, "Did they really care enough? Why did they only talk about it while watching it happen?" If they are feeling benevolent they might just say, "Perhaps the problems were just too great for them to solve."

Tony Schilling, a member of the Scottish Chapter, has served as Deputy Curator, Wakehurst Place, England, and is an authority on the plants of Nepal.