Vulnerable at 14,000 feet: Tso Moriri Lake, Ladakh
Ladakh is a famous tourist destination, gaining recognition from people all over the world, and accruing names such as the ‘Cold Desert’ for its unique topography and climate. Though the place is teeming with sights of almost utopian origin, what places Ladakh on people’s bucket list are, more often than not, the majestic lakes that lie at such an impressive altitude. Some of these highly sought after lakes are, Pangong Tso, Tso Moriri, and Tso Kar, with a few others nestled carefully in this Trans Himalayan biogeographic region. Of these, Tso Moriri is deemed to have the highest importance in terms of avifaunal variety as well as species diversity surrounding the lake area, both plants and animals. Though species abundance is less, i.e. less number of individuals per species are present in the area, when compared to lakes in Kashmir, still the few that are, have substantial importance in maintaining Ladakh’s overall biodiversity. Tso Moriri is a brackish lake, slightly salty, with snow melt as its primary inflow during summer. It is also the largest among all lakes that are present entirely in Ladakh. Moriri Lake is a part of the Tso Moriri Wetland Conservation Reserve which was designated, on 19 August 2002, as a Ramsar Site.
Tso Moriri, although, is a low productive ecosystem but despite that, the lake and its catchment proffers wide range of support to the wild and humans alike. Livestock production increases when migratory herders, called the Changpas, arrive from Tibet with their sheep, yak, horses and goats for temporary habitation in the area. The nearest civilization is Korzok dependent on the lake for livelihood and trade. The department of Animal Husbandry has encouraged sale and use of Pashmina wool, so people living in and around Tso Moriri indulge in livestock production for increasing revenue. Apart from this, small but a highly unique variety of birds and mammals are supported by Tso Moriri and its surrounding marshes. Some of the commonly found species are Black-necked cranes, Bar-headed geese, Great crested grebe, Tibetan gazelle, Lynx, Great Tibetan sheep, hares, marmots, Tibetan ass, Snow leopard and Tibetan wolf. The lake, with a depth of 344 feet, supports Potamogeton species (vegetation) in its shallower regions. Baptized as a Ramsar site for being the key breeding ground to a number of migratory avian species and home to endemic vulnerable fauna, Tso Moriri has an unparalleled ecological diversity.
With increase in the number of tourists during peak visiting season, i.e. from May to September, environmentalists garner that pollution levels continually surge up. Single-use plastic has made it to this serene high-altitude lake causing imminent threat to biodiversity. Unchecked production of livestock grazing near the lake pastures has increased erosion thus, reducing capability of the region to support ecological niches, specific areas where individual species thrives, especially wild hares and marmots dependent on it. Grazing has also led to decrease in biomass around the lake. Jeep safaris approaching close to the breeding grounds, high influx of tourists, and domesticated dogs disrupt reproduction of a number of avifaunal and mammalian species. Construction of additional roads, to maintain connectivity, has also caused detriment to the lake and its marshes. And to top it off, garbage disposal facilities are lacking around Tso Moriri, further instigating pollution.
Conservation efforts till now
The WWF, Department of Wildlife, Indo-Tibetan Border Patrol, local Korzok population, and the Wildlife Institute of India, have been the front-runners in conservation efforts started to protect Tso Moriri. An example of sustainable tourism and development has been set by these institutions. However, the situation may turn unfavourable if efforts such as these are not continued. Tso Moriri, being a highly fragile ecosystem, deserves protection from every member of the dependent community and wildlife protection organisations. Situated at 14,836 feet above mean sea level, Tso Moriri or the Mountain Lake is a Sacred Gift for a Living Planet, a declaration made by its local community at the Annual Conference held at the beginning of the 21st century in Nepal. By believing that gifts of nature protect life on Earth, true conservation can be achieved undeterred in the face of any calamity.