What is Biodiversity?
Biodiversity is the short form of biological diversity. Broadly speaking the term 'biodiversity' encompasses all species of plants, animals, micro-organisms, their genetic materials and the ecosystems of which they are part- many of which have developed over millennia of evolutionary history. Global biodiversity is usually divided into three fundamental categories: genetic diversity, species diversity and ecosystem diversity. Here we will mainly deal with species diversity for convenience.
The Tibetan Plateau towers over the central part of the continent of Eurasia. It is bounded by the Himalayan mountain chain in the south, and connected with the Altyn Tagh and Gangkar Chogley Namgyal Mountains in the north. Its western part merges with the Karakoram mountains and its eastern part slopes downward more gradually with Minyak Gangkar and Khawakarpo Mountains.
Tibetan Plateau is the highest and largest plateau on the earth. The area occupied by the Tibetan Plateau is more than 2.5 million square km. Its average elevation exceeds (13,000 feet), and many of the peaks reach beyond 8000m, Mt. Everest, with 8,848m, being the world's tallest. In fact Tibet has all fourteen of the world's 8000-meter peaks (greater than 26,259 feet in elevation). Tibetan Plateau consist of a variety of landscapes ranging from lunar landscapes in some parts of southern Tibet to lush and thick tropical forests in eastern Tibet.
Geologists tell us that Indian sub-continent, about 17 million years ago moved towards the central Asian landmass, forming the highest plateau on the earth- the Tibetan Plateau.
Based on natural topography, Tibet can be roughly divided into four parts, valley and drier regions in the south, plateau in the north, and high mountains with river valleys in the southwest and wet forest regions in the east. Climatic zone varies from arid polar alpine ice-snow zone to Humid low mountain tropical zone from north to south.
The unique geo-morphological configuration, the complex land conditions, the diversified climate and the unique geological evolution has created the Tibetan Plateau to become a crucial center for the composition and differentiation of mountain species in the world, especially of boreal flora and fauna.
The hydrological net in Tibet is formed by inner and outer river systems. The inner rivers and streams usually run in specific seasons and form many lakes and ponds in the basins of the Plateau. The Tibetan Plateau is dotted with more than fifteen thousand lakes. The major lakes are Tso-ngonpo (Kokonor lake) -the largest lake, Namtso (Tengri Nor), Yadrok Yumtso (Yamdrok lake)and Mapham Tso (Mansarowar lake).
The outer river systems mainly rises in the east and southeast Tibet. Tibet is the principal source of ten major rivers of Asia: Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra), Satluj, Indus, Yangtze, Salween, Arun, Mekong, Karnali, Yellow River, Drukchu and numerous tributaries flowing into Asia. These rivers and their tributaries are the life-blood of millions of people in the above continent. Our research figure shows that Tibet sustains the lives of 47 percent of the world population and 85 percent of Asia's total population.
The vast land surface of the Tibetan Plateau has wide climatic variations caused by the unique plateau atmospheric circulation system due to strong heat-island effect and the great difference in elevation. Such unusual natural conditions give rise to a diverse natural habitats for complex species of flora and fauna. The areas of eastern and south eastern Tibet receive monsoon showers during the month of June-September and have abundant plant and animal species, many of which are rare and endangered.
The Plateau is the differentiation center for Rhododendron, Primula, Saussurea, and Pedicularis. There are altogether 400 species of Rhododendron on the Plateau, which make up about 50 percent of the world's total species.
Many endemic plant species such as Circaeaster, Himiphrogma, and Chionocharis, Milula, Cyananthus, Leptocodon, Maharanga, Pegia, Chamasium and many others are found on the Tibetan Plateau.
In fact, it is important to remind that some exotic flora in the West such as Rhododendron, saxifraga, paeonia, were brought from Tibet by early travellers such as British Botanist Kingdon Ward. He travelled to Tibet in search of exotic plants in 1919.
Leonard Clark, the American adventurer in 1948 returned from Tibet with valuable botanical samples. He wrote, "Surprisingly, our scientists estimated that among the basic foundation stones of this inherent Mongol power for war is grass, strong grass converted into excellent animal flesh- among the finest in the world. I was taking grass samples and seeds, hoping to transfer its power to the pastures of America and Europe."
According to Wu and Feng (1992) on the Tibetan Plateau there are over 12,000 species of 1,500 genera of vascular plants, accounting for over half of the total genera found in China. There are over 5,000 species of 700 genera of fungi, accounting for 82.4 percent of China; 210 species belonging to 29 families of mammals, accounting for 65.90 percent of the total families found in China.
There are over 532 species of birds in 57 families accounting for approximately 70.37 percent of the total families found in China and 115 species of fishes, which make 6.28 percent of China's total.
Based on Ellenbeg's scheme (1973) for determining world ecosystems, the Tibetan Plateau contains all the large ecosystems of the macro-ecosystem-terrestrial ecosystem: forest, scrub, steppe desert, and aquatic formations. Such ecosystems are usually fully displayed only on a continental scale.
The distribution of plant and animal species on the Plateau is extremely uneven due to differences in topography and climate. For example the Chang Thang (Tibetan for Northern Plateau) occupies a quarter of the Tibetan Plateau, but hosts only one-tenth of the total species found on the Plateau. However, the Himalayan and Hengduan Mountains i.e. the regions of Khawakarpo mountains in south and south eastern Tibet contain less than one-fifth of the Tibetan Plateau, but is home to over 80 percent of the total species living on the Plateau.
The comprehensive uses of various plants and animal products and by-products on the Tibetan Plateau can not be justified in a brief article. However following is a gist of various benefits:
The basic needs of the people in Tibet are derived from plants and animal products or by-products. The main food crops that grow in Tibet are barley, wheat, maize, mustard, millet, sorghum, buckwheat, and rice. Tsampa (roasted barley) is the staple diet of the Tibetan people.
The main vegetables that grow well are cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, radish, turnip, peas, celery, carrot, potato, spinach, chives, kidney beans, tomatoes, squash, coriander and others. The abundant bright sunshine is good for vegetable growing. It is not rare for a radish or cabbage to grow to a dozen kilograms, a potato to half or one kilogram. These days people grow fresh vegetables in greenhouses to provide vegetables throughout the four seasons, especially in the Lhasa areas.
Fruits trees that grow well in Tibet are apple, chestnut, orange, walnut, apricot, peach, plum, cherry, banana and pear. Strawberry, grapes, rhubarb, and mushrooms also grow in abundance.
Tea is cultivated in Metok, Zayul, Tramo, Nyingtri and certain areas of Amdo and Kham province of Tibet. The main tea species cultivated are black tea, green tea, reddish-bracted, small-clustered, rape-flowered, large-leaved and small-leaved tea (Zheng Du and et al, 1990).
Clothing for people also come directly from animals and plants. For example cotton clothes from cotton plants, woollen garments from wool producing animals, silk from silk-worm. Much of the traditional Tibetan clothes are derived from animals such as yak, sheep and goat. Indian hemp can be woven into silk materials to produce first rate clothing, and the list goes on and on.
The trees and bamboos, which are used for building houses of all shapes and sizes are derived directly from the forests. The forest products are also utilized in varieties of daily use items such as furniture, tools, and in paper industries. China sell Tibetan timber in the international market and domestically use them in building bridges, ships, boats, railway slippers, and others.
According to Dr. Tenzin Choedak, senior personal physician to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, there are over 2000 medicinal plants in Tibet. These plants have an immense potential to cure various dreaded and common ailments that afflict human beings such as dysentery, cancer, diabetes, ulcer, anaemia, tuberculosis, malaria, and many other killer diseases. For example, Taxus wallichiana, a tree found in the forest regions of Tibet, is the source of allopathic drug taxol, which is regarded as one of the most effective remedy for cancer.
Some medicinal plants of the Tibetan Plateau, which are widely used in allopathic, homeopathic, Tibetan and Chinese medicines are; Gastroda elata, Angelica sinensis, Coptis tectoides, Picrorhiza scrophulariiflora, Rheum officinalis, Magnolia officinalis, Terminalia chebula, and Liolyophora phalloides.
Angong-niu-huang pill, a traditional Chinese medicine used as a relief for critical cases, is made from the grass stones formed in the gall bladder of yaks! Musk has very high medicinal value, being an essential component of some traditional Chinese drugs, like liushen (six-god) pills and musk ointment and in perfumery.
From 1987 to 1992 (six years), in the region of Amdo Golok in eastern Tibet alone, China extracted medicinal plants worth: Rheum palmatum (chumtsa) 1017.5 tons; Frittilaria sp.(abhika) over 30 tons; Cordyceps sinensis (Yartsa Gunbu) 9,105 kg; Gentiana robusta (Kiche) 36 tons. In thirty years from Amdo Golok alone, Chinese have extracted chumtsa 6,105 tons, abika 180 tons Yartsa gunbu 54.9 tons, deer antlers 28.5 tons (Palbar, 1994).
Various food grains and berries are used in brewery industries in making alcoholic drinks such as wines, beer, whiskey and others. Government of China has produced a new market orientated barley beer in Tibet on a commercial scale.
The endless verdant grasslands, turquoise lakes, meandering rivers and numerous wildlife in Tibet never fail to impress a visitor, filling his/her mind with host of inspiration and joy.
This soul soothing attraction provide flora and fauna with an immense aesthetic value.
Plants and animals have immense educational value. They educate man about the natural world and man himself. For example by studying the natural habits of wild animals and what medicinal plants they consume, helps us in understanding the secrets medicinal uses of certain plants and animals.
Tibetans believe that there is an intricate relationship between the living world and human beings. Tibetans have been effective stewardship of the environment due primarily to their belief in the sanctity of living beings. To them every life is precious and refrain oneself from harming other living beings. One of the Tibetan spiritual text Pungsang Sutra says, "Taking your body as an example, don't harm other living beings."
Tibetan Buddhist scriptures explain that the earth is the noe (container) and all the things on this earth -biotic and abiotic elements as the chue (contents). Thus if the container is broken and destroyed it can not contain the contents, similarly is the case with our mother earth, which is the container sustaining the lives of countless living creatures including the lives of human beings.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama says in his famous poem on the environment:
"In the remoteness of the Himalayas
It is the innate or inherent value of any wildlife. The value of its mere existence and value of being itself. In short intrinsic value is that value that resides 'in' nature and that is unrelated to human beings altogether. Put another way, if there were no humans, some people would argue that animals, habitats, etc. would still have 'intrinsic value'.
Copyright 1998-2005, Tibet Environmental Watch (TEW)