Floral and Faunal Diversity of Ladakh

By Reach Ladakh Correspondent Leh, Aug 21, 2014
Leh :

Ladakh, the northern most part of India, a region in Jammu & Kashmir covers more than 92000 Sq. Kms (more than 70%) geographical area of the state.  It is the highest inhabited plateau of the world known for its inaccessible remoteness and cold climatic conditions with human population approximately 150 000, is one of the least populated area in the Indian Subcontinent.  

Ladakh forms part of the trans-Himalayas, a vast area of high altitude semi-desert and steppe. The Himalayan Ranges immediately to the north of The Great Himalayan Range are called Trans-Himalayas, which stretch for a distance of about 1000km in east-west direction. The Zanskar, the Ladakh, the Kailash and the Karakoram are the main ranges of the trans Himalayan system. Ladakh constitute over 80% of the trans-Himalayan tract in India.  Indian cold deserts comes under the Trans-Himalayan zone and the major parts of  Indian cold desert are confined to Ladakh which covers an area of about 68,321 sq km followed by Lahaul-Spiti in Himachal Pradesh. Two major mountain chains, the mighty Himalayas and Karakoram, demarcate its natural borders towards the south and the north respectively, whereas the Zanskar and Ladakh ranges run through it cut by the flow of river Indus.

India is one of the twelve mega biodiversity rich countries of the world which together supports nearly 60-70% of the world's biodiversity. Ten bio-geographic zones represent the biodiversity of India and Ladakh is considered as one of the zone. The zone has been further sub-divided between the Ladakh mountain (bio-geographic zone 1A) which includes the high ranges and valleys of Zanskar, Indus, Shyok-Nubra and Lahul Spiti(60% of the zone)and the Indian portion of the Tibetan Plateau(bio-geographical zone 1B, the remaining 40%) constituted by the Changthang region of eastern Ladakh and a small area of Sikkim north of Kanchen Jonga.

India's 4.77% of geographical area is under Protected Area (PAs) Network, which is one of the most extensive networks of the world and is represented by 96 National Parks and about 600 Sanctuaries. In J&K state, an area of about 15,806.75 sq.km is under the Protected Area Network, which comprises of 5 National Parks, 14 Wildlife Sanctuaries and 37 Conservation Reserves. Out of which, Hemis National Park and two large Wildlife Sanctuaries (WS): the Karakoram (Nubra-Shyok) WS and Changthang Cold Desert WS are located in Ladakh. Besides, there are many smaller wildlife sanctuaries or PAs in Ladakh, such as; Changchenmo WS, Dras/Shaa Kharboo WS, Bodhkarboo WS, Brako WS, Nindum WS, Kanji WS, Rangdum WS, Rizong WS, Lugnag WS, Shang WS. Ladakh has the largest PAs in India; approximately 15% of Ladakh's landmass has PAs status. The apparently large PAs coverage is balance by the fact that Ladakh does not have any designated reserve forest that could act as buffer zones. Moreover, a major portion of the PAs (up to 60%) consists of glaciers and rock faces devoid of vegetation and of little use to wildlife. Large PAs are required in desert-steppe eco-systems as much of the endangered mega-fauna may undertake seasonal migrations or need vast areas to maintain viable populations.

Ladakh region, comprising two districts namely, Leh and Kargil includes valley, mountains and glaciers. It is the westernmost extension of the vast Tibetan Plateau, covering  an altitude ranges from 2700 to 7650m and more than 85% of the area of Ladakh part lies above 5000m above mean sea level. Physiographycally, the entire region may be classified in five major valleys: Indus, Nubra, Changthang, Suru and Zanskar which lies along the major rivers such as Indus, Shyok, Nubra, Suru and Zangskar rivers.


On the account of its geographical location and in spite of low biological productivity and sparse vegetation cover, Ladakh host a surprisingly diverse fauna. Ladakh's fauna exhibits several interesting characteristics which have evolved as adaptations to the region's extreme climatic conditions such as seasonal migration and herbination, as well as, amongst mammals, thick fur, thick and bushy tails, large nostril.

The western and eastern Regions of Ladakh differ significantly in the distribution of mammals. While the eastern region of Ladakh is represented by mammals typical of the Tibetan Plateau, the western region is represented by the Himalayan and Central Asian Species. Ladakh, together with neighbouring areas of Tibet, is probably unique on a global scale for having preserved to this day the whole assemblage of its wild herbivores and predators alongside their domesticated relatives. Excluding the lesser rodents, insectivorous (mice, rats, shrews) and chiropterans (bats), 36 species of mammals occur in Ladakh. This includes 8 ungulates, 11 rodents, 2 hares, 5 mouse hares, 3 Felids, 3 Canids, 1 Ursid and 4 Mustelids

a) Ungulates:
Eight species of wild Ungulates are found in Ladakh, six of them are threatened globally. Tibetan Gazelle (Goa) is most under threat is on the verge of extinction. Another species severely under threat is the Great Tibetan Sheep (Nyan or Argali). The Asiatic Mouflon(Urial)is another threatened wild sheep.
Tibetan Wild Ass(Kiang), Siberian Ibex(Skin), Blue Sheep(Na), Great Tibetan Sheep(Nyan), Asiatic Mouflon-Urial (Sha), Tibetan Gazelle(Goa), Tibetan Antelope(Szos), Wild Yak(Dong) are the 8 ungulates.

b) Carnivores:
Snow Leopard (Shan,Tsabo), Lynx(Eyi), Pallas's Cat (Ribilik), Stoat(Lakimo) Pale or Mountain Weasel(Lakimo) , Himalayan Weasel(Lakimo), Otter(Chusham), Stone Marten(Kogar), Himalayan Brown Bear(Drinmo), Tibetan Wolf(Chanku),Tibetan Wild Dog( Pharra)Red Fox(Watse)

c) Lagomorphs:
Wooly Hare (Ribong), Cape Hare (Ribong),Black-Lipped Pikka (Zabra), Ladakh Pika (Zabra), Long-eared Pika (Zabra), Nubra Pika(Zabra), Royle's Pikka(Zabra).

d) Rodents:
Himalayan Marmot (Phia), Long Tailed Marmot (Phia),Ladakh Hamster, Grey or Migratory Hamster, Royle's Vole(Zabra),  Stoliczka's Vole(Zabra), Silvery Mountain Vole(Zabra), Yello-necked Field Mouse( Sabilik), Turkistan Rat( Sabilik),House Rat( Sabilik), House Mouse( Sabilik)

As in the case for higher mammals, Ladakh's bird diversity is impressive. Till date, about 309 avifaunal species have been recorded in Ladakh, representing 34 avian families. However, only around 110 species among them are known to breed regularly in the high-altitude cold desert environment of Ladakh. The unique inhabited is an important breeding and feeding ground for birds during the short and dry summer months. It also serves an important staging ground for birds while they are crossing the mighty Himalayan range during the spring and winter migrations. Four main groups of birds have been identified in Ladakh:

a) Resident Birds: consists of species adapted to high altitudes, often opportunistic feeders consuming seeds, shoots, fruits and especially during summer months, also insects.

b) Summer visiting Birds: Arriving in huge numbers from the South Asian plains and the Tibetan plateau, these birds use the high-altitude steppes, wetlands, meadows and fields as breeding ground during April and May. As winter arrives, they return to the warmer wintering areas.

c) Wintering Birds: represents the smallest group of visitors reaching Ladakh in October from northern breeding grounds. Due to harsh climate they are mainly found around villages and along the valley bottoms, near Indus borders and sunny areas.

d) Migrant Birds: comprise the biggest and most diverse group of all four, passing through Ladakh in spring and autumn. These birds remain in the region for a brief period of time and allow only short observation opportunities.

Ladakh also holds the distinction of being the only known breeding ground of Black-necked Crane in India which is the state bird of J&K. It can be sighted in the wetlands of eastern Ladakh.Typical areas of encounter are Tsokar, Puga, Staklung, Hanle, Chushul and some other wetlands.

III. HERPETOFAUNA (Amphibians and Reptiles)
In the Trans-Himalaya, amphibians and reptiles are represented by fewer species. But their diversity is unique. The surveys in the region have documented 4 species of amphibians and 11 species of reptiles so far.

a) 4 Amphibians:
European Green Toad (Spalba), Bufo Latastii (Scientific name(S), No English name (NEN), Spalba), Kamshmir Spade Foot Toas(Spalba) and Siachen Toad(Spalba).

b) 11 Reptiles:
Blyth's Toad Agama (Thangpelik), Toad Agama(Thangpelik), Himalayan Rock Laudakia( Galchik), Banded Gecko (Saldak),  C. Montium salsorum (S,NEN-Saldak), C.lawdernas (S,NEN-Saldak), Ladakh Skink(Gyalto), Himalayan Skink(Gyalto),Coluber rhodorachis(S,NEN-Rhul) Elaphe hodgsono(NEN,Rhul or Sbul)  and Common Rat Snake(Rhul or Sbul).

Fish faunal biodiversity is an indicator which is widely used for assessing the quality of aquatic water system. The cold desert of Ladakh is a catchment of the Indus River which supplies water to several million people in India and Pakistan. 32 species of fish occur in the rivers, streams and lakes of Ladakh, of which, most of them are cold water fishes and adapted to live in the freezing environment. Indus River has more number of fishes than Zanskar and Shoyok rivers.  

Kinnaur Snowtrout and Tibetan snowtrout are most common species in Ladakh. Most of the fishes which occur in the streams and rivers of Ladakh are playing a major role in controlling algae, insects and detritus materials in the water so that good quality of water is retained forever.

During summer the snow-trout are known to migrate up upstream for spawning. Fry and fingerlings grow in the clean water of the streams till winter and then they start to migrate to rivers as streams freeze in winter. Maintaining the water link between rivers and streams is crucial for the migration of the fishes of Ladakh.


The important insect orders of Ladakh regions are Butterflies, Moths, Flies and Bugs. Butterflies and Moths constitute a major group of insects of the region. So far 370 species of butterflies have been recorded from Ladakh.


To Mammals and their Habitats: Poaching for trophy or meat, retaliatory killings to reduce Human-wildlife conflicts, habitat loss and habitat degradation are the major threats.

To Birds: heavy regulated tourism, widespread plantation activities, over-exploitation and shrinking acreage of Sea Buckthorn are serious concerns.

To Herpertofauna: Off-road driving is founded to be one of a threat. These species build delicate burrows in gentle terrain and live inside them which collapse and kill individuals.

To Fishes: Stream water diverted placing stone across the streams for irrigation is a major threat. This act prevents the migration of fishes and disconnects water flow between streams and river. Hence 30% of Ladakh fishes are threatened.

To Insects: Illegal collections of butterflies and over grazing in the rangelands are serious threat.


Though relatively poor in species compared to areas of similar altitude in the main Himalayas, Ladakh's flora has a considerable biological interest, depicting, with its diversity of origin and endemic species, a high adaptability to extreme climatic conditions and biotic pressure.

Ladakh is rich repository of medicinal and aromatic plants. It is estimated that the Ladakh region may harbour close to 1,100 species of vascular plants and ferns. As many as 23 species of flowering plants are endemic to Ladakh. The western and eastern region of Ladakh differs significantly in terms of floral assemblages.


Ladakh comes under alpine and high alpine zones and is dominated by annual and perennial herbs, followed by few stunted shrubs and bushes. The vegetative growth starts at beginning of summer when the melting of snow provides abundant moisture. The flora is in full bloom in the month of August but starts disappearing by the end of September. The mountain slopes, meadows and alpine pasturelands give a spectacular display of flowers of cold desert barren mountains.

a) Alpine mesophytes: This zone is also characterized by high humidity and more rainfall. Eg Suru valley has such characteristic.

b) Oasitic vegetation: This type of vegetation is represented by a variety of exotic as well as indigenous species, growing near habitation, along water channels, streams, nullahs and in moist place. Plants of this zone are generally found near habitations like Kargil and Leh and are cosmopolitan.

c) Desert Vegetation: This zone is characterized by little or no rainfall, low humidity, extreme fluctuation of diurnal temperature and high velocity winds. Majority of plant species have long roots and have small leaves.


Adaptation to the environment by the potential flora of a region leads to certain changes in underground and aerial parts of plants for their survival. The vegetation of the cold desert Trans-Himalayas consists of a highly specialized group of plants with metabolic and reproductive strategies suited for maximizing their activity in harsh climatic conditions. The plant of high altitude cold deserts exhibits a number of ecological, morphological and physiological adaptations which help them to counteract the impact of harsh climate prevailing in Ladakh.

The following peculiarities in the plant parts have been observed in Ladakh:

a) Root System: The root system in most of the plant species is very deep and extensive in order to absorb water from depth, as this zone is known for aridity. Such root system also helps to withstand strong wings, snow blizzards and in escaping damage from subzero ambient winter temperature.

b) Growth Peculiarities: The vegetation is dominated by the herbs followed by a few stunted and much branched shrubs or bushes. The dwarf condition results from suppression of internodes due to slow growth and brief growing period, May-October, which may be correlated with extreme cold, high solar radiation and retardation of plant sap flow.

c) Physiological Specialization: The major physiological specialization in the high altitude plants is frost resistance. The freezing injury is mainly caused by the ice crystal formation within the cell. Adaptation is either in the forms of inhibition or reduction in the ice crystal formation.

d) Reproductive Strategies: The successful survival of a species in a given environment depends upon its effective mode of reproduction which helps the species for both multiplication and perennation during unfavourable periods. The reproduction and seed dispersal among the cold desert plants enable them to survive in sparse vegetation. Reproduction is carried out both by sexual and vegetative methods.


Nearly one third of the recorded flowering plants are used by Amchis for local medicine. Over100 other species have also come under threat due to extraction for fuel-wood, habitat degradation and loss.


Biodiversity of Ladakh, 2004 (Edited by Blaise Humbert-Dras and Sonam Dawa)
Status and distribution of Tibetan Antelope and Associate mammals, 2009 (Tahir Shawal and Jigmet Takpa)
Field Guide: Floral Diversity of Ladakh
Field Guide: Mammals of Ladakh
Field Guide: Birds of Ladakh
Bird & Mammals of Ladakh, Otto Pfister, 2004
Ladakh, Land of the passes, 2006