Mt. Kanchenjunga, a spectacular snow-clad massif, and in fact the third highest mountain in the world with a peak at 28,169 feet, forms a part of the sacred Himalayan Mountain chain along the Indian-Nepalese border. Three of its five main peaks are located in the border between the Indian state of Sikkim and eastern Nepal, and the remaining two peaks are located in the Taplejung District of Nepal. The name of Mt. Kanchenjunga has a Tibetan origin meaning “Five Treasuries of the Great Snow”, probably referring to the five snow laden peaks of the mountain. The Mt. Kanchenjunga Conservation Area was established in Nepal in 1998, and the Khangchendzonga National Park was established in Sikkim, India. Both of these are mean to protect and conserve the Kanchenjunga ecosystem and its unique and diverse flora and fauna.
Since times immemorial, this majestic and awe-inspiring mountain has inspired many tales, fables, and stories in Himalayan folklore. The locals have also associated the Mt. Kanchenjunga with mythical powers. Until 1852, the mountain was revered as the highest peak of the world. However, calculations by the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India revealed that Mt. Everest was in fact taller than Mt. Kanchejunga, and further studies later proved that Mt. K2 also surpassed the mountain in altitude as well. Hence, the world settled with the fact that Mt. Kanchenjunga was the third highest peak in the world. In May of 1955, two British mountaineers, Joe Brown and George Band, were the first to successfully climb the mountain. However, as per their promise to the Chogyal, the head of a Sikkimese dynasty, they did not complete their ascent to the summit, stopping their climb a short distance before reaching the summit. This was to pay respect to mighty nature and leave her unconquered. From then on, every climber of the mountain has respected this tradition, and thus set an example of human reverence for the elements of powerful nature.
Mt. Kanchenjunga hosts a large number of glaciers, which are seen radiating from the mountain in all directions. The four most notable glaciers of the mountain are the Kanchenjunga, Yalung, Talung, and Zemu, whose melting ice feeds the Himalayan rivers of Arun, Kosi, and Teesta. These rivers form lifelines for the millions of people based along their respective basins. Conservation of the glaciers is thus crucial to the well-being of these people. Besides the glaciers, the forests and grasslands of Mt. Kanchenjunga are an ecological treasure in and of themselves, housing plants and animals unique to the ecosystem. Trekkers, naturalists, and wildlife lovers alike are attracted to the region each year to revel in the beauty of nature, and to spot rare and endangered animals and birds in the unique mountain habitats. However, strict protective measures restrict the tourism industry in this region, and thusly climbing and trekking activities are also limited to only certain regions of Mt. Kanchenjunga.
Mt. Kanchenjunga and its surrounding landscapes, with their varying topographies and climatic patterns, serve as excellent habitats for a large variety of plant and animal species. The Terai-Duar grasslands occupy the base of the mountain landscape, and these are endowed with an abundant wealth of native flora and fauna. Bengal tigers, Indian leopards, the one-horned rhinoceros, and Asian elephants are just some of the famous mammalian species of this ecoregion. With an increase in altitude and alterations in temperature and rainfall patterns therein, the vegetation pattern also keeps changing. As one moves up the mountains, the Eastern Himalayan temperate broad-leaved forest type of vegetation is found in the lower reaches of this part of the Himalayas. It is an ecosystem consisting of evergreen and deciduous trees, and a rich diversity of such fauna as red pandas, Assamese macaques, clouded leopards, Himalayan black bears, the Himalayan tahr, the musk deer, and Himalayan blue sheep. Above this forest belt lies the Eastern Himalayan sub-alpine coniferous forests, with its own distinct flora and fauna. Juniper, willow, birch, and fir are some of the common plants growing in this ecoregion. Gradually, the coniferous belt gives way to Alpine meadows and scrubland, and finally to moss- and lichen-covered Alpine deserts. These lead right in to the ice- and snow-clad summit of Mt. Kanchenjunga.
Threats and Disputes
The Himalayan ecosystem, including Mt. Kanchenjunga, is facing a wide variety of threats, largely imposed by human interventions and activities in this region. Slash and burn agricultural practices and cattle grazing are wreaking havoc on the vegetation of the region. Large scale felling of trees for the extraction of timber, firewood, and medicines are also leading to massive deforestation. Though unintended, the pressures from the tourism and mountaineering industries operating in this region are also taking their own tolls on the ecosystem. There are frequent reports of poaching of the mammalian species of the ecosystem, notably including the Bengal tiger and one-horned rhinoceros, for the illegal trading of their body parts for profit. Above all of this, the effects of global warming and climate change threaten to gradually melt the glaciers of Mt. Kanchenjunga, along with other major glaciers of the Himalayan system. This likely leading to a possible catastrophic scenario, and one potentially involving mass scale flooding of lowland areas in the beginning as they rapidly melt, followed by elongated periods of drought thereafter as the glaciers are depleted of their freshwater resources as the meltwater runs off.