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You are here: Home Archive 2016 Miehe, Georg; Pendry, Colin (eds.) and Chaudhary, R. P. (ass. ed.): Nepal. An introduction to the natural history, ecology and human environment of the Himalayas.

Miehe, Georg; Pendry, Colin (eds.) and Chaudhary, R. P. (ass. ed.): Nepal. An introduction to the natural history, ecology and human environment of the Himalayas.

Book review Erdkunde 70 (2) 2016, 195-197 by Ole R. Vetaas

Miehe, Georg; Pendry, Colin (eds.) and Chaudhary, R. P. (ass. ed.): Nepal. An introduction to the natural history, ecology and human environment of the Himalayas. A companion to the Flora of Nepal. VII and 561 pp., numerous figs. and tables. Royal Botanic Garden, Edingburgh 2015

This book is a companion volume to the ongoing production of the Flora of Nepal. The Republic of Nepal, located in the middle of the Himalayas, has a globally very high plant diversity and the flora will therefore be published in many volumes (10). Three volumes have been completed and whilst the remainder are still in progress, the companion to the Flora of Nepal will explicitly explain why the Himalayas are a biodiversity hotspot.
The book contains 579 pages and has many wonderful and informative pictures, diagrams and maps. The two main editors, Miehe and Pendry, have complementary qualities. The former belongs to the classic empirical school of geography (Philipps University Marburg) and the latter is a taxonomist from Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, the world centre of excellence in plant life of the Himalayas. The third editor, Chaudhary, is a taxonomist and conservation biologist from Nepal (Dept. of Botany, Tribhuvan University). Together these three editors have done a tremendous job editing manuscripts from over forty other authors (mainly from Nepal and Germany) into a total of 17 chapters, with numerous subchapters.
The original aim, as stated by the editors (pg. iii), was to create a “concise overview of the physical and biotic environment of Nepal and the Himalayas.” However, a short and concise overview has not been produced, rather an overwhelming documentation of the physical, biological and anthropogenic environment in Nepal is presented, which at times are extremely rich in details.
The target groups are naturalist, students, and researchers within the natural environment, but the book is probably most useful for scientists who have some prior knowledge of the Himalayas. This group will find a fantastic source of information on climate, plants, and biogeographical and ecological processes in space and time, which may suit the companion flora volumes.
The book can be divided in three to four main sections: (i) the physical environment, (ii) flora, fauna and vegetation types, and (iii) ecology in the broadest sense, including land use, the use of plants, anthropogenic landscape, and the last chapter deals with nature and environmental protection. There are also chapters on mushrooms and animals, as well as an overview of the many floristic expeditions of past centuries led by for instance N. Wallach, Sir J. D. Hooker, and C. Troll to name a few.
The book provides a thorough, detailed and comprehensive description of the natural geographic aspects of the Himalayas, and draws some lines and parallels to similar sub-/tropical mountain ranges. The editors place the Himalayas in the tropical biome, which is not strictly correct with respect to latitudinal location (>27o north), but the lowland flora has many species belonging to tropical genera and families common to the sub-Indian continent as well as Indochina. However, the book is at times extremely detailed, and it may had been an advantage if one had used more referees to facilitate a more concise overview of the different topics. In spite of this detailed approach, this book includes digital maps, photographs and graphic shapes of the highest quality that describe both the physical, biological and geographic reality in a very satisfactory manner.
The first section of the physical environment (geology, landforms and climate) is very informative. The authors explain, among other things, the important role of the monsoon climate for soil, vegetation, and the people whose livelihood depend directly from primary production. Unfortunately, the language in this part is, to some extent, too technical and sometimes difficult to access, in particular the meteorological part. In this section one also finds almost too many details, such as ‘weather-charts’ from one day in one place, the same goes for ‘plant community tables’ in chapter 16. Those who are interested in these details will probably search and find them in the original German literature, such as PhD theses and professorial monographs.
One of the main chapters describes the vegetation types (16); it is very well written and provides a nice overview of the many different vegetation types including all the diversity of forest types found in the various elevation zones. It does also emphasize the difference between dry-interior valleys and the dominant monsoon influenced vegetation. This chapter also has a well-organized structure with eight points (key concepts e.g. distribution, habitat, disturbance classes), which provides an outline for each unit described. This makes it easy to identify what you are particularly interested in. The chapter has a dynamic approach, and it does make an attempt to pinpoint some indicators of the magnitude of disturbance. It is therefore strange that the outdated ‘climax-term’ (≈ potential ‘natural vegetation’) is used in this context. However, with so many authors from different academic cultures it is of course difficult to present a coherent ecological view. The terminology used is, except for the climax-term, in line with common ecological literature, but it is difficult to understand why the well-established Nepalese geographical concept ‘mid-hills’ is replaced with ‘midlands’.
The main chapter, dealing with the flora and biogeography, provides an excellent ‘up-to-date’ overview of current knowledge. The Flora chapter is, of course, particularly well refined and presents a lot of new and interesting knowledge for those who do not deal with plant systematics daily. Particularly interesting are the evolutionary and biogeographic components that try to provide a ‘state of the art’ of the origin the Himalayas in relation to immigration and evolution of plant groups (clades). Here it is best to forget everything you have seen and read in previous textbooks, because the authors elegantly demonstrate that the palynological findings and the biogeographic interpretations do not point towards anything nearby a consensus, neither the timing of the collision between the Eurasian and the Indian subcontinent or how many different phases this process has undergone.
In this section there is also a whole chapter on mycota (mushrooms) and fauna, especially birds and invertebrates. The latter may seem a little bit out of context as this primarily companion a flora, but it is more difficult to understand the relevance of the subchapter on language groups in Indochina. It is not easy to pinpoint anything missing in this comprehensive book, but I would have liked to have seen a separate sub-chapter on introduced plants that may also have indicated the few but dangerous invasive plants. This is an important issue in relation to conservation strategy, which could have been discussed in relation to issues of land use and its changes that are nicely described in a separate chapter (13). In this chapter the vegetation, climate and agriculture are described as a dynamic interplay, and clearly show how dynamic the different vegetation types in chapter 16 actually are. The authors highlight two key factors behind the positive reversal of deforestation in Nepal: The successful program ‘Community Forestry’, which gives ordinary villagers domain and user rights of the nearby forest, and prevent the local and urban elite to clear-cut forests that are a vital resource for both livestock and for the making of natural fertilizer for the agriculture fields. In addition, the massive labour migration taking place to urban centres in general and to the Persian Gulf in particular has reduced the demand for forest and therefore the forests are expanding in most part of Nepal, with the exception of the lowlands (Tarai). In this context it is appropriate to highlight the last chapter on conservation ecology (17), which is very informative and gives a concise overview of the historical transformation of the underlying policy for environmental and nature protection: from classic national parks segregated from people (e.g. ‘Chitwan National Park’) to conservation of anthropogenic landscape with both the use and protection (e.g. ‘Annapurna Conservation Area’). It is clear that the assistant editor, who has authored several published papers on conservation strategies, has taken a leading role in this outstanding closing chapter.
All in all, this is a wonderful source of biological and geographical information, with a complementary bibliography where one can find scientific background material. It is illustrated in an exemplary manner that makes the text more accessible. Let us hope that this book provides inspiration for the future generations and stimulate more research on the Himalayas in general and Nepal in particular, and that the forthcoming floras in the pipeline will be finished before this book is outdated.

Ole R. Vetaas
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