Sessa Orchid Sanctuary Orchid Conservation

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  • The Sessa Orchid Sanctuary, located in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh, was the first and until recently the only protected area in the country dedicated to the preservation of naturally growing orchids.
  • Notified in 1989, the Sessa Orchid Sanctuary is home to 236 species of orchids, including several rare and endemic, with unique botanical value, and the sanctuary has also been used as an ex-situ conservation site for endangered orchids.
  • While parts of the Orchid Sanctuary have been disrupted by works on the Trans-Arunachal Highway, indigenous communities in Sessa have been working with forestry officials to give it a makeover in the hope that the sanctuary will provide benefits. community-based ecotourism opportunities.

Located in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh, the 100 square kilometer Sessa Orchid Sanctuary is home to over 200 species of orchids, including several endemic and rare species. An important component of the Kameng Protected Area Complex (KPAC), the rolling orchid habitats of Sessa were declared an Orchid Sanctuary, the very first in India, in 1989. The Himalayas of Arunachal (formerly known as the Himalayas of ‘Assam) has been described by botanists as a treasure house of orchids. Indeed, Arunachal Pradesh, with around 622 recorded orchid species, or 40% of the total orchid species found in the country, is known as the ‘Orchid Paradise of India’.

Currently, home to 236 naturally growing orchid species, at least five of them endemic including Epipogium sessanum, the one named after the sanctuary, Sessa is a Conservation International Himalayan biodiversity hotspot.

Earlier this year, members of the local Sessa community, belonging to indigenous communities, collaborated with forestry officials from the Khellong Forestry Division to give the shrine a long-awaited facelift – a newly constructed promenade leading to the renovated entrance. and a kilometer-long trail for orchid lovers. With the shrine spanning the lands of indigenous communities and local tribal communities such as the Bugun, Miji and Hrusso with rich ethnobotanical traditions, points converged to elevate the status of the protected area under the collaborative effort.

“The Sessa Orchid Sanctuary and its surrounding forests are an orchid paradise in addition to being rich in wildlife. But it was a lost site from an ecotourism point of view and it lacked a makeover. With the new promenade and the entrance in place, people notice it easily, ”says Tsering Meiji, Gram Panchayat member from Sessa village.

Emphasizing the importance of habitat, Ankit Kumar, deputy chief forest conservator of Arunachal Pradesh, who oversaw the facelift of the shrine, says that Sessa has hardly a comparable counterpart in India and, as a such, deserves more attention.

A sanctuary of rare and endangered orchids

In 1940, British botanist and explorer Francis Kingdon-Ward noted the botanical importance of the species of plants and orchids found in the region in The Geography Journal after exploring the region, “My Assam Himalayan botanical collections (Balipara Frontier Tract) number nearly a thousand species, including an unknown number of new species, as well as many plants of horticultural value … the discovery of many Chinese species so far in western Himalayan range. It is clear that Assam and northern Burma form the link between the more strictly Himalayan element as in Sikkim, and the purely Chinese element developed in Yunnan; so that plants such as Magnolia globosa, Rhododendron euchaites, R. bullatum, R. megeratum, Primula wattii, P. dickieana, Cleihra delavayi, and many more are bridging the gap.

Epipogium sessanum, endemic to Sessa and named after the sanctuary, flowers once a year; its white flowers grow six inches and wither in 24 hours. Satyrium nepalens, another interesting species, is found in the sanctuary and many believe that a scent of musk can be extracted from it, which in turn could stem the hunt for the precious musk deer.

A detailed map of the Sessa Orchid Sanctuary. Photo by Jambey Tsering.

In addition to housing naturally growing orchids, the sanctuary was also used as a ex situ endangered orchid species conservation site. For example, Acanthophippium striatum Lindley, a rare terrestrial orchid, known locally as the ‘striped orchid,’ found in community forests near Sessa-Zero Point threatened by highway construction, was introduced to the sanctuary last year. of Sessa orchids as part of a program ex situ conservation program. A 2020 study found that this subtropical orchid species is very sensitive to environmental changes and pollution and is now threatened with extinction, prompting this conservation initiative.

“Considering the rarity and the threatening status of this species, we chose this species as part of an ex-situ conservation program of rare and threatened species and collected live plants from road construction sites. from Sessa-Zero Point in West Kameng District and introduced into Sessa Orchid Sanctuary. The sanctuary has a microclimate suitable for orchid development, “says Jumter Nyorak of Orchid Research Center, Tippi.

A 2020 study published in Phytotaxons reported the discovery of a new species of orchid, Spathoglottis arunachalensis (Orchidaceae) in the Sessa Orchid Sanctuary. Jambey Tsering of the Tippi Orchid Research Center, who is a co-author of the study, said he found this unique plant with yellow flowers. Spathoglot population during a field visit to the Sessa Orchid Sanctuary in October 2016 and specimens of the species are now stored in the Orchid Herbarium in Tipi.

Spathoglot is one of the most endangered orchid groups with only 50 known species in the world. Only four species are found in India, of which the arunachalensis variety. Spathoglottis arunachalensis may be considered endemic to the region and assessed as critically endangered, ”Tsering said.

Threats and potentials

The sanctuary is threatened by the construction works of the highway. The habitat of new discoveries Spathoglottis arunachalensis along the southern edge of the shrine has been severely disrupted by construction work on the trans-Arunachal Pradesh highway, Tsering said.

Between 2016 and 2019, Tsering encountered the species at several locations along the southern edge of the sanctuary. “But recent explorations in these sites and adjacent areas have failed to locate the species, which is why the species has been dubbed”the lost Spathoglotte “He told Mongabay-India. The Tipi Orchid Research Center has announced a cash award of Rs. 10,000 for those who spot the species in its habitat and report it to the center.

A kilometer-long orchid trail is another new addition to the sanctuary, aimed at orchid lovers. Photo by Jyotirmoy Saharia.

Nevertheless, the positive point of the shrine, according to Ankit Kumar, is the support and enthusiasm of the local communities.

Meiji, the community leader, says members of the indigenous community have extensive knowledge of the flora and fauna of the sanctuary. “Our ancestors have protected these forests since time immemorial. They roamed these forests to hunt, for ritual purposes. They left us a repository of knowledge about the plants and animals of these forests.

He expressed the hope that indigenous communities would be able to get involved with the sanctuary in a way that would help them showcase their knowledge and stories about the forest and earn a living. “Ecotourism programs focused on indigenous communities like those at Singchung Bugun Community Reserve could be a model to emulate and it could work here in Sessa as well,” suggests Meiji. “We are happy to tell visitors the story of our forests that has been passed down to us from our ancestors.

Banner image: A bloom Dendrobium chrysanthemum inside the sanctuary. Photo by Jyotirmoy Saharia.

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