Because of the altitudes that vary right from sea level to summits that touch the skies, the flora and fauna naturally cover a wide and myriad spectrum. Nowhere in the world in such a small area can one find flora and fauna of all varieties – tropical to the alpine. Sikkim has one of the richest assemblages of habitat in the world.
Even in the seemingly lifeless northern plateau of Sikkim a dream-like vision of ducks and wild asses often greets the visitor. Sikkim’s botanical and zoological richness and diversity are awe-inspiring, boasting of more than 4000 species of plants and 30% of all the birds found in the Indian Sub-continent. No wonder Sikkim has been a dream of naturalists. Dr J. Hooker during the middle of the last century surveyed in the detail the botanical wealth of Sikkim and his findings were embodied in the publication Himalayan Journal which is still considered an authoritative document.
Dr Salim Ali an ornithologist has given a detailed account of birds in his book “The Birds of Sikkim”. Besides these, there are many other books available on the flora and fauna of Sikkim.
Distribution of Flora and Fauna
Sikkim can basically be divided into three zones. The tropical, from almost sea-level to about 1500 m, the temperate from 1500 m to 3500 m and the alpine above 3500m. Till about 3000 m, there are terraced farmlands in which rice, maize, barley and millet are grown. Sometimes even at high altitudes, vegetation grows defying the hostile surroundings. Cardamom, oranges, apples potatoes and ginger are grown in abundance in the state.
The lower altitudes towards the south harbour Jungle cats, Mongoose, House sparrows etc. The jungles of the south are teeming with plantains, bamboo, tree ferns, walnut, sal and oak. Orchids also abound in areas with moderate altitudes. In fact, orchids are the pride of Sikkim and there are almost 600 species of them in Sikkim. They come in a wide variety of colours and sizes. The most popular orchids of Sikkim are Cymbidiums, Vanda, Cattleya, Hookeriana, Dendrobium farmeri, and Dendrobium Amoenum. The variety Nobile Orchid (Dendrobiumnobile) has been declared the State Flower of Sikkim.
In the temperate zone, the fauna comprises of Common Langur, Leopard cats, Red Pandas, Musk deer, Himalayan Black Bears and Flying Squirrels. The flora consists of oak, cherry, laurel, chestnut, maple and birch.
In the arid cold alpine regions of Sikkim, roam the snow-leopard and wild ass amongst rhododendrons. There are about 30 species of Rhododendrons in Sikkim and are found above the height of 3000 m. The Rhododendron Grande is over 10 m tall whereas the Rhododendron Nivale grows barely a few inches above the ground. When Rhododendrons flower between the month of April and July, it is a sight to behold with hillsides becoming shrouded in colour. The variety Rhododendron niveum has been declared as the State Tree of Sikkim.
At the treeless altitudes above 4000 m curious types of flowers in colours of blue, red, and violet blossom during summer are just a few inches above the ground. The stones and rocks also get coloured by lichens and mosses in amorphous patterns as though someone was doing abstract art on them. Jatamasi, a medicinal plant, also thrives at altitudes above 4500 m and is found especially in North Sikkim. Rhubarb, a herbaceous plant with a yellowish thick stem grows in the barren cliffs of North Sikkim. Primulas are found in abundance in altitudes above 3500 m.
Vegetation of Sikkim
Crops & Cereals
Rice, maize and millet are grown here. However, the production of rice is not sufficient to meet the local demand and it has to be imported from the plains along with other cereals like wheat etc.
All vegetables of daily consumption like peas, potatoes, cauliflower, cabbages, radishes, turnips, carrots etc grow here. Cabbages grow in abundance in Lachung and are exported out of the state. Potatoes are also grown in huge quantities in Hilley and Ribdi above Sombaria. Besides these two vegetables, the others have to be brought in from other states because of limited production locally.
Intense Ultraviolet rays and relatively good sunshine at higher altitudes result in radishes and turnips assuming huge proportions each sometimes weighing up to a kilogram. The Tibi Beans which are endemic to the Lachung area also are huge in size.
Vegetables peculiar to Sikkim
Sikkimese partakes in some vegetables that are normally not easily available in mainland India. These are a real culinary delight.
Squash (Local Name: Iskus) It is a creeper that aggressively and unrelentingly spreads its branches and shoots in all directions climbing trees, telephone lines and roofs. The Iskus which fruits from the month of July onwards is in the shape of a large pear.
Squash shoots (local name: IskuskoMuntha) The succulent shoots and tendrils of the Iskus plant also make a tasty dish. Roots of Squash (Local Name: Jara) These can be dug up during winter when the plant has dried up. Tastes like potatoes.
Oyster mushroom (Local Name: Cheaoe)
Ferns (Local Name: Ningro) The shoot and tendril of this fern make a good dish.
Tree Tomato (Local Name: Rukh Tamatar) Used for making pickles
Small Brinjal with seeds(Local Name: Beeh) Used for vegetable curries. Tastes like a Brinjal but is slightly bitter.
Cherry chilly ( Local Name: Dalle Khorsani ) It looks like cherry but eating it can literally set your body on fire. The hotness of chilli is measured in Scoville Heat Units which is like the Ritcher scale on the tongue. BhootJhaloki grown in Nagaland is the hottest chilli in the world with 2.1 million Scoville Heat Units. Dale Korchani which is ranked the third or fourth hottest in the world is one-tenth million Scoville Heat Units hot.
Stinging nettle (Local Name: Sisnu)Who could think that a plant that stings could make such a delicious dish that tastes like spinach
Bamboo shoots (Local Name: Tama) Cane and Bamboo plants begin to send out shoots in the month of July and August. Yellowish white in colour, these shoots can be mixed with tomatoes and cooked to prepare a delicious dish.
Simrai In fact this is a type of watercress and grows abundantly in swampy areas.
Gourd (Local name: Chucche Karela)is endemic to Sikkim and belongs to the bitter gourd family but is not as bitter as its cousin. In fact, it has a sweet taste. The plant is a creeper which also spreads tenaciously.
Local Avocado (Local Name: Pompsi, Kaulo) It is a type of local avocado which grows in the wild. Fruits ripen in November.
Tibi Beans: These rare giant beans from the Lachung-Lachen valleys of North Sikkim Having evolved and naturalized at 2600-3000m altitude over the last almost 150 years cultivated and maintained as heirlooms by the Lachungpas and Lachenpas, they are unique product of Sikkim. They taste like Rajma.
Sikkim tea is well-known for its exotic flavour and is grown at Temi in government-owned tea gardens. Cardamom grows in abundance mostly in the Dzongu area of the North District. Farmers have now also extensively taken to the agriculture of ginger.
Some useful vegetable/plant byproducts
Broom Grass (Local name: Amliso Botanical name: Thysanolaena Maxima) It is a plant that grows wild. Its flower is bundled together to form brooms. The plant itself has good soil-binding properties and can prevent landslides where the terrain is unstable.
Oranges are grown in abundance in the southern parts of Sikkim and apples grow in North Sikkim. Other fruits that grow in limited quantities are plums, peaches, papayas, and bananas.
Fauna of Siklkim
Yaks belong to the cattle family and can survive only at altitudes above 3000 m. They live on alpine shrubs and can go without food for days together. Because of the long and thick hair that grows on its flanks, legs and tail and its thick hide, yaks can comfortably sleep and rest in the snow. Yaks forage on their own and do not require grooming, stabling and care as required by other domesticated animals.
Yaks have been domesticated in Sikkim and are used as beasts of burden as well as for their meat and milk which though produced in small quantities is very thick. Yak milk is extensively used for preparing Churpi which is hardened cheese. The hide and hair are used for making crude canvas and tents. Crossbreeds of yaks with cows are known as Dzo and these can survive at lower altitudes.
A rare animal that inhabits the alpine region is the Shapi. It was discovered only in 1938 by German doctor Ernest Schaefer in the Lachen valley area and is peculiar to Sikkim although it definitely looks similar to the Himalayan Tahr. There are only a very few such animals and it is high on the endangered list. The Shapi has the size of a mountain goat and has a long white mane and curved horns.
Also known as the Bharal, Blue Sheeps occupy one of the highest ecological niches in the world – the Green lake basin and also the area around the Dongkha La pass.
Locally it is called the Kiang and is found usually in big herds on the plateau in the Cholamu lake area.
It has been declared as the State Animal of Sikkim, is about 1 m in length when fully grown and belongs to the raccoon family. It is an arboreal animal that inhabits treetops and is found in altitudes between 2000 m and 3000 m. It feeds mostly on bamboo leaves.
Birds, Butterflies, & Fish
Just like the plants and animals, the avifauna (birds and butterflies) of Sikkim are also very diverse. The 500 species of birds range from the majestic Bearded-Vulture with a wing span of over 3 m to the Olive Ground Warbler just a few inches in length. Other colourful birds are the emerald dove, fairy bluebird, king-fisher, ashy woodpecker, sultan tit and emerald cuckoo. Many migratory birds like the Ruddy Shelduck also visit Sikkim.
There are also a wide variety of pheasants in various colours. The Blood Pheasant is declared the State Bird of Sikkim. Over 600 species of butterflies have been identified in Sikkim. These are found at almost all altitudes.
Various types of fish are also found in the lakes and rivers of Sikkim. There are 45 species of fish in Sikkim which include trout and salmon which are migratory in nature. Another important migratory species of fish is the Mahseer.
As far as the reptiles are concerned, Sikkim is said to have 40 species of these. These include various types of lizards and snakes like the grass snake, the krait and the cobra. In the amphibians, toads are found in good numbers, especially during the monsoons.
The loss of habitat because of human encroachment has displaced wildlife. Berspaticularly have been badly affected and have become a threat. Bears have started prowling urban areas, foraging for good. Come winter and there are many incidents of bears mauling people even in Gangtok.