Flora & Fauna

    Flora & Fauna

    THE VERY WORD ‘Biodiversity’ means the ‘variety of life’. Sikkim is famous world-wide as a renowned hotspot of biodiversity and, despite its small size, perhaps the richest anywhere in various life forms. Few realize that the survival of humanity is not possible without the diversity of other life on this planet. Biodiversity is life insurance for life itself. We need this diversity to feed, clothe and shelter us as well as keep us sane and healthy.


    The biodiversity profile of Sikkim, both wild as well as domesticated, is enriched with more than 4,500 flowering plants, more than 523 species of wild, indigenous orchids, around 28 species of bamboos, seven species of canes, more than 350 species of ferns, around 600 species of birds, more than 700 butterflies, possibly over 2000 moths, virtual-unaccounted for beetles, and other insects, including micro-organisms both on land, in the very air and in water.

    ‘Raj Bhavan’, a name steeped in history for most and in mystery for the common man, is an exclusive area secluded from the hustle and bustle of daily life. Not many are privy to this part of Gangtok, hidden away behind a forested screen from the main road. The famed erstwhile Residency gardens still includes a trailing Wisteria with its blue showers of flowers planted by White himself 120 years ago at the entrance of the house he built. Later European occupants introduced bulbous flowers like Daffodils and Narcissus. Today, the area still has well-tended lawns and gardens with seasonal exotic flowers and hybrid orchids as well as many species of trees like Rhododendrons and Magnolias.

    John Claude White sent Sikkim’s Crown Prince Sidkeong Tulku to Oxford for higher education, which effort culminated with the formal demarcation of Sikkim’s forests by the Crown Prince. Thus started the perhaps unparalleled era of modern forestry in Sikkim vis-à-vis the rest of the country. Sikkim has a long history of conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. The laws, policies and programmes of the later years are rooted in those strong conservation ethics responsible for the survival to this day of Sikkim’s extensive forest and wildlife protected area network making it the best in the country. The documentation of the extant flora and fauna of Raj Bhavan is a long-felt ned and will hopefully be put to good use by the readers.

    The original biodiversity that existed over almost 300 acres of the Residency included, among others, large Oaks, Chestnuts, Michelias, the beautiful Ironwood (Symingtonia populnea) locally called ‘Pipli’, all useful for timber, fuel-wood and fodder; smaller trees like a native Olive (Elaeocarpus lanceaefolius) called ‘Bhadrasey’, fragrant shrubs like Daphne involucrata used for making a local paper and thick groves of bamboo useful for making mats as well as arrows. In the 1920s, British Political Officer in Sikkim, Lieutenant Colonel F. M. Bailey collected and planted many interesting plants. Interestingly, his predecessor, Sir Charles Bell, as far back as 1915, maintained a lot of green cover in the Residency Compound to keep the water supply pure.

    As part of the lower edge of temperate forest, this area is the ideal zone for Oaks, Chestnuts, Indian Mahogany (Toona) and the Magnolia relative Michelia. This need be encouraged as they are native to the area and help maintain biodiversity. Katus (Castanopsis), a fuel wood species, only needs protection from lopping or topping while Toona and the Walnut relative Engelhardtia are good for supporting scores of orchids, ferns, mosses and wildlife. In some places, judicious extraction of very tall trees of Uttis or Himalayan Alder (Alnus nepalensis), and Dhupi or Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) would become necessary to give way to smaller plants more suited to maintenance of urban biodiversity. The existing flora marked for extraction, could be wisely utilized- Toona, Castanopsis for beams in place of Sal (Shorea robusta), planks of Alnus, and shuttering using Betula or Birch.

    The diversity of life forms in the Raj Bhavan Complex is to be seen to be believed. The entire complex of almost 10 hectares at an altitude of about 1800m, is contiguous at its upper end and to its east with Ganeshtok-Pinetum-cum-Smritivan and the Himalayan Zoological Park at Bulbuley; this links further up with the Ratey Chu Reserve Forest (RF) almost all the way to the Cho La Range bordering the Chumbi Valley. At its lower end and to its west, it links up the last green lung of Gangtok, the Forest Colony at Balwakhani, going further down to the Rani Khola (River) separating it from the bird-rich Fambong Lho Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS). It thus forms a vital part of the forested Oxygen-Bank and more importantly, Water-Bank on which depends the very survival of the State capital, Gangtok. It is also part of an Important Bird Area, namely the Fambong Lho Wildlife Sanctuary – Himalayan Zoological Park – Ratey Chu Reserve Forest Complex and a vital link along the East-Asian flyway for migratory birds.

    Floral Diversity includes various species of native and exotic trees like Oaks, Chestnuts, Himalayan Alder, rhododendrons, magnolias, Michelias, Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria japonica), autumn-flowering Cherry (Prunus cerasoide); shrubs like the paper-yielding Edgeworthia gardneri with its attractive blossoms hanging in small yellow bunches, a magnet for various bird species; the thorny Yellow Himalayan Raspberry (Rubus ellipticus) bushes with tasty berries, and the inedible red and yellow varieties of the exotic Night Queen or ‘Raat-Raani’ (Cestrum) shrubs with their white and red berries respectively. Many varieties of attractive ferns including the large primitive Tree-Fern and fern-allies like Selaginella, Lycopodium and Equisetum green the edges and untended nooks of the complex. Many of the large old Engelhardtia spicata trees with their long inflorescences and winged seeds can be seen festooned with varieties of epiphytes like the orchids Pleione, Dendrobium, the red-flowered Agapetes serpens, climbers like Raphidophora, the itchy Mucuna, large and small ferns, mosses and lichens.

    Bamboo diversity can be seen in species like Sinarundinaria intermedia, Sinarundinaria hookeriana and Dendrocalamus hamiltoni. Many Japanese bamboos introduced by Crown Prince Sidkeong Tulku on his return home via Japan have been planted in the Residency compound. Many exotic shrubs have also flourished well over the century, providing valuable shelter to small birds and animals. The ground flora consists of varieties of grasses and herbs including some valuable medicinal plants like Artemisia vulgaris and Astilbe rivularis. Many seasonal flowering plants like Calendulas, Petunias, Asters, Marigolds, Primulas, Sweet Peas, Lilies, Roses, Hybrid Orchids, Tulips, Daffodils, Carnations and Calla Lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica) are lovingly maintained by the Raj Bhavan gardeners, providing splashes of colour on the lawns, while the heady scents of the large-flowered Michelia doltsopa trees flavour the air delicately. A rare annual treat is the Rhododendron arboreum in flower, its blood-red blossoms lighting up this lovely tree, truly an incandescent gift of nature. The place was a great plant introduction and experimental centre. From here, many plants of gardening merit found their way to Tibet and Bhutan as well as the nearby towns of Kalimpong and Darjeeling, reflected in the large number of cultivars of English and French roses that can be seen all over the region.


    Faunal Diversity includes a variety of small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, moths, beetles, dragonflies and many other insects that are part of this Important Bird Area or IBA which includes the Gangtok township. The most commonly seen animal is the Himalayan Squirrel Dremomys lokriah. The occasional Large Palm Civet (Paguma larvata) locally called ‘Kala’ can be seen clambering on the Engelhardtia trees. Yellow-throated Martens or ‘Malsapro’ have also been seen here as are the smaller weasels, which chase after small birds and mice. The most magnificent, however, are the rarer Flying Squirrels (Petaurista magnificus) locally called ‘Rajpankhi’. Occasionally, some Barking Deer and Jackal also stray into the fringes of the complex from surrounding forested areas or can be heard at dawn or at night.

    The most easily-sighted wildlife, however, is the large numbers of birds seen and heard within the complex and surrounding areas. The first bird that comes to mind when one thinks of Raj Bhavan is the bold and vocal Rufous Sibia locally called ‘Charcharey’ with its black cap, brick-coloured body and daring low-flying stunts. The earliest to call at around 4.30 am are at least four species of owls including the Himalayan Wood Owl, Collared Scops Owl, Jungle and Barred Owlets. These silent predators keep the complex clear of rats and mice providing a valuable but free service. As the sky lightens, the Raj Bhavan wakes to a dawn chorus of bird-song. The Great Barbet or ‘Nyaul’, Green-backed Tit or ‘Chichinkotey’, the blue-green Verditer Flycatches or ‘Hareni’, the White-throated Fantail, various Laughing thrushes, Scimitar Babblers, Red-tailed and Blue-winged Minlas, Whiskered Yuhina, Rufous Sibia, Himalayan Treepie, Tree Sparrows, iridescent Sunbirds are but some of the glamorous birdlife. At least ten species of Cuckoos, a parasitic species of bird that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests, can be heard in the spring season here. Some are easy to recognize by their distinct calls such as the Large Hawk-Cuckoo calling “Brain-fever, Brain-fever” incessantly. In February-March, one can hear Bar-headed Geese and other water birds flying overhead in the dark, on return migration to their northern breeding grounds across the mighty Himalayans. Their calls in flight give them the local name ‘Karrang-Kuruung’.

    As the day brightens and warms up, the manicured flowerbeds, lawns and other areas of the complex attract varieties of butterflies. The most common among these are the Indian Tortoiseshell, Indian Red Admiral, Himalayan and Common Jesters that breed on Stinging Nettle shrubs. Golden, Azure and Purple Sapphire butterflies fly like living jewels, giving little indication that their life cycles depend on underground dwelling ants, while the Common Five-Ring and other brown-coloured butterflies prefer the more shaded bamboo brakes and grassy patches. One can see the sun-loving Tortoiseshell, a territorial butterfly, chasing away the much larger Swallowtails like Red Helen and Spangel straying into their basking areas.

    A sighting of the red and blue dragonflies and golden-green damselflies are a sure sign that the nearby water sources are clean and fresh. These ‘tigers of the air’ are a wonderful biological control for mosquitoes in summer. The diversity of spiders, another of nature’s marvels and silent predators of annoying flies and mosquitoes, is astonishing. This season is also good for various species of beetles, bugs, praying mantises like Stick-Insects, moths, grasshoppers and crickets.

    Occasionally in the vegetation, one might be lucky to spot a Japalura lizard like a miniature green dinosaur or a shiny Skink chasing after insects. Other reptiles known to occur but seldom seen in the complex are Rat Snakes, Himalayan Pit Vipers and Cobras. One may also find the harmless but beautiful Glass Snake or Glass Lizard (Ophiosaurus gracilis) gracing the area, its back shining an electric blue pattern. These beautiful but shy creatures also provide silent yeoman service to humanity. Smaller snakes like the Guenther’s Oriental Slender Snake or Rose-belly Worm-eating Snake (Trachesium guentherii) form valuable food for birds such as the Blue Whistling Thrush which is perhaps Raj Bhavan’s best songster.

    The most familiar amphibians in the complex are the Himalyan Bullfrog (Paa liebigii), Himalayan Broad-skulled Toad (Duttaphrynus himalayana), and some species of tree-frogs; the latter’s ‘tic-tic-tic’ calls providing nightlong orchestras during the monsoon breeding season.

    The entire complex being strategically located, one can get grand panoramic views of the mighty Khangchendzonga Range, India’s highest and the world’s third highest mountain peak, but more importantly, the abode of Sikkim’s Guardian Deity. This, combined with the fresh clean air, calm serenity and soothing weather makes the Gangtok Raj Bhavan complex a perfectly hidden paradise worthy of all the care and love lavished on its maintenance. It is indeed a treasure and pride of Sikkim.

    Many hidden treasures are lost to humankind simply because the general populace is not aware of their presence and hence not able to appreciate the need for their conservation. This hidden treasure needs to be brought to the notice of the layperson and added to the eco-tourism initiatives of the Government of Sikkim, besides highlighting the role of gardeners, foresters and the general populace in safeguarding this important piece of Sikkim’s heritage.