Quantifying Four Decades of Changes in Land Use and Land Cover in India’s Kailash Sacred Landscape: Suggested Option for Priority Based Patch Level Future Forest Conservation
Effective quantification of land cover changes remains a challenge in Himalayan hills and mountains, and has a colossal value addition for natural resource management. Here we present a new robust method for classifying land cover vegetation at physiognomic scale along steep elevational gradients from ~ 200 to ~ 7000 masl in the Kailash Sacred Landscape, Western Himalaya, India along with four decades of land use and land cover changes (1976–2011) using remote sensing techniques coupled with intensive ground surveys. Results show that forest cover loss was minimum ca 7.14% of existing forest in 1976; but, however forest fragmentation is high especially in montane broad-leaved and subtropical needle leaved forests. This change largely impacted the quality of valuable tree species such as Quercus spp. Post 1976, continuous migration forced conversion of high altitude agricultural lands into grasslands and scrublands. Human settlement expansion was high especially in low altitudinal range valleys between 1000 and 2000 masl and has increased 6.76 fold since 1976, leading to high forest fragmentation in spite of reduced agriculture area in the landscape. Our physiognomic level classified land cover map will be a key for forest managers to prioritize conservation zones for protecting this unique forest land.