Amid the presence of the highly-endangered western tragopan pheasant and a good population of the wide-roaming snow leopard, with a bulk of its occurrence reported outside protected areas when the harsh winter forces prey mammals to migrate to lower altitudes, authorities of the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP), a UNECSO World Heritage site in the northwestern Himalayas, fear for their vulnerability.
The authorities rely on local people for gathering intelligence and safeguarding the wild flora and fauna species.
Ahead of the onset of winter, the authorities gear up to protect Western Himalayan biodiversity that comprise many medicinal herbs, 31 mammal and 209 bird species, mainly from mountain settlements in 16 panchayats in the buffer zone called an eco-zone of the park.
“We have started the process to deploy sufficient staff for group patrolling to check poaching during the winter,” Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Nishant Mandhotra, who is in-charge of GHNP, told IANS.
He said that camera trapping devices will be installed in at least 20 highly-sensitive locations mainly in Tirthan-Sainj regions.
Besides monitoring the movement of animals, the camera devices play a crucial role in keeping a tab on poachers who are largely locals owing to tough topography.
“Since most of the villagers have licensed guns for protection of self and crops, the chances of using them for poaching are high despite the ban on hunting. Historically, village communities depend on natural resources, especially during the harsh winters when foodstuff depletes, we prefer to hire locals to minimise chances of game hunting,” he added.
By engaging with the local villagers and understanding their socio-economic needs, the park authorities turned the people into ‘guardians’ from ‘hunters’.
The GNHP, notified in 1999, is home to 203 bird species, including the western tragopan, the Himalayan monal, the koklas, the white-crested kalij and the cheer, all pheasant species.
The park is located in Banjar subdivision of Kullu district in the far Western Himalayas.
Four of GHNP’s mammal species and three of its bird species are globally threatened, including the musk deer and the western horned tragopan.
With the inclusion of Sainj and Tirthan Wildlife Sanctuaries, the total area, known as the Great Himalayan National Park Conservation Area, spreads to 1,171 sq km.
Former Deputy Ranger Roshan Chaudhary said that human settlements pose the greatest threat to the park’s fauna and flora species, besides illicit felling.
Chaudhary, the longest serving official who retired on December 31, 2021, after serving the GHNP in various capacities for 33 years, told IANS that other threats to the park include agriculture, traditional grazing and hydropower development.
He said that most of the trekking routes are closely regulated by camera trapping devices.
Locals often venture into forests in groups to collect the expensive herbs. They stay for weeks to collect them.
“They are posing a serious challenge as they are familiar with the local typography and are even sturdy compared to outside poachers,” said Chaudhary, who trekked the rugged and inaccessibility park known for its significant size of 1,171 sq km on several occasions while separated from home and family for weeks or even months.
The park’s eco-zone has some 160 villages and hamlets, while the boundaries are connected to the Pin Valley National Park, the Rupi-Bhawa Wildlife Sanctuary and the Kanawar Wildlife Sanctuary.
Park authorities normally involve locals in conservation of biodiversity at the park. Besides protecting it from the poachers, they are playing an important role for managing sustainable eco-sensitive or nature-based eco-tourism.
Ecotourism Facilitator Govind Thakur told IANS that tourism in the GHNP is expected to recover to 2019 levels in 2023.
“After two years of hiatus owing to the pandemic, three months from April this year were good for eco-tourism. On normal occasions, we get tourists in October and November also. This year it seems negligible as there is hardly any advance booking,” he said.
The Tirthan sanctuary is the preferred destination for eco-tourism.
One of the richest biodiversity sites in the Western Himalayas, the GHNP supports the snow leopard, the Tibetan wolf, the Himalayan brown and black bear, the Himalayan blue sheep, the Asiatic ibex, the red fox, the weasel and the yellow throated marten.
The small mammals include the grey shrew, a small mouse-like mammal with a long snout, royal mountain vole, Indian pika, giant Indian flying squirrel, porcupine and the Himalayan palm civet, besides nine amphibians and 125 insects.
Talking about the man-animal conflict, Chaudhary told IANS that animals in the wild mostly avoid any encounters with the humans — and when they do attack people, it is usually in self-defence.
He said that the snow leopard also needs protection from pastoral communities in alpine pastures.
“The park supports a good population of the snow leopard with a sizable population of its prey species like the Asiatic ibex and the Himalayan blue sheep,” said Chaudhary, who had face-to-face encounters with the common leopard and the brown bear several times.
“The wild animals rarely attack humans. They attack only when the people disturb them. I have spent nights in their habitat with just a rucksack carrying a raincoat, cap, sleeping bag and an LED torch and they just passed by my rucksack without bothering me.”
“Man-animal conflicts are more of a social issue. For the conservation of wildlife, you need cooperation of local communities,” added Chaudhary, who belongs to Banjar, located on the periphery of the GHNP.
Wildlife officials told IANS that with the harsh winter, freezing water resources and wiping out food sources, herds of hoofed wild mammals start moving to lower altitudes. Other forms of wildlife, mainly predators, follow them.
The migration of the Asiatic ibex – a wild goat species -, the goral and the Himalayan blue sheep or ‘bharal’ in lower elevations is common.
“The anti-poaching teams do random patrolling on identified routes. The teams comprise local people, who are familiar with routes and sensitive areas and play an important role in gathering intelligence,” DFO Mandhotra said, adding that “this also enable them to sustain livelihood when they are free from agriculture”.
The ban on donning a cap with a pheasant monal crest, once a tradition in the upper reaches of Himachal Pradesh, especially on auspicious occasions, greatly helped reduce its poaching in the park.
“The sighting of Himalayan brown goral in the village increases during winter,” Gian Thakur, a villager in the Tirthan Valley, told IANS over phone.
Even sightings of the common fox increases in human habitations, he added.(Vishal Gulati can be reached at email@example.com)