To protect biodiversity, Himachal Park authorities turn ‘hunters’ into ‘saviors’

By Vishal Gulati

Kullu, September 24 (IANS): Amid the presence of the endangered western tragopan pheasant and a good population of roaming snow leopards, with most of their presence reported outside protected areas when harsh winters force prey mammals to migrate to lower altitudes, authorities in the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP), a UNESCO World Heritage site in the northwestern Himalayas, fear their vulnerability.

The authorities rely on the local population to collect information and safeguard wild flora and fauna species.

Before the onset of winter, authorities are preparing to protect the biodiversity of the Western Himalayas comprising many medicinal herbs, 31 species of mammals and 209 birds, mainly from mountainous settlements in 16 panchayats in the buffer zone called the ecological zone of the park.

“We have started the process of deploying enough personnel to patrol as a group to control poaching during the winter,” Divisional Forestry Officer (DFO) Nishant Mandhotra, who is in charge of GHNP, told IANS.

He said camera traps will be installed in at least 20 highly sensitive locations, mainly in the Tirthan-Sainj regions.

In addition to monitoring the movement of animals, camera devices play a crucial role in tracking poachers, who are mostly local due to the rugged topography.

“Since most villagers have licensed weapons to protect themselves and their crops, the chances of using them for poaching are high despite the hunting ban. Historically, village communities depend on natural resources, especially during the harsh winters when food is depleted, we prefer to hire locals to minimize the chances of hunting,” he added.

By engaging with local villagers and understanding their socio-economic needs, the park authorities turned people into ‘keepers’ from ‘hunters’.

The GNHP, notified in 1999, is home to 203 bird species, including the western tragopan, Himalayan monal, koklas, white-crested kalij, and jale, all species of pheasants.

The park is located in the Banjar subdivision of the Kullu district in the far western Himalayas.

Four of the GHNP’s mammal species and three of its bird species are globally threatened, including musk deer and western horned tragopan.

With the inclusion of the Sainj and Tirthan Wildlife Sanctuaries, the total area, known as the Greater Himalayan National Park Conservation Area, stretches to 1,171 square kilometers.

Former deputy ranger Roshan Chaudhary said human settlements pose the biggest threat to the park’s wildlife species, aside from illegal logging.

Chaudhary, the longest-serving official who retired on December 31, 2021, after serving the GHNP in various positions for 33 years, told IANS that other threats to the park include agriculture, traditional herding and hydroelectric development.

He said that most of the trekking routes are strictly regulated by camera trap devices.

Locals often venture into the woods in groups to collect the expensive herbs. They stay for weeks to collect them.

“They present a serious challenge as they are familiar with the local typography and are even resilient compared to outside poachers,” said Chaudhary, who toured the rugged and inaccessible park known for its significant size of 1,171 square kilometers on several occasions while he was separated from home and family for weeks or even months.

The ecological zone of the park has about 160 villages and hamlets, while the boundaries are connected with Pin Valley National Park, Rupi-Bhawa Wildlife Sanctuary and Kanawar Wildlife Sanctuary.

The park authorities normally involve the locals in conserving the biodiversity in the park. In addition to protecting it from poachers, they play an important role in managing eco-sensitive or nature-based sustainable ecotourism.

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 due to the pandemic, three months from April this year were good for ecotourism. On normal occasions, we also receive tourists in October and November. This year seems insignificant as there are hardly any advance bookings. ” he said.

Tirthan sanctuary is the preferred destination for ecotourism.

One of the most biodiverse sites in the western Himalayas, the GHNP supports snow leopards, Tibetan wolves, Himalayan black and brown bears, Himalayan blue sheep, Asian ibex, red fox, weasel and the yellow-throated marten.

Small mammals include the gray shrew, a small mouse-like mammal with a long snout, royal mountain vole, Indian pika, giant Indian flying squirrel, porcupine, and Himalayan palm civet, plus nine amphibians and 125 insects.

Speaking about the human-animal conflict, Chaudhary told IANS that wild animals mostly avoid any encounters with humans, and when they attack people, it’s usually in self-defense.

He said snow leopards also need protection from herding communities in alpine pastures.

“The park is home to a good population of snow leopards with a sizeable population of their prey species such as the Asian ibex and Himalayan blue sheep,” said Chaudhary, who had face-to-face encounters with the common leopard and the brown bear several times.

“Wild animals rarely attack humans. They attack only when disturbed by people. I have spent nights in their habitat with just a backpack carrying a raincoat, hat, sleeping bag and an LED flashlight and they just went through my backpack without annoy me. .”

“Human-animal conflicts are more of a social problem. For wildlife conservation, the cooperation of local communities is needed,” added Chaudhary, who belongs to Banjar, located on the fringes of the GHNP.

Wildlife officials told IANS that with the harsh winter, freezing water resources and the elimination of food sources, herds of wild hoofed mammals are beginning to move to lower altitudes. Other forms of wildlife, mainly predators, follow them.

Migration of the Asian ibex, a species of wild goat, the goral, and the Himalayan blue sheep or ‘bharal’ at lower elevations is common.

“Anti-poaching teams carry out random patrols on identified routes. The teams are made up of local people, who are familiar with the routes and sensitive areas and play an important role in intelligence gathering,” DFO Mandhotra said, adding that “this also allows them to maintain a livelihood when they are free from agriculture”.

The ban on donning a pheasant monal shield cap, once a tradition in the upper reaches of Himachal Pradesh, especially on auspicious occasions, greatly helped reduce poaching in the park.

“Himalayan brown goral sighting in the village increases during winter,” Gian Thakur, a villager from Tirthan valley, told IANS by phone.

Even sightings of the red fox are increasing in human dwellings, he added.