April 2012: Halfway across the Dagwan river, I turned gingerly to collect my camera bag from Qasim Wani, long-time friend and forest guard, and could scarcely believe my eyes; there in plain view not 50 m. from us was a Himalayan black bear and her two six-month-old cubs. The three bruins were negotiating the swift, glacial waters upstream from us with practiced ease.
It was our second sighting of the family that day. Earlier at 5.45 a.m. Qasim and I lay flat on our bellies on the tar road, waiting for the bears we knew were scheduled to return from a night spent raiding an adjoining corn field. When they arrived, we watched with amazement as the mother confidently left her two round (and very obedient) cubs on the road, not more than 20 m. from us, to scramble up to a fruiting mulberry tree from which she picked berries for her hungry cubs. She made four quick trips before vanishing into the gloom of the Himalayan moist temperate oak and walnut forests, wards in tow.
It was just a few short minutes, but never before nor since have I had such an intimate, awe-inspiring wildlife experience.
For my wife Madhu, our daughters Miel and Tara and I, Dachigam was a home away from home for almost a decade until the tragic violence of the late 1980s. Through the years, however, I kept close track of the tiny 141 sq. km. forest we had all come to love through Qasim Wani, whose service to Kashmir was rewarded and recognised by Sanctuary Asia, which presented him with a Lifetime Wildlife Service Award in 2001. Born and brought up in his beloved Kashmir, for over four decades he walked this land, the last Himalayan home of the endangered hangul deer Cervus elaphus hanglu, to the day he died. “Save these precious hangul,” he would repeat ad nauseum to all who would listen, “for they represent the heritage of every Kashmiri child.”
Heartbroken at the senseless bloodshed that shook the tranquillity of the people of the ‘Happy Valley’, he would weep openly when he spoke to me long distance. And when I would reassure him of better days to come he would say: “Inshallah, woh din jald hi laut ayenge” (“By the grace of God those days will soon return”). But Qasim died before peace returned to the land he loved. And the deer he spent a lifetime protecting are in trouble once again.
The area destined for protection as the Dachigam National Park belonged to the Maharaja of Kashmir who declared the area a shikargarh (hunting preserve) in 1910. As many as 10 villages were moved out of the area by him, thus giving the park its name (Dachi – 10, gam – village). Documents reveal that the Maharaja also wanted the forests, in which hundreds of hangul thrived, protected because this was (still is!) the largest source of pure drinking water for Srinagar, his summer capital. He had oak and horse chestnut trees planted as food for wild animals and stocked the forest with a population of wild pigs Sus scrofa (which went locally extinct in the early 1990s).
When the rule of the Maharajas came to an end the care of the forest was entrusted to the State Fisheries Department, and other wings of the state government that never quite recognised its worth. Though Dachigam was notified in 1951 as a sanctuary and a national park in 1981, the Department of Wildlife Protection, despite its best efforts, has still not been able to remove the sheep farm and trout hatchery located in the heart of the forest (half-hearted efforts are still on to have them moved). Ranging in altitude from 1,690 m. to 4,300 m. the protected forests are home to an incredibly diverse range of plants and animals that migrate west to east from Lower Dachigam (in winter) to Upper Dachigam (in summer). All the ecosystem asks of us is protection, but the long history of violence and political unrest, and the erosion of civilian control seems to have led the authorities to virtually give up on Dachigam. Notwithstanding the dogged campaigns by young Kashmiri children and a dedicated lot of NGOs and scientists, Dachigam has been left to the hands of a demoralised, ill-equipped staff. What is worse, plans are afoot to fence off areas required by hangul, black bear and leopard, to build a zoo that is cleverly being branded a rescue centre. Disturbing (unconfirmed) reports had emerged of automatic weapons trained on hangul deer (for meat) in the early 1990s and more recently the killing of a hangul in 2011. Unbelievably, right now, as many as 150 low cost houses are being constructed in Mulnar village near Harwan on the border of the park. As Kashmir’s forests are whittled down, man-animal conflicts are on the rise (a Himalayan black bear was burned alive in Tral on December 17, 2006 and several leopards have been stoned to death). Forest fires have become more frequent. Little wonder then that the number of the famous Kashmir stags have dropped to just over 200.
Those who love Kashmir know that its greatest asset is the sheer poetry of its ecological foundation. Returning the hangul to safe harbour would mean returning Dachigam to health, restoring the life-giving upper pastures without whose bounty the wild animals that migrate to Sangargulu, Marsar and Tarsar in summer would be unable to live through the harsh, snowy winter.
Area: 141 sq. km.
Latitude: 3405’ – 3403’ N
Longitude: 7404’ – 7405’ E
Altitude: 1,690 m. to 4,300 m.
Climate: Temperate with four distinct seasons – spring, summer, autumn and winter.
Temperature: -100C to +300C
Rainfall: Approximately 660 mm. (half of it falls between January and April).
Getting there: Dachigam National Park lies a mere 21 km. by road, from Srinagar. With only 10 km. of motorable roads the only real way to explore Dachigam is to walk, trek and climb.
Vegetation: Himalayan Moist Temperate Forest in Lower Dachigam and alpine meadows and fir-birch forests in the higher reaches of Upper Dachigam with lovely meadows carpeted with wild flowers.
Mammals: Hangul, Himalayan black bear, brown bear, leopard, snow leopard, Himalayan grey langur, leopard cat, common palm civet, jackal, red fox, yellow-throated marten, Himalayan weasel, smooth Indian otter, musk deer, serow, long-tailed marmot and mouse hare.
Birds: Himalayan Griffon, Lammergeier, Monal Pheasant, Blue Magpie, Black and Yellow Grosbeak, Minivets, Golden Oriole as well as more common species such as the Streaked Laughing Thrush, Wagtails and Woodpeckers. Species vary with the altitude and season.
Reptiles and amphibians: Himalayan pit viper, common rat snake, Kashmir agama and small skink.
Best time to visit: Open all year round. Upper Dachigam is inaccessible in winter and may be visited between June and August. In summer, birding is excellent. Autumn colours are particularly attractive. October is a good time to spot hangul and the Himalayan black bear.
Accommodation: Limited options. A permit must be obtained from the office of the Chief Wildlife Warden in Srinagar
by Bittu Sahgal
Published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXII No. 2, April 2012