By: Nitin Kumar Sharma
Mountains always fascinated me. I grew up at a place though not offering an imposing view of the gleaming peaks, but not even too far to dilute the view in the milkiness of the intervening air. Hardly had I ever thought that my association with mountains would extend further into my professional life as I take up the job of an environmentalist. However, I found it ironical that my job, which I thought would give me a chance to immerse myself further in the mysticism of mountains, had in fact led me further away from them as my academic self looked around for damage done to the environment rather than its completeness. And that was until I got a chance to visit the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) in Himachal Pradesh. It can easily be said that there are just a handful of natural territories on earth that have minimal human interference, and GHNP is of them.
It lies in the Western Himalayan region having a unique ecology with features like rare biodiversity, sparse human populations, inaccessibility, little tourism and a local economy based on traditional livelihood. The park, varying from 1,500m to over 6,000m in altitude, is a source of infinite rare and endemic species of plants and animals that interest not only scientist, but also nature lovers worldwide. The park is also home to the rare “Western Tragopan” besides 200 other species of birds and over 30 species of mammals.
Origin of park and expansion
The Great Himalayan National Park was the outcome of the Himachal Wildlife Project (HWP) that was carried out in association with the Himachal Pradesh Department of Forest Farming and Conservation (DFFC), which had surveyed the upper Beas region in 1980. The project was finally upgraded to the status of a park in 1999. Located in the heart of Western Himalayas, GHNP mainly comprises the catchment areas of Jiwa, Sainj and Tirthan rivers and has an area of 765 sq km. It is surrounded by Tirthan Wildlife Sanctuary (61 Sq Km) in the south, Rupi Bhaba Sanctuary (269 Sq Km) in the south east, Pin Valley National Park in the east and Kanawar Wildlife Sanctuary in the north.
The eco-development area and Sainj Wildlife Sanctuary cover the western part of the park. There are four small villages in the Sainj valley – Sakti, Maror, Kunder and Manjhan. The other valleys are uninhabited, though limited grazing may be allowed in some areas. However, because of the growth of large number of medicinal plants in the Sainj valley, many people enter the park to collect them. A similar problem is faced in the Tirthan valley with the growth of ‘Guchchi’ – a mushroom that is highly valued in the western world.
Experience of rejuvenation
Ours was a six-day trip from April 1, 2006 till April 6. We started from New Delhi at around 10.30 am (the total distance being about 500 km by road, a good 14-hour trip). The 10 of us reached Chandigarh, (midway) in the evening where we stayed at the Panchayat Bhawan for a night. We visited the famous rock garden and of course Sukhna Lake in the evening, two of the best man-made structures in independent India.
Day2: We left for GHNP early in the morning. After nearly 8 hours of journey along the Shivalik hills and then outer Himalayas, we finally arrived at Sairopa, our final destination, where we met members of Society for Scientific Advancement of Hills & Rural Areas (SHARA), a local NGO. Dr. Chauhan of SHARA and Ankit Sood (our guide) gave us a briefing about GHNP and also sociology of the place. We were told that many locals were not happy with the formation of GHNP since it had restricted their livelihood activities in the area.
Day 3: Early in the morning, our guide took us for a nature walk along a medicinal herb trail. The surroundings were breathtakingly beautiful with sky-touching peaks forming the backdrop and dense green conifers framing the eye-view. After breakfast we met Ms Shakti, a local women self-help group leader. She took us to Gushani village where we had Siddu, a local dish made from barley. The self-help groups are doing great work in this remote area to integrate the economy of the place. We were introduced to at least three groups with 30 members each. Each member of these self-help groups contribute one rupee daily to their account, and the saved money can be encashed as and when required.
After spending there 3-4 hours there, we realised a marked difference in the outlook the local people here have towards life. Development, or no development – they’re always a happy lot. Returning back from the village, we halted on the banks of Tirthan, a brisk flowing river known for trout fish. In the evening we participated in Naati, a Himachali dance common to the whole state, but each region has its own unique traits.
Day 4: We left for Pashi village at around 8 am, and after climbing a 2-km steep mountain we finally reached our destination. The remote village has just 14 families residing there, with each family having seven members on average. The village also has a primary school with 20-30 students, while the middle school falls in another village named as Raila, which is quite far from here.
From there we moved towards Largi, where we met the director of GHNP. From there we went to Sai Ropa village and met Raju Bhai who has been working on burning environmental issues being faced in the eco-zone. He told us that hydel projects were the greatest danger to the fragile eco-system here, while haphazard tourism and rights of native people too were a hindrance in preserving the park.
On our way back, we experienced lush coniferous forests, emerald meadows strewn with exotic flora, soaring snowy peaks and pristine glaciers snaking down, though with long scars at the tail end..
Day 5: Early in the morning, we left for a place named Rolla, a two–hour journey from our camping site. The wide variation in altitude within the park gives one a chance to experience different mini eco-systems, starting with mixed deciduous forest encompassing spruce and pine at lower altitudes to oaks at a little higher altitude. Rhododendron forests are found at an altitude of about 3,500m and beyond that are the alpine meadows. The last village we visited was Rolla, where we saw a house that was the last house left in the forest areas, with others having moved out. The house left a lasting impression in my mind as we started with our return journey to New Delhi, but not before picking up some stunningly beautiful Kullu shawls, caps, mufflers, etc, in the ancient town.