Saturday, January 5, 2008

Great Himalayan National Park

The Great Himalayan National Park is the home of the Western Tragopan, Tragopan melanocephalus one of the most endangered and spectacular pheasants on our planet. The local people call them Juju Rana, “King of the Birds” because of their magnificent plumage.Juju Rana is the symbol of the Great Himalayan National Park, not just for its beauty but because it also represents the environmental, social, economic, and political challenges of protecting something rare, valuable, and wonderful.

The Park is one of the few remaining protected areas in the Western Himalayas and is representative of many distinct plants and animals; some very rare, others found nowhere else in the world. It is the home of endangered mammals like musk deer, Snow leopard, and serow. Along with Juju Rana, the forests support other spectacular pheasants including Monal, Koklash, Kaleej, and the endangered Chir. Since time immemorial, this rich biodiversity has also been part of the sustenance of the local mountain people.

In the past, local village traditions recognized the importance of the forest and wildlife by establishing sacred groves and setting up rules for nature conservation. Now as population and modernization pressures in India increase, as roads and dams bring both benefits and degradation to the environment, the balance of nature in the Western Himalayas is under increasing threat. The unique forest habitat of the Great Himalayan National Park, like the tropical rain forests and coral reefs worldwide, is subject to growing negative human impacts. These fragile ecosystems, have taken eons to evolve and are all irreplaceable.

Located in the north of India, the Park was created by the government of the state of Himachal Pradesh based on its remoteness and the opportunity to conserve the characteristic flora and fauna of the Western Himalayas. The Park is also contiguous with the boundaries of the Pin Valley National Park on its eastern flank and Rupi Bhaba Wildlife Sanctuary on the southern side. Together this has created a large, protected landscape for conservation and wildlife migration. Over 750 square kilometers were set aside, as a conservation area, excluding human activities. The Park is naturally protected on the northern, eastern, and southern boundaries by areas under permanent snow or impassable ridges. It is the source of four major rivers, Tirthan, Sainj, Jiwanal, and Parvati that provide water for the plains of India. By protecting these river and forest resources, the Park helps to ensure a climatic balance and the continuation of downstream water.

Between 2000-3500 meters temperate forests dominate. Majestic deodars rise proudly. Stately oaks spread their knarled branches and fir and spruce trees add their fragrance. The steeper slopes and ridges are the home of large mammals. Himalayan thar dance from rock to rock, Himalayan Black bears search for honey, pheasants forage for tubers. Above 3500 meters trees give way to rolling alpine meadows splashed with a diverse variety of tiny flowers and medicinal herbs. And still higher is the realm of rock, ice, and strong winds. Huge glaciers feed the rivers at their sources. The illusive and rarely seen Snow Leopard hunts for Blue Sheep.

The western boundary of the Park has historically supported communities that have had economic dependence on the designated area of the Park. Realizing the environmental pressures these villages would exert on the Park’s biodiversity, an area of over 250 square kilometers was set up as buffer zone. This Ecozone contains 160 small villages with a population of almost 14,000 people. Almost 90% of the Ecozone is forest habitat which, when properly managed, can fulfil the forest-based needs of the local people.

Though the Park is now off limits to resource exploitation, it still offers wonderful opportunities for people to visit and experience Nature. As part of the income generation efforts community-based ecotourism is being developed for trekkers from India and abroad. The Park’s natural beauty and opportunities to view wildlife in its varied ecological zones offer unique, Himalayan wilderness experiences. The Park also has specific guidelines and rules for visitors to ensure protection of its fragile environment.

Ecotourism is just one of the alternative income generation activities that the local people have developed. But protection of the Park faces larger questions: Will local economic empowerment alone lead to biodiversity conservation? Will the villagers continue to poach wildlife? Will illegal grazing and herb collection persist?

No one can question the need to improve the quality of life for impoverished people living in the Ecozone. At the same time, we have an obligation to recognize the value of this wondrous habitat and speak for the animals and plants that can’t defend themselves. The spiritually renewable values of what nature offers should also be respected. In order to protect the extraordinary beauty of the Great Himalayan Park the long view is needed. It will take patience and continuous effort to overcome obstacles, along with dedicated leadership from Park, government, and village women and men.