By Pranav Capila
I remember the serenity at Begum Pathri, 'the Queen's Pasture', as we ended our day's trek that cool autumn evening. A profound calm blossomed there amidst the dandelions and white clovers and forget-me-nots. Fathomless and ancient, resonant in its exquisite silence. No birdsong, not the gurgle of water nor the murmur of a mountain breeze... even the whisper of a thought seemed like an intrusion.
A brittle calm, because the Hirpora Wildlife Sanctuary, this magnificent 341 sq. km. wilderness in the Shopian district of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), has been sledgehammered in recent years with what some people call 'development'. The first death wound was the Mughal Road, a still suppurating gash carved through this supposedly protected landscape about a decade ago. The ravagement of fragile habitats and displacement of wild animals caused by blasting and heavy machinery were just the beginning; linear infrastructure elements (such as canals, transmission lines and roads) are known to act as barriers to wildlife movement, impacting migratory routes and affecting genetic flow in the long-term. The problems that follow when humans get easier access to natural areas are well-known too. But of course, to go around or tunnel would have imposed an additional economic burden and been terribly inconvenient besides. It isn't like governments see the preservation of natural heritage as some sort of greater common good, do they?
So, it is only when winter lays its blanket across the blacktop that an abiding calm returns to Hirpora. A meditative silence descends with the snow upon the shrine of Sheikh Noor-u-Din Nooran at Pir-ki-gali on the southern edge of the sanctuary. (The medieval saint's favoured place of contemplation has become, thanks to the Mughal Road, a pitstop of increasing bustle and pollution.) As the traffic trickles and ceases, the area's reclusive wildlife can once again assert ownership. For here prowl Himalayan black bears and brown bears, Tibetan wolves, masked palm civets and leopards. There are some 130 bird species too, including the threatened Himalayan Griffon and Egyptian Vulture. And of course, endangered ungulates such as the current object of my interest: Capra falconeri, the Pir Panjal markhor, the world's largest mountain goat and one of the most elusive large mammals in India.
A survey conducted by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) estimates that the markhor population in Hirpora declined by as much as 50 per cent between 2003-04 and 2013-14, down from 70 individuals to about 35. The NGO has worked in the area since 2004-05 and, in partnership with the Department of Wildlife Protection (DoWP), Government of J&K, has run the Markhor Conservation Project in the Hirpora Wildlife Sanctuary and Kazinag National Park since 2009-10.
I hike up from the Mughal Road one late August morning with the Markhor Project's Dr. Riyaz Ahmad, Tahir Gazanfar and Sameer Khazir. We follow the grating buzz of the Sambha-Amargah Power Project's high-voltage transmission lines up the mountain. 'Zzzaaazzzzznaarrr' they seem to crackle, pointing to the way to our first destination.
The Supreme Court had permitted Sterlite Power and its contractor Tata Projects to install these power lines and towers within Hirpora using only manual labour. A petition filed in the J&K High Court last December, however, reveals that during the political uprisings of summer 2016, with the state government otherwise occupied, the contractors decided they would deploy dynamite and heavy machinery instead – sensitive ecosystem be damned. The long-term impact of these lines on the area's ecology remains to be seen, but the damage caused, never mind what penalties are paid post facto, could be the final nail in the sanctuary's coffin.
We climb to the Gujjar dokes at Zaznar, opposite sheer cliffs that are critical markhor habitat. Demolished by the DoWP last winter – they are after all, unauthorised constructions within a Protected Area – these dokes, seasonal shelters generally made of wood, stone and mud, are back. The nomads assert traditional grazing rights on the land – and they're politically well connected, which means they're not going anywhere in a hurry. The wildlife department points to the severe damage caused by the over-utilisation of summer pastures, especially as herders have in recent years been selling their grazing rights: a practice called tikiyana wherein they either sublet pastures outright or charge a fee to bring the livestock of others, in addition to their own, to graze in the sanctuary. The presence of Gujjars and Bakarwals on higher pastures is especially problematic since Hirpora's beleaguered markhors have already been pushed to sub-optimal parts of the landscape.
At a consultative meeting at Dungimarg the next day, both sides trade charges with candour, but without malice. The herders stand firm behind their long-established livelihood. "Okay, but you're killing the goose that lays the golden eggs," the Markhor Conservation Project's Dr. Riyaz Ahmad counters. He explains the link between the overgrazing and erosion of water catchments in these mountains and the devastating floods of 2014 in the Kashmir valley. He draws a line from the loss of habitat to the decline in wild prey numbers and the increase in man-animal conflict. "Our jannat, our paradise is being destroyed," he implores; "the essence of Kashmir is being eroded. And we cannot save it without your support."
At Zaznar, we are invited into Mohammed Mukhtar Jarrel's doke. The seven Gujjar families in this settlement have travelled here from Gurdanbala in Rajouri with their sheep and goats. They arrive at the lower pastures in April each year, climbing to higher grazing grounds in May and returning to their village by mid-September. The Mughal Road has considerably eased their journey to Hirpora, Mukhtar tells us: they still drive their livestock on foot but their families and belongings can now come by road.
The doke fills with smoke as Mukhtar's wife makes tea and rotis. The only fuelwood available at these altitudes is juniper, which the herders also slash and burn in autumn for dry fuelwood the next year. Since the deep roots of juniper work to bind the soil, however, this practice creates a slippery slope of erosion – literally. The Markhor Project team's attempt now is to link Gujjar and Bakarwal families with the Government of India's Ujjwala scheme, providing them subsidised LPG and reducing their dependence on fuelwood.
We walk the high-altitude trail from Zaznad to Begum Pathri. The Mughal Road shrinks to a ribbon, the pervasive buzz of the power lines fades out. Herds of sheep crawl the denuded slopes far below, swarming like maggots on a wound. We walk a path that is sometimes less than boot-width wide, crawl across cliff faces that a markhor may sneer at but which I will describe as precipitous. Through sub-alpine scrub, descending into coniferous forests, and up again to the meadow at Begum Pathri.
We drink deep from a mountain spring, pitch our tent by a doke. The sun sets and a waning chaudhvin-ka-chand hangs scarlet over the Himalaya. All is decidedly not right with the world, but in that moment, at that quiet place, we can easily imagine that it is.
On our descent from Begum Pathri the next morning we have our first sighting of the purple-toed sloth. Loose limbed but lumbering, hatted with a dark brown all-weather wool that affirms it as an exotic in these parts. Down the steep sub-alpine trail it shuffles, agonising over each downward step, sometimes moaning under its breath. My companions tell me it still haunts those trails; you can still hear its wheezing protests echo across the Pir Panjal: "Oh, my city shrivelled lungs, my aching knees; oh, my toes, my poor bruised purple toes..." Any resemblance to the author of this piece is purely coincidental.
It is 9 a.m. and two adult female markhors are hanging out on a cliff, crick-in-the-neck high above us. They are markhors all right – the distinctive screw-horns, fawn coats, dark brown muzzles and white underparts are apparent through our binoculars. But they aren't 'maar-khors': 'serpent-eaters' as the Persian etymology suggests. I say that not because these two females are clearly munching on vegetation as they shoot the breeze up on high, but because markhors are goats, which are, you know, herbivores. (Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence can please replace the serpent in its markhor logo with a shrub or something.)
We are in the Kazinag National Park now, the Markhor Conservation Project's second area of operations. Declared a national park in 2007, Kazinag, which comprises the Limber Wildlife Sanctuary, Lachipora Wildlife Sanctuary and Naganari Conservation Reserve, lies on the north bank of the Jhelum close to the Line of Control (LoC) in Baramulla district. It is just 70 km. from Srinagar, but no one seems to know about it.
A solitary signboard by the side of the highway announced the national park as we drove up from Baramulla town the previous afternoon. A motorable road took us into the Limber Wildlife Sanctuary, up through Limber village and to the army camp below Babagail village. With its proximity to the LoC, this area was once a hotspot for militant inflitration. The focus in recent years has shifted to Lachipora but the landscape is heavily patrolled. All visitors, frequent or infrequent, must register their presence with the army.
Our base camp at Babagail is at a lower elevation than was in Hirpora, so we experience late summer instead of an autumn chill. We set out from the village at 6 a.m. along the Mithwani nullah through exquisite coniferous forests with deodar (at lower altitudes), fir, spruce and kail pine. The terrain is rugged and as we clamber over boulders and up overgrown trails I feel like some sort of proto-human, scrabbling on all fours behind the upright gait of my companions.
We pass a Gujjar tent pitched below vital markhor breeding habitat – the very cliffs, in fact, where a fascinating short film on the markhor school of parenting was recently filmed (Mountain Mothers, find it on YouTube). We climb atop a flat rock overhanging the waterfall at Chemb, from where we spot our markhors – two among the nearly 200 individuals in Kazinag, which has the largest population this side of the LoC. On a higher ridge at Kandenalle we eat a packed lunch and watch Himalayan Griffons soar on the updrafts. Then, having found a shaded pine grove, we ruminate on the nature of existence (sleep).
The limited access into Kazinag, especially from the Limber side, means it doesn't see the kind of rampant problems with migratory herders that Hirpora does. Timber smuggling and poaching are under control here too, though the biotic pressure exerted by villages adjacent to the national park remains an enduring concern.
One issue common to these Protected Areas is the pitiful lack of wildlife department staff on the ground. Hirpora has just four permanent frontline staffers (three forest guards and a forester) and there are only two forest guards on site in the Limber Wildlife Sanctuary, with a ranger and forester in Baramulla town.
If those numbers didn't shock me, it was only because Rashid Naqash, the Regional Wildlife Warden of Kashmir, had warned me about the situation when I met him in Srinagar on the first day of my visit. "We have just 700 permanent staff including all the bosses, the babus, frontline staff etc, to look after 17,000 sq. km. and 53 Protected Areas in Kashmir," he had said. "We work under the shadow of government indifference: conservation is just not a priority in the state. We get Rs. 2.5 crore from the state government annually, 60 per cent of which is earmarked to address human-wildlife conflict. The amenities and training we can provide our frontline staff are, as you can imagine, negligible."
A lack of career growth. Minimal training (if any). The absence of weather-appropriate clothing or terrain-appropriate shoes. No torches or binoculars, wireless sets or GPS units. No access to first-aid. No vehicles... not even a single vehicle allotted to an entire wildlife sanctuary or national park. These were some of the issues raised by the permanent staff I interviewed in Hirpora and Limber. And yet the temporary workers (daily wagers) hired to make up for the shortfall in permanent staff had it even worse. Not only had they been hanging on for years in the hope of that coveted 'permanent' status, "no salary" was topmost on their list. They received lumpsum amounts ranging from Rs. 800 to Rs. 3,000, "eid-ke-eid": just once or twice a year!
The evening before I leave Kazinag, as I return to Babagail after a short walk to Nagein nullah with daily wager Fayaz Ahmad Dar, an old man calls out to me. (The village 'masterji', Fayaz tells me later.) "You are a journalist?" the old man asks. "Will you write for wildlife conservation only or will you write for us too? Write that we want tourism here, okay?"
The implied opposition between "for wildlife" and "for us" is unsurprising. Conservationists may seek to align betterment of nature with betterment of community, but it is only natural that people, especially those that are marginalised, nevertheless desire tangible benefits to compensate for what they see as unfair restrictions placed on their livelihoods or social behaviour.
The Markhor Conservation Project seeks to address this by linking fringe communities in Hirpora and Kazinag with the aforementioned Ujjwala scheme, old age pension schemes, the Swachch Bharat Abhiyaan (for the construction of toilets) and the National Rural Livelihood Mission (seeking alternative livelihoods especially for women's groups). Awareness events are also held to engage with children in particular, including a first-of-its-kind Markhor Cricket Tournament in Limber last winter.
And yes masterji, there is now a push for eco-tourism. Because tourism, done right, can benefit both communities and conservation even in fragile landscapes. (There is much talk in conservation circles about the 'integrated landscape management' approach being preferred now over the 'Protected Area management' approach. A cost-benefit assessment of the kind (and extent) of tourism that would most suit a specific landscape would, I imagine, be an important part of such an approach.)
For both Hirpora and Limber, the right kind of tourism must have the smallest footprint possible. No expansion of roads, no clearing of trees or digging up pastures for hotels or resorts here please. (In a dystopian dream I see a cookie-cutter tourist resort in Hirpora, with plastic chairs around tables on the lawn and a Sunset Point gazebo overlooking the Rambiara nullah.) Instead, try trekking tours for small groups, with a side dish of 'living it like the locals' through homestays in fringe villages.
This isn't an easy model to get right; the purchase or hire of camping equipment, best practices for the management of human and plastic waste, basic hospitality training for community members, skill development of guides so that they can identify local wildlife and educate tourists about aspects of conservation, and the safety of tourists and wildlife are just some issues to consider. But done right, it can be minimally invasive and self-sustaining. Encouragingly, a fledgling Hirpora Eco-tourism Society operating on these lines, backed by the Markhor Project and the wildlife department but completely community owned and operated, is soon expected to take wing.
Wildlife tourism in India seems stuck on the idea of ease of access, of convenience for all. In fragile or untouched landscapes however, it need not be this way. It is not a sin to foster exclusivity, to privilege those who seek immersion over insulation, adventure over comfort. In Hirpora and Kazinag, let it be so.
Pranav Capila is the founder-editor of Second Skin Media, an editorial and design agency focused on conservation content.