Tral: A New Gem In J&K

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 43 No. 2, February 2023

By Intesar Suhail and Dr. Asad R. Rahmani

The view of lofty mountains, clothed in trees and tall grasses, was breathtaking. On July 30, 2022, we had reached the boundary of this little-known sanctuary after an arduous climb through the quaint little village of Laam (also called Jawahir Pora). However, the narrow, pebbled-road between traditional wooden houses, punctuated by a few modern cemented structures, a gushing stream through the village, the singing of the Blue Whistling Thrush Myophonus caeruleus, and an unidentified warbler made the three kilometre climb thoroughly enjoyable. This visit to the newly-created Tral Wildlife Sanctuary, in India’s northern-most union territory, was a birthday gift from the first author to the second.

Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has some of the finest forests and wetlands of the Western Himalaya. A new gem has been added to its 18 Protected Areas (PAs) – the Tral Wildlife Sanctuary. The Union Territory (UT) has four national parks, 14 wildlife sanctuaries and 30 conservation and wetland reserves. In 2004, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and BirdLife International had identified 21 Important Bird Areas (IBAs). In 2016, nine potential IBAs were added to the list, Shikargah-Tral being one of them.

Locals traditionally depend on the Tral forests for fodder, livestock grazing, and firewood for severe winter months. Photo: Dr. Asad Rahmani.

A Critical Corridor

Considering the importance it places on the value of biodiversity, the Jammu and Kashmir government in 2019 notified 155 sq. km. of forest, comprising Shikargah and Khangund Conservation Reserves (CRs) as well as portions of demarcated forest area between these two CRs, as Tral Wildlife sanctuary. Named after the historic town Tral, the sanctuary is about 45 km. from Srinagar and is a part of Pulwama and Anantnag districts, which are famous
for their apple and walnut orchards and flower-carpeted meadows. This new sanctuary is easily accessible as it is 50 km. from Srinagar airport and 15 km. from Awantipora, the
nearest railhead.

Tral WLS and the nearby areas fall in the distribution range of the state animal – the hangul or the Kashmir red deer, Cervus hanglu hanglu. Once widely distributed in Kashmir and even some parts of Himachal Pradesh, this critically endangered taxon is now confined to Dachigam National Park, Tral and a few other adjacent areas. Tral is a sort of corridor for hangul as it connects Dachigam with the Overa-Aru Wildlife Sanctuary, and is therefore enormously important for linkage of the hangul populations found in these two PAs.

The author Dr. Asad Rahmani interacting with locals, who point to musk deer habitat in the distance. Such knowledge of local biodiversity can be channeled into potential sustainable livelihoods as nature guides. Photo Courtesy: Dr. Asad Rahmani.

The entire Kashmir valley is beautiful and is popularly referred to as Jannat-e-Benazir, meaning ‘paradise without a parallel’; some areas have a special charm on account of their unspoilt landscape. Tral is one of them. The whole sanctuary is hilly, with forest-covered mountains, gurgling streams, and meandering rivers. Tral forms an undulating terrain of the Outer Himalaya. Summer is pleasant, with temperatures from 250C to 350C but winters are cold, with snow in some parts lasting up to April. The peaks are cloaked with snow throughout the year.

A camera trap captures a hangul herd during different seasons at the same waterhole. Photo Courtesy: J&K Wildlife Protection Department.

Unique Biodiversity

As the sanctuary ranges from 1,600 m. to more than 3,500 m., the flora changes from riverine to coniferous forests, which give way to alpine scrub and then to treeless pastures. From 2,300 m. to 3,000 m., the ecosystem is dominated by coniferous forests, represented by Pinus wallichiana and Abies pindrow as major species in association with Picea smithiana. If we go higher, we are greeted by alpine scrub, with Betula utilis as the most dominant species associated with Juniperus recurva, Rhododendron, Viburnum, Lonicera, and Primula in shady places. Above the treeline, the pastures are dominated by dwarf evergreen shrubs including Juniperus recurva and Rhododendron anthopogon associated with herbs, Stachys sericea, Sieversia elata and Veronica melissifolia. The riverine areas have Aesculus indica, Fraxinus hookeri, Parrotiopsis jacquemontiana, and Juglans regia with Indigofera heterantha, Lonicera, Jasminum, Viburnum, Skimmia laureola and many herbs and grasses.

More than 15 species of mammals, including some rare ones, are found within the limits of Tral Wildlife Sanctuary. Of course, the most famous is the hangul, but equally important species are the Kashmir musk deer Moschus cupreus, Kashmir grey langur Semnopithecus ajax, and the wolf Canis lupus (found in the alpine zone). Two species of bear – black bear Ursus thibetanus and brown bear Ursus arctos share the habitat, but each have their own ecological zones. Leopards Panthera pardus are fairly common and along with bears, are the main cause of conflict with shepherds, farmers and local people. The benign species (for human beings) are the jungle cat Felis chaus, red fox Vulpes vulpes, yellow-throated marten Martes flavigula, and Siberian weasel Mustela sibirica. These carnivores occasionally kill domestic animals, but are no threat to human beings.

A camera trap captures a hangul herd during different seasons at the same waterhole. Photo Courtesy: J&K Wildlife Protection Department.

Besides the well-known species mentioned above, Tral harbours several medicinal plants and rare species such as the witch hazel Parrotiopsis jacquemontiana, a small tree/shrub belonging to the witch hazel family. It is uncommon now on account of overharvesting, but survives in Dachigam and Tral. Locally named pohu or hatab, it is used to make the kangri. A kangri or kanger is an earthen pot with hot embers, held in a wicker basket. It is used by Kashmiris in severe winter beneath their traditional clothing pheran (cloak) to keep them warm. The wildlife staff who accompanied us minutely described how a kangri is crafted by expert designers. The kangri is not only a utilitarian device but a work of art.

The erstwhile Conservation Reserves of Shikargah and Khangund, now a part of the sanctuary, have the distinction of being one of the oldest notified wildlife areas of the country, with their notifications dating back to 1945. They were designated as the hunting reserves of the Maharaja of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu & Kashmir.

The Tral Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS) is a recently notified Protected Area (PA) of 155 sq. km. The topography is mainly hilly with forest-covered mountains, streams and rivers. Named after the historic town of Tral, it forms an important corridor for connecting Dachigam with Overa-Aru WLS, thus linking the hangul Cervus hanglu hanglu populations in these two PAs. Photo: Firdous Parray.

Problems And Solutions

There is no PA in India that does not have problems – some are common everywhere, such as overgrazing by domestic livestock and encroachment on the borders. Forest fires are becoming increasingly frequent, thanks to climate change. On top of this, there is a shortage of staff. Eating of crop or livestock by wild animals results in resentment against the staff and wildlife. The staff, already depleted in numbers, have to constantly attend to the incidents of human-wildlife conflict in villages, leaving them little time for patrolling the difficult terrain of the sprawling sanctuary. Many locals traditionally depend on the sanctuary for fodder, grazing of livestock, and stocking of fallen wood for severe winter months. As long as forest resources are used in a traditional and sustainable manner, it is not a problem.

The Tral WLS is home to more than 15 species of mammals including the leopard Panthera pardus and black bear Ursus thibetanus. Photo: Dr. Asad Rahmani.

The first author, who has been managing the sanctuary for three years, has suggested several management interventions in the freshly drafted Management Plan, such as strict protection of vulnerable areas, control of forest fires, soil conservation measures in some overgrazed and erosion-prone areas, increase in the number of staff and their training, arms registration in surrounding villages, constitution of village eco-development committees, quick compensation of damage by wildlife, vaccination of livestock, alternative livelihood opportunities for locals, awareness and publicity, basic facilities for tourists, development of walking/trekking trails, and training of local youth as nature guides. This newest sanctuary lacks good research on the flora and fauna found within its boundaries. Even a proper checklist of birds is not available. Preliminary surveys show that more than 150 bird species are found here, which include endemic and most sought-after species (from a birder’s point of view), such as the Kashmir Flycatcher Ficedula subrubra, the Kashmir Nuthatch Sitta cashmirensis, the Kashmir Nutcracker Nucifraga multipunctata and the Orange Bullfinch Pyrrhula aurantiaca.

The Tral Wildlife Sanctuary falls in the Endemic Bird Area 128: Western Himalaya of BirdLife International classification. Out of 11 restricted-range species of this Endemic Bird Area, Tral is home to the Tytler’s Leaf-warbler Phylloscopus tytleri, Kashmir Flycatcher Ficedula subrubra, Kashmir Nuthatch Sitta kashmirensis, and Orange Bullfinch Pyrrhula aurantiaca. One of the criteria of identification of a site as an IBA is Biome species. Tral falls in Biome 7: Sino-Himalayan Temperate Forest, and the following species of this biome are found here: Himalayan Monal Lophophorus impejanus, Himalayan Rubythroat Luscinia pectoralis, Streaked Laughingthrush Garrulax lineatus, Variegated Laughingthrush Trochalopteron variegatum, Rufous-naped Tit Parus rufonuchalis, Green-backed Tit Parus monticolus, Bar-tailed Tree-Creeper Certhia himalayana, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch Carduelis spinoides, Fire-fronted Serin Serinus pusillus, and Yellow-billed Blue Magpie Urocissa flavirostris.

At present, tourist facilities are rather limited (which could be a blessing in disguise). We suggest that at least some basic facilities could be developed so that intrepid birdwatchers can visit this conservation gem of Jammu and Kashmir. Proper training of local youth as tourist guides and development of nature trails will put off the pressure on more popular PAs such as Dachigam National Park.

Kashmir is undoubtedly one of the world’s finest montane landscapes, a true paradise on Earth. Tourism that prioritises nature and the communities that are sustained by magical destinations like Tral define that holy grail… responsible tourism.


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