Monday, June 28, 2010

Great Himalayan National Park – Biodiversity hotspot in the Western Himalayas

Photo: Trekkers in the beautiful background of Dhauladhar ranges.Taken on way to Sar Pass in Kullu District of Himachal Pradesh, India from Tila Lotani Camp (12,500 ft.) at 7 a.m. on 10/5/07 by J.M. Garg.

The Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) is one of the newest National Parks in India. It is located in Kullu district in the state of Himachal Pradesh. The park was notified in the year 1984. The park is spread over an area of 1,171 km2 between altitudes of 1500 and 6000m in the Western Himalayas.

The GHNP is a region of high biological diversity - a habitat for more than 375 fauna species that comprises nearly around 31 mammals, 181 birds, 3 reptiles, 9 amphibians, 11 annelids, 17 mollusks and 127 insects. These are protected under the guidelines of Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, which also disallow hunting of wild animals and prohibits human interference in the Core area of the Park.

The Himachal Government (with a team of Indian and international wildlife biologists) undertook a survey of the watersheds of Jiwa, Sainj, and Tirthan rivers in Kullu district – the Himachal Wildlife Project (1980, 1983) - which yielded the first contemporary data in India on the status and ecology of wild fauna such as the Western Tragopan and Cheer Pheasants. It also identified the site for the establishment of the Great Himalayan National Park, representing the Western Himalayan Moist Temperate forest.

Out of the total area of the National Park - 1,171 sq km - a 5 km wide buffer area, extending from the western periphery of the Park, has been classified as the Ecozone. The Ecozone has an area of 326.6 sq km (including 61 sq kms of Tirthan wildlife sanctuary) with about 120 small villages, comprising 1600 households with a human population of about 16,000. An area of 90 sq. kms. in Sainj valley has been classified as Sainj Wildlife Sanctuary, which allows limited access to village people for harvesting Minor Forest Produce.

The boundaries of GHNP are contiguous with the Pin Valley National Park in Trans-Himalaya, the Rupi-Baba Wildlife Sanctuary in Sutlej watershed, and the Kanawar Wildlife Sanctuary. The varied wildlife habitats of these protected areas support the Western Himalayan biodiversity – tropical, alpine and Tibetan. The Park is a crucial protected area because it connects other ‘island’ habitats, increasing the availability of migration routes between protected areas which is essential for the survival of many animals.

A trek in any of the Park's 4 valleys, brings one into the high altitude habitat of animals such as the Blue sheep and Snow leopards. The best time to sight the wildlife is autumn (September-November) as the animals start their seasonal migration to lower altitudes before the winter sets in.

Among the large mammals that visitors may encounter, there are several species of herbivores that are characteristic of the Park.

• The Goral (Naemorhedus goral), a small goat-antelope found in the lower forests
• Himalayan Tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus) in the higher forests
• the Bharal, or Blue Sheep (Pseudois nayaur) above the tree-line
• These mammals are the prey for Leopards (in the forest zone)
• and Snow Leopards (above tree-line).
• Himalayan Black Bears inhabit the forests
• Asiatic brown Bears occur on the alpine meadows.

Among birds, the Park is well known as the most important habitat for the endangered Western Tragopan. Four other species of pheasants (Cheer, Koklass, Kalij, Monal) occur in or adjacent to the Park. Raptors are also a prominent feature of the Park - Lammergeiers, Himalayan Griffon Vultures, and Golden Eagles. A great variety of other birds also occurs, some of which reach the western limit of their geographical distribution in the Park.

Tourism Activities - Trekking

The Great Himalayan National Park offers the hiker a wide range of experiences in the natural wonders of the Park. Trails range from relatively easy day walks in the Ecozone, to challenging week or longer treks through arduous and spectacular terrain.

At GHNP, there are numerous habitats for exploration: from lush forests of oak, conifer, and bamboo, to gentle alpine meadows; swift flowing rivers, high elevation glaciers. There are opportunities to observe endangered species of the Western Himalayas in their natural habitat.

Reaching GHNP

The starting point for any trekking or visit to GHNP is the Kullu Valley in the state of Himachal Pradesh. This region is best accessible by air (road routes also available). A pre-trek meeting at GHNP headquarters in Shamshi (near Kullu) is recommended.

The Park offers excellent opportunities for bird watching, wildlife viewing, religious pilgrimages and cultural tours. There are 4 entrance points to the Park. The Park has two facilities for tourists: a Tourist Center at Sai Ropa and an Information Center at Larjee.

Conservation Issues

GHNP is a major source of water for the rural and urban centers of the region with four major rivers of the area originating from the glaciers in the Park. A series of 11 small hydro-electric dams are planned for the Tirthan river.

The villages in the Ecozone have historically had some economic dependence on the resources of the land that was later incorporated into the Park. The designation of the Park boundaries and the resulting loss of these resources have economically impacted these villages. In response, various programs have, and are being, developed by the state government of Himachal Pradesh, NGO's (non-government organizations), and the villagers, to create alternative employment.

Park Resources

The forest provides local people with Non- Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) such as honey, fruit, nuts, mushroom, bark of birch, Rhododendron flowers, medicinal plants (e.g., Aconites, Valerians, Taxus, Dactyloirhiza, and Jurinea ), bamboo and fuel wood.

The most important non-agricultural use of land in the Kullu and Seraj region was animal-grazing in the countryside. Village households had small numbers of cattle, sheep and goats for subsistence use. For commercial use, local villagers and outsiders also kept larger flocks of sheep and goats, which had to migrate in search of food. Each spring, with receding snows, flocks moved upwards through the forest zone into alpine pastures, grazing on nutritious upland vegetation. Spring is also the Pheasant's breeding season, and the presence of large flocks, often accompanied by dogs, results in nests being abandoned or eggs being stolen. There is also a risk of disease transmission from the cattle to the wild herbivores.


The villagers hunted mammals and birds in the forest, especially in winter when the snows drove ungulates down the mountainsides toward the farm settlements. They do not use guns, but lay snares for Quail, Pheasants, and even mammals such as Goral, Bharal (blue sheep) and Musk deer for food and other products.

Monal, Western tragopan and Koklass pheasants were killed for their meat, and crest feathers which were used for decorating traditional head-gear. Falcons were sold to Pathan traders.

Skyrocketing prices in international markets, overwhelmed the capacity of officials to control or even monitor the harvest. The most dangerous case was the market for the musk pod of male Musk deer, which were hunted close to extinction in the 1970s. The price for Brown and Black bear skins had also escalated. The hunters were mostly local men, but there were some outsiders too. In 1982, hunting was banned in Himachal Pradesh, including in GHNP.

Conservation Organisations

In principal, the dependencies of the local communities on the biodiversity of the Park (in form of herb collection, sheep grazing, etc.) will be reduced if they are provided with the alternative source of income. In practice, bringing about a change in the livelihoods is a difficult thing to do. It can not be done by merely offering them alternate income generation packages - handlooms, bee-keeping boxes, tool kits, etc. - without social or infrastructural support.

The key to change has been the Village Ecodevelopment Committees (VEDCs) and the smaller self-sustained user-groups, such as Women's Saving and Credit Groups (WSCGs).

Park officials are collaborating with the local non-government organization SAHARA (Society for the Advancement of Hill Rural Areas) to organize the women of poor families into small Women's Savings and Credit Groups (WSCGs) groups.

The most important activities that these groups are currently engaged in include medicinal plant cultivation (in the Ecozone), vermicomposting, organic farming, and production of handicrafts. These activities are starting to provide some alternative income to replace their loss of herb collecting rights in GHNP.

Conservation Education and Health-care activities by NGOs have also helped to improve the standard of living in the village communities. Poultry farming will perhaps reduce their dependence on hunting birds and animals as sources of protein. Involvement of locals in EcoTourism activities, offers rewards to both the visitors and the villagers, and helps protect the GHNP.


Poaching activities have affected the wildlife in the Park. Enforcement is difficult unless people in the buffer zone realize their responsibility to conserve the wildlife heritage of the State. Poaching of Musk deer, Brown bear and Goral (goat-antelope) and illegal harvesting of medicinal plants like Vallerina (Nainu), Pichroriza (Kauru), Aconitum (Patish), and incense (Dhoop), still pose a problem . Birds such as Monal and Western tragopan are on the verge of extinction though hunting was banned in Himachal Pradesh in 1982. Estimated numbers of Musk deer and Goral killed in a year in this area are around 50 and 100 respectively.

Photo source : Wikipedia - J.M. Garg
Information sources:
Tribune News Service,Naveen S. Grewal


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