Friday, September 3, 2010

A Visit to the Shimla Water Catchment Area (WCA) Wildlife Sanctuary, Himachal Pradesh, India

DSC00340 Koklass
Koklass Pheasant at the Shimla WCA Sanctuary, 2010. Photo by Anita Chauhan.

About the Sanctuary

The WCA Sanctuary, situated 8 Kms East of Shimla at an altitude of 1915 m to 2750 m, is a 20 minute drive from the city, via the Sanjauli-Dhalli Tunnel. The entrance of the sanctuary is located just off the highway. It is home to two species of pheasants – the Koklass pheasant and the Kaleej pheasant. This sanctuary is also a source of water supply to Shimla city, as the rain-fed stream water is collected in a large tank constructed over a century ago within the sanctuary.

According to the information leaflet of the Wildlife Division, Shimla, the sanctuary spreads over an area of 1015.02 ha, and was leased in perpetuity by the owner - Rana of Koti Estate - to the Shimla Municipal Committee in 1878. The forest was declared a Protected Forest in 1952; and was finally notified as a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1999. Till year 2006, it was under the administrative control of the Municipal Corporation of Shimla, and was handed over to the Wildlife Division of Shimla in 2009.

Apart from pheasants, the sanctuary is also home to Leopards, Himalayan Black Bears, Barking Deer, Goral, Langur, Macaques, Flying Squirrels, Yellow-throated Marten, and Porcupines. It is linked to the Chail Wildlife Sanctuary ( known for the wild population of Cheer pheasants) by a forest corridor at its southern boundry.

The sanctuary has a road going upto Seog that is accessible by car and bicycle; and various walking trails. At present, a wood cabin serves as a reception area for visitors where they can get permits for cars and bicycles (a fee of Rs. 25 per person and Rs. 200 per vehicle is charged). Visitors can also hire bicycles at the cabin for a small fee. Visitors can drive upto the water tank at Seog, and can obtain a permit for stopping at the Forest Rest House during the day. A new zonal office is being constructed at the entrance that is expected to be completed by next year. [ For information, contact : Wildlife Warden-cum-Deputy Conservator of Forests, Wildlife Division, Shimla. Telephone: 0177-2623993 ).

Signages at the entrance gate inform the visitors about the fee and the necessary precautions to take while in the sanctuary. The best time to sight the pheasants is early morning between 6 AM and 7 AM. Since it is open to visitors from 10 AM – 5 PM, special permission is required to visit at earlier hours. The hiking trails can be covered on foot in 3-5 hours. The trail leading upto Chharabra offers the best wildlife sightings. Visitors are advised to take a guard along while hiking, or be suitably prepared in case they encounter a leopard or a bear. Interestingly, most of the staff at the WCA sanctuary (except the chawkidars) is female.


Sighting the Koklass Pheasant

Myself, accompanied by my cousin and his family, had reached the sanctuary at 6:30 AM. We had arranged to meet the Forest Guard Ms. Gita (name changed for privacy). The morning sky was only slightly cloudy, raising our hopes for a rain-free Sunday.

A narrow ‘kutcha’ road leads into the sanctuary, to the water tank (an Olympic swimming pool- sized tank with rock walls, that was constructed by the British 100 years ago). The drive to the water tank is through pristine devdar forest. Every turn brings into view beautiful flora and superb views of the valley. There are several streams and waterfalls that intersect the path, small brightly painted wooden bridges across them dot the path. The water from these streams is collected in the large tank, which then flows through pipes running underground below the path to Filtering Stations supplying water to Shimla and Sanjauli.

We drove slowly on the ‘kutcha’ road, taking in the scenery, stopping once in a while to inspect colorful mushrooms and wildflowers growing along the road. (Also saw dung mounds of herbivores on the road deposited previously).

Suddenly, my cousin stopped the car and pointed ahead towards the roadside. A Koklass male was walking majestically away from us – giving us a window of 15 seconds to grab and focus our cameras. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, it flew downhill and disappeared into the forest valley – leaving us dizzy with excitement! According to the forest guard Ms. Gita, although WCA Sanctuary has the largest population of Koklass in H.P., sightings are uncommon.

We drove to the water tank which had been emptied for cleaning, and sighted many passerine bird species in the area. We also went to the Forest Rest House and chatted with the guard, who offered us tea and told us about his encounters with the leopard in the sanctuary.

For wildlife fanatics, definately worth another visit.

Concerns

An interesting fact is that – unlike other wildlife sanctuaries in the country – WCA Sanctuary doesnot permit habitation and exploitation of minor forest produce (MFP) like firewood, honey, herbs etc by the local population. It is considered ecologically vulnerable as it is also a catchment area for the city water supply.

The worrisome fact is that – although the sanctuary is connected by a forest corridor to Chail Wildlife Sanctuary at one of its periphery - the corridor has private land holdings which are increasingly subject to agriculture or urbanization, reducing the connection between the 2 sanctuaries.

Lodging

There is a 3 Star Hotel Wood Park situated conveniently near the sanctuary entrance near Dhalli. The famous Oberoi Wildflower Hall Hotel is also situated nearby.

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