From Nainadevi To Nandhaur

First published on March 16, 2015

By Vaishali Rawat

Lucky Break

Before we delve into my first experience of wildlife conservation in the field, I should clarify that I'm a newbie - albeit a very eager one, and this is from a fresher's perspective. I've been obsessed with the glories of the wild ever since I first visited Corbett in the spring of ‘09. The silent serenity of the seemingly endless stretches of green (for someone who grew up in the city, it did seem endless!), the grazing chital, and the lone majesty of a strikingly handsome sambar, his velvet covered horns glistening from a distance - it's all still etched in my mind.

Naturally, I was thrilled when Prerna Bindra, a former member of the National Board for Wildlife and the founder trustee of Bagh Foundation, told me she was going to the forests of North Kumaon, and asked me to come along! Having worked with her for about a year, I was eager for the exposure and insight this trip would provide me with - besides of course the sheer pleasure of being in the forest! As a member of the State Board for Wildlife, Uttarakhand, she focuses much of her attention on the Rajaji-Corbett Landscape, and works to influence policy to support wildlife conservation.

Photo: Vaishali Rawat.

Shaping Nainadevi

Our first stop after the ten hour drive from Gurgaon to Nainital was the village of Panghot. The village is within the boundary of the proposed Nainadevi Avifauna Conservation Reserve, which is expected to encompass about 200 sq. km. of this region, extending from Kilbury to Gangikhadak. This region is very rich in flora and is unique in the fact that it has five species of oak trees. It is particularly well known for its avifauna, especially pheasants, and we were lucky to spot one, the Koklass, during a short walk to the forest rest house. The proposed reserve is also home to the Khaleej, and the endangered Cheer Pheasant. Excitingly, it may well be the place where the Mountain Quail, long thought to be extinct, could still exist!

The primary purpose of our visit was to be a part of the consultative process with the villagers in and around the proposed reserve. The meeting was well attended with the villagers, their gram mukhiya, other representatives of the village bodies, forest officials and staff as well as a few people from the tourism resorts present there. The concept and the purpose of the conservation reserve was explained to the villagers. Though they had some worries (more to do with conflict with macaques), the villagers were largely keen to see that the forests preserved. They did not want their forests to go the ‘Nainital way', and also wanted good, responsible tourism, that would bring them benefit.

We spent the next night at the Kilbury FRH, which is further disconnected from civilization - or so it seems. During the summer months, the Himalayan peaks are visible from this point but in the winter, the mist obliterates the view of the peaks.

Early next morning, we decided to take a walk on a small pugdundee near our FRH. We strolled through an area where leopard sightings were not infrequent. As we made our way through an elevated, uneven path, looking down at the shallow ravine through the majestic deodars, I could vividly imagine the beautiful creature shyly wandering through the trees, paws padding cautiously on the forest floor, perhaps climbing up the ravine through the very path that we were tracing. It was thus incredibly unnerving to find the path littered with broken beer bottles, plastic containers and shards of glass which could easily hurt any animal; this callous attitude towards ones indigenous environment is beyond me. Needless to say, we spent the morning cleaning up the mess!

Photo: Vaishali Rawat.

Connected to Corbett

We left to make a brief halt at Nandhaur Wildlife Sanctuary and the journey was as exciting as the destination. We stopped for a drink by a mountain stream, and another time, halted as we spotted a family of three yellow throated martens curiously peeking at us from behind a tree.We then proceeded to the forests of Ramnagar, and Prerna explained why it was important that these too be given some protective cover. Apart from harbouring breeding tiger and elephant populations, with a density that almost equals that of Corbett (which lies adjacent to it), this division is a crucial link in strengthening the fragmented protected areas of the larger Terai Arc Landscape (TAL).

That conservation is a tough field to enter in is something I have heard too many times to count. After meeting Shri Paramjit Singh, the Chief Conservator of Forests - Kumaon, I reassessed. He was encouraging and more than generous in his guidance and extremely supportive of youngsters trying to break into the field. I met him at Pawalgarh Conservation Reserve, which is part of the Ramnagar Forest Division. Sitting at the Pawalgarh FRH while it was pouring outside, I followed a conversation between Paramjit sir, his colleagues, and others associated in the wildlife world, about the current situation of wildlife in India, and their worries about its future, given the various threats like poaching and loss of habitat.

More than anything, it's clear to me that conservation isn't an easy job and a battle awaits at every corner. There are fewer warriors than there are battles and the odds aren't in our favour. Yet, listening to committed conservationists like them, I'm hopeful - for the future of our wild flora and fauna - and inspired to be even half as proficient as them. Rains spoiled our plans for an early bird watching walk, so we got right down to business: a birding workshop for local residents and aspiring naturalists and guides, which was organised by Rajesh Pawar of Milieu Hospitality in collaboration with the Uttarakhand Forest Department, A. G. Ansari, a wildlife conservationist and Bagh Foundation.

An Afterthought

When I met Prerna and requested her mentorship, the first thing she told me was that there's nothing glamorous about most of her work - that it included administrative paperwork, preparing reports, advocating for policy that is conservation-friendly, poring over heavy documents and hectic travel schedules. (This trip, where we travelled to four different areas in four days, was one of her more luxurious trips!) Yet, it seems to me that it is imperative to do whatever it takes - work with government, media , debate over policies, fight for protection , campaign for public support; each step is essential to ensure the survival of our precious wildlife before it's too late.

Photo: Varun Thakkar.

Post Script: This article was written in December 2014. In March 2015, the Uttarakhand government formally notified the Nainadevi Himalayan Bird Conservation Reserve!

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