On 23 June, UNESCO decided to put the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) Conservation Area in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh on the World Heritage List, acknowledging it as one of the world’s most important and significant natural habitats for conservation of biological diversity, containing threatened species of outstanding universal value.
Set up in 1984, GHNP (754.4 sq km) was formally declared a national park in 1999. Two wildlife sanctuaries —Sainj (90 sq km) and Tirthan (61 sq km) —were notified in 1994 and together they form the Great Himalayan National Park Conservation Area, spanning 905.4 sq km.
More than 15,000 residents of 160 villages in the buffer zone are dependent on GHNP’s natural resources. The glacial and snow melt waters from the park become the westerly flowing Jiwa Nal, Sainj and Tirthan rivers and the north-westerly flowing Parvati river — all headwater tributaries that feed the Beas and, subsequently, the Indus river.
Home to rare species such as the Western Tragopan, Chir Pheasant, Snow Leopard, Himalayan Musk Deer, Asiatic Black Bear, Himalayan Tahr, Blue Sheep and Serow, the park supports 8 percent of all plant species, 10 percent of mammals, 21 percent of birds, 7 percent of reptiles and 9 percent of amphibians. Many of these are endemic and globally threatened.
GHNP is also contiguous with the Khirganga National Park (710 sq km), the Pin Valley National Park (675 sq km) in trans-Himalaya, Rupi-Bhabha Wildlife Sanctuary (503 sq km) in the Sutlej watershed and Kanawar Wildlife Sanctuary (61 sq km). The world heritage site tag will hopefully draw more attention to this contiguous protected area of very high conservation value stretching across nearly 3,000 sq km.
To begin with, GHNP was free of human habitation. But people from nearby villages moved in and out to graze their sheep and goats and collect herbs. In 1999, the administration paid Rs 1.8 crore to 369 families to settle these rights. For several others, who did not have such traditional rights but depended on the park for their livelihood, the forest administration began income generation programmes. Subsequently, many villagers benefitted from alternative livelihood activities, particularly ecotourism.
The process of resettling three villages from Sainj wildlife sanctuary and providing monetary compensation to settle grazing rights in Tirthan is still under way and facing some resistance. But there is no dearth of local goodwill for GHNP. This May, 70 members of the community-based ecotourism cooperative society were among those who wrote to UNESCO in support of GHNP’s claim.
The reasons are not hard to find. The park authorities have not denied the locals access to their many sacred sites inside the park. During festivals, villagers enter the park to pray and make offerings to their deities, accompanied by forest guards who ensure no poaching or littering takes place. Unlike many other forests and national parks across the country, here, no complaint has been lodged by local people concerning access to religious sites in the past 12 years.
Alongside, the GHNP management has followed a strict policy to safeguard the fragile Himalayan ecosystems, guided by the Wildlife Institute of India and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. There is no motorable road inside the park. This has kept the number of trekkers at just around 1,000 per year — the hardy few who will hazard the 15 km trek from where the roads end in Sainj, Tirthan, or Jiwanal Valleys.
While trekking within the park has remained regulated and low impact, cultural tourism and moderate trekking is encouraged in the buffer zone and boosts the local hospitality industry, in turn inspiring community efforts for better protection and participatory management of GHNP.
“This, indeed, is a very significant moment in the conservation history of the Western Himalayas,” says Sanjeeva Pandey, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, who served eight years as GHNP’s first director. “There are so many small sacred groves commemorating saints who came here to meditate in the great sanctuary of Himalayas. This inscription as a World Heritage Site is an honour to the indigenous traditional conservation practices as well as those sacred places.”
Amid celebration and hope, one cannot but wonder what is in store for this magnificent wilderness in the near future. So far, GHNP has been lucky, thanks to its demographic advantages and fine management. But that could turn into a ticket for infrastructure development as well — free as the area is of human habitation and subsequent costs and complications of rehabilitation. There has been talk of hydro-electricity projects on the Sainj and Tirthan rivers. A critical part of the national park was denotified soon after it was set up in 1999 to make room for the Parvati hydroelectricity project. No, even GHNP is not out of bounds for development.
But that was before GHNP became a world heritage site, did you wonder? Before seeking security in the global spotlight, GHNP should watch how the future pans out for the Western Ghats, another world heritage site and one of the world’s eight richest biodiversity hotspots. The UPA government undermined the Gadgil committee report by appointing another panel under K Kasturirangan to water down the original recommendations, only to defer implementing even the compromised stipulations. On 7 July, the new government is supposed to submit its position before the National Green Tribunal on the issue. Any guess where they will draw the line?
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