The Parvati Valley in Himachal Pradesh

Report on Ecology of Parvati Valley in Himachal Pradesh
Himachal Pradesh, India

DELHI, INDIA – The Himalayan range is one of the most spectacular wonders of India. In recent years, the Himalayas have become the focus of much environmental concern. In terms of bio-diversity, the Kanawar wildlife sanctuary located in Parvati valley of Kullu district is worthy of close attention.

Kullu Valley, popularly known as the ” Dev bhumi” is host to diverse flora and fauna found in a number of National Parks and sanctuaries. A metal road from Bhunter, where Parvati River merges into Beas River, leads into the Parvati valley. The Parvati River runs through the valley. The valley holds many small and big villages on both sides. Most of the population is concentrated on the northern part of the valley. The number of houses per village varies from five to sixty. The villages have their own traditions and customs. The prime occupation of the villagers is agriculture and livestock rearing. Electricity reaches even the remotest of villages.

There are numerous gods worshipped in the valley. Every village has its own god associated with their village and have sacred places around the village. The temples are beautifully built and rituals are performed regularly. Strict rules are maintained for entering the temples. Carving is very common in the temples and many temples also have horns decorated on outer walls. The belief is so strong that even the high passes in the mountains have small worship places. One of the popular tourist and pilgrimage places is Manikaran, known for its Hot Springs. This beautiful valley is becoming more and more popular with tourists.

Villagers of Beas River Valley

I have frequented the Kanawar wildlife sanctuary since 1990.The forests are shrinking at a very fast pace and the human settlements adjoining the sanctuary are expanding at a considerable rate. Thus, demanding more and more sacrifice from the forests and the wildlife. People living in the vicinity of Beas River have already witnessed the consequences of deforestation in the form of landslides. Parvati valley is also heading in the same direction.

This report attempts to provide a brief overview of some aspects of the ecological crisis from the point of view of a traveler vis-à-vis my hands-on experiences of the same. I studied the landscape, spoke to villagers and officials. However this is in no way a complete research on the aspects of conservation. I am neither a professional writer, nor a professional social scientist.

This report has the following sections:

Fundamental Ecology

Human interests and wildlife

Threatened species


Fundamental Ecology

Much has been said than done on the detrimental effects of modern civilization on the environment. More so while referring to the effect on the wildlife. The threat to the country’s national parks and sanctuaries continues unabated. Human greed backed by an unabated pressure of human population is taking its toll on the green reserves of the country at an astonishing pace.

The Kanawar wildlife sanctuary is home to a host of many endangered plants and animals like the Serow, the Himalayan Tahr, the Chir Pheasant, the Musk Deer and the Western Tragopan, which has been listed in the Red Data Book of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In fact the Western Tragopan is limited to the Western Himalayas and the GHNP is one of the two National Parks in the world that supports the bird.

Human interests and wildlife

Endangered species protection efforts in the field are severely hampered by the high profitability of illegal wildlife trade. Consumption of endangered species products has become prevalent in India and many other countries, where greater affluence and buying power have not been matched by greater consumer awareness of the consequences of illegal wildlife trade.

An explosion of human population with intense human activities has had
far reaching effects on wildlife. Extensive deforestation resulting in
habitat destruction supported with indiscriminate hunting of birds and
animals has threatened many species with their existence. It is evident that messages of conservation are yet to reach the interior parts of Himachal Pradesh.

Deforestation is again posing a serious threat to both flora and fauna in the Parvati valley. It is not uncommon to hear the sound of an axe striking a tree in the forests. The past decade has seen a large amount of deforestation, which definitely is a cause of concern. As the population is growing, the need for construction has increased manyfold. The timber required for the same is derived from the forests. This has led to massive deforestation. The villages directly depend upon the forest for fuel, timber, herb collection, charcoal and livestock grazing.

One can find numerous trees which have been burnt. The tree is burnt to get charcoal. Often the burnt tree is left unattended during the night. This could be one major reason for forest fires. Apart from this, number of trees bear deep scars, which are made to extract gum. There are variety of plants and herbs, which are of great value. These are generally used for their medicinal values. Unfortunately the collection of these plants and herbs is done extensively, which reduces the rate at which they multiply.

Another reason for the clearing of forest area is the need of land for the cultivation of poppy plants popularly known as “charas”. The fear of authorities lead the cultivators of this plant to grow it in the denser parts of the forest and at a higher altitude. A well-camouflaged clearing is made amongst the refuge of the dense trees. Poppies require less investment and care than other crops, but at the same time it yields high profits which lure more and more people into it. The wild inhabitants and the forests pay the heavy price instead.

On one side of the river lies the famous village “Malana”. This is one of the oldest settlements in India. The ancestors of the village are believed to be the soldiers of Alexander’s army who fled and settled in the mountains. The charas cultivated in this area is considered to be of a very high quality. It is very common to see the drug abusers, which are of foreign origin mostly, setting up in the area. It is high time the authorities take immediate steps to bring this business to an end, which is directly and indirectly contributing in destroying the flora and fauna of the valley.

Over the last ten years Kasol has been commercialized into a small township. Back in the early 90s Kasol was a small village bearing few houses. Today numerous houses, hotels and restaurants have sprung up in the region. As the human concentration has multiplied, the road traffic has increased drastically. Both are effecting the ecology of the area.

Adding further fuel to the conservation problems in the Parvati valley is the construction of two power projects on the Parvati River. Malana Nala project, which is being, built about a few kilometers downstream from Manikaran on the Parvati River has resulted in major deforestation. Massive pipelines have been laid through which the water from the Malana Nala will be diverted into Parvati River. A road has been built after clearing the area, which was once a dense cover for the wild inhabitants.

A few kilometers upstream from this project, is another Hydel power project. Few years ago there was only a small trek route connecting the villages with the road head at Manikaran. As years passed, the forests gave way to a metal road on this route. Heavy traffic uses this road to transport the equipment required for the construction. Again large scale clearing was done to accommodate the project. Earlier this area had less human presence, making it a perfect home for wild inhabitants. In the early nineties, this stretch was abundant with species of birds and small animals like Red Fox, Civets etc. The call of the nature has turned into vehicle horns and running of heavy machinery. As the project progresses, the forest and its inhabitants are bound to reduce.

Threatened Species:

Snow leopard, Leopard, Himalayan black bear, Himalayan brown bear, Himalayan red fox, civets, jackals, serow, Himalayan tahr, Musk deer, goral, blue sheep, Monal, Koklass, Kalij and western tragopan are amongst the many species inhabiting the forests of the valley.

The most threatened species is the elusive Snow leopard. It is a very shy animal and an inhabitant of remote habitats. It is a strictly protected animal but still falls prey to poachers for its coat. It preys on wild sheep and goat, which share the habitat, and sometimes on domestic livestock, which leads to a clash with humans.

Though there are many existing conservation programs to save the Snow leopard, the threat is strong as ever. It is evident from the fact that their population is fast decreasing. Major campaigns have to be launched in this regard to help save the extinction of the snow leopard.

The villagers who share the habitat with this magnificent cat should be compensated for the loss of their livestock caused by the snow leopard. They generally complain about the unreasonably meager amount of compensation and the long process to get it. Compensating them reasonably would discourage them from avenging the deaths of their livestock. Their involvement should be emphasized in helping save the snow leopard. Organizing campaigns for generating awareness amongst the locals, making them understand the need to save the Snow Leopard and the ways they can co-exist with it.

I learnt from a villager the way Snow Leopards are sometimes trapped. The livestock in mountains are generally kept in the ground floor rooms where as the owners live on the first floor. Often there is a vent on the roof of the ground floor. The predator enters the area where the livestock is kept and makes the kill. While it is suffocating the its prey, the vent is opened and a folk shaped long and strong stick is used to pin the cat to the ground from its neck and then the room is stormed with laths and other weapons. Similar accounts were narrated to me in Ladakh and Garwal to capture or kill the leopard.

Himachal pradesh was once abundant with bears, both brown and Himalayan black bear. There is a serious threat to both these species. The former is lesser in number than its cousin which prefers the lower heights near the tree line. The Himalayan black and brown bear are omnivorous. It is a very intelligent animal. It avoids humans. On hearing human voices, it moves away minimizing chances of confrontation. But on a surprised confrontation with human, it generally attacks and the injuries are normally fatal.

I recall an incident narrated by a local residing in a village adjoining the park, about the fellow villager. This person was walking on a pugdundee, local name for pack-track, on the hillside. On a blind turn, he came face to face with a Black bear. On being surprised, the bear attacked him, clawing him all over his body. He fell to the ground and played dead. Fortunately, he fell besides a rock. The bear dug his claws on his face trying to open his eyes to see life in him. Then the bear covered him with heavy branches and left. Returning a few times to confirm his death, it finally left. The rock prevented the weight of branches from falling on the man. Severely wounded the man made it to his village from where he was taken to the hospital. Fortunately he survived.

Himalayan profile
(photo courtesy of Nasa)

On two of my treks, I was surprised to see the gaddis, the local nomads, carrying single barrel rifles. On questioning, he promptly said that it was for his livestock and crop protection. As the conversation progressed he boasted of killing more than a dozen bears and leopards. I learnt that there is a good market for bears and leopards. The liver of the bear fetches good price apart from rest of the parts. And of course, the leopard skin is in great demand along with its bones in Southeast Asia.

Another reason for the decline of bears is due to their crop raiding during the harvest season. Bears often raid corn and maize farms when the crop is ready to harvest. This brings them in conflict with farmers of whom most are equipped with guns. They fall prey to the bullets. It is possible that these guns are also used for poaching. There should be frequent monitoring of the population of bears and leopards as their number is decreasing. Security in the sanctuary should be made more efficient as to check the poaching activities and the people carrying firearms and the documents of their possession.

There is a large variety of wild sheep and goats occupying the Himalayan Mountains. They adjust very well with climate and the terrain. Their strong footing helps them reach food at vertical slopes of the mountain. Bharal, Musk deer, Tahr, Seerow, Goral and Himalayan goat are inhabitants of the Parvati valley. One can find large herds, grazing in the interiors of the forests and the cliffs.

Initially, their own magnificent head bearing the horns along with their natural preys were responsible for their diminishing number. The horns are a priced possession of villages. Most of the temples are decorated with these horns. Handicraft manufacturers are also somewhat responsible for their decline. The horns and bones as well are used in making handles, pistol butts, curios etc.

The most wanted of these species is the
musk deer. The population of musk deer is fast decreasing in the Himalayas. It is sought for its musk. Poaching is mainly responsible for their declining number. The musk is readily available in almost every part of India. It is not hard to see people selling it in trains, buses and tourist places. It is very sad to know that the musk deer is killed for its musk, which is sold at a mere price of a few hundred.

Nowadays these herbivores come in competition with the nomad’s livestock. The livestock of the nomads invade the “thatches”, pasturelands, which are feeding grounds of the goats and sheep. Often these are chased away by the nomad’s dogs that accompany the livestock. There is a lot of human interference in their habitat. Often the people who collect herbs and plants frequent the cliffs on which these species move around. This scares them away thus depriving them of their essential freedom.

Parvati valley is also host to variety of bird species. It is a paradise for bird watchers. The best time for this hobby is early mornings and late afternoons. The birds pay regular visits to the streams.

Long tailed minivet, verditer flycatcher, common hoopoe, ring rosed parakeet, black kite, variety of thrushes, tits, warblers, and yellow billed blue magpie are a few of the common birds in the valley .The birds of prey normally seen in the valley are Common Buzzard, Booted Eagle, Lammergier, Cinerous Vulture and Golden Eagle, although the sightings of both Golden Eagle and Cinerous vulture have become less now days. During my visits till mid nineties the Golden Eagle were a seen commonly perching on cliffs. But in the later half the sightings reduced to the extent that I did not see a single Golden eagle in two consecutive years. (1997-98).

Among the pheasants, Monal, Koklas, Cheer, Kalij are found in the denser part of the forests. A lucky few may also have a glimpse of the Western Tragopan. One can hear the pheasants calling at daybreak. Western Tragopan which is a highly threatened bird species is found in some parts Kanawar wildlife sanctuary along with the Great Himalayan National park which lies to the south of Kanawar sanctuary. There has been a drastic decrease in the population of this pheasant. There is an urgent need to protect them from disappearing. Monal, which might face the fate of Western Tragopan, is the state bird of Himachal Pradesh. The pre-mating dancing ritual performed by male Monals to attract the females is a treat to the eyes.

Earlier, the pheasants were sorted for their meat and crests. In traditional functions, it is easy to see people wearing the crests on their hats. Though the practice has reduced now. But the killing of the bird for meat might be going unnoticed because birds are small and easy to conceal. The picture shows locals wearing Monal crest and feathers on their hat.

Presently the construction of the Dam in the Parvati valley is bound to effect the population of the pheasants. The blasting done to make tunnels for the project on the same mountains which has a good population of pheasants will scare them. The mating will be disturbed due to much activity in the area. Thus resulting in further decline in their population. At the end of this project we may realize that we have lost much than gained. The Hydel power project is not only effecting birds but also the whole biological diversity of the valley.

Some suggestions and recommendations:

Respect for wildlife habitat: Several activities (agriculture, dams, roads, etc.) cause destruction of forests, with serious impacts on wildlife. There is an urgent need to understand such impacts, and to avoid interference in the most critical wildlife habitats. Legal and social monitoring may ensure that human activity is not causing loss of biological diversity of the valley.

Poaching: The poachers have a big stake in killing wild animals and pheasants such as musk deer for musk, bear for liver, fats and pelt, and pheasants for crest and meat due to their commercial value. Crop protection guns issued to the villagers contribute to poaching activities in the area. Undercover investigation to gather information on illegal wildlife trade is required to expose wildlife dealers and help in disintegrating the wildlife trade network.

Commercial Threats: Activities such as power generation, dams, roads, tourism and encroachments of forestlands due to farming, are the greatest threats to ecology of the Parvati valley. Rights in relation to extraction of forest products should be limited. Though activities of development, these are a threat to ecological areas, and also threaten local community livelihoods, It is noticed that urban and modern lifestyles and consumerism are a major factor in the above threats.

Tourism: Tourism in wildlife habitats should be environmentally and culturally discouraged, otherwise it will remain a major threat. To ensure this, a strict code of conduct should be formulated and enforced. Commercial activities other than those by the locals should be discouraged and tourist zones should be demarcated.

Old laws: Considering the fragility of the ecosystem of the valley archaic laws which date back to as early as to India’s pre-independence period should be analyzed and appropriately amended. These should take into account unnoticed poaching activities and devise a system to create legal checks not only by the allocated workforce but also by volunteers from the local populace. Adding sensitive areas under protected area status to stop anti-biological activities will help in protecting the wildlife. The rights of the locals should be well defined so as to reach a balance between their needs and wildlife habitat.

Conservation Awareness: There is an urgent need for creating awareness and raising information levels on ecological and conservation issues. There should be frequent wildlife survival discussions with locals. Educational programs that promote awareness and changes in attitude towards wildlife through the medium of television, slide shows, street plays and pamphlets will go a long way in creating awareness in the locals. Alternative employment opportunities should be created for communities depending on wildlife for economic interests.

Local involvement. Involving local people living in and around the sanctuary in conservation programs and making them realize the importance of saving the wildlife. These people are aware of the local people involved in poaching activities. Small groups in the villages to check such activities can be formed to further propagate the cause of conservation. Incentives should be given to people giving information about poaching and other activities like felling of trees etc. Involvement of locals is a must to suppress anti poaching activities, identifying the offenders and bringing them to book.

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Flag of India

Government Initiative: It’s often a case of too little too late. The government usually will not react until a species is severely threatened. The government has to be proactive in terms of conserving the flora and fauna of the state. The bio-diversity of the state has suffered immensely due to lack of interest shown by the government. The government gives preference to developmental activities at the cost of wildlife. It should give wildlife its due share of respect and further help in conserving them by providing advance training and latest techniques to the forest department. It is noted that the number of guards in the forests is very few which should be increased. It should ensure proper utilization of funds for the same and ensure that the laws are not confined to the book.

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One Response to “The Parvati Valley in Himachal Pradesh”
  1. T says:

    Charas is not made from poppy but from hemp. Still sad that the wildlife suffers from the production.


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