Q: What is the total area of the National Park?

A: The Park is spread over an area of 141 sq km. Known for its biodiversity and a thick forest cover, Dachigam is counted under the category of a mixed forest ecosystem. As such the total area of the Park is basically the total forest envelope. The Park has been segregated into three divisions: Upper, Middle and Lower Dachigam.

Q: How many species of animals and plants are found in the Park?

A: There are about 20 species of large mammals apart from minifauna and variety of birds. There are nearly 100 species of trees including some shrubs besides more than 800 species of herbaceous plants. Some plants having medicinal value including those which are used for treating cancer grown in the Park.

Q: Tell us something about Hangul population in the Park? Has it changed since you joined the Park?

A:We have had census reports doing rounds since the beginning. The most recent one was conducted in 2015 but the results are yet to be announced. However, the one we did in 2011 showed growing signs for this Red Deer species. The fawnfemale ratio was also showing increase. The number was slightly more than 180. But we are still waiting for the 2015 report.

Q: Tell us about the breeding season of Hangul, its eating habits, habitat, height of males and females, antlers in males?

A: Hangul is a herbivore and the forest in Dachigam has more than enough reserves for its nourishment. Its breeding season starts in mid- September and continues for 3-4 weeks. After a gestation period of nearly 9 months, the fawn is delivered in the month of May-June. The habitat of Hangul is specifically the National Park and it migrates from lower to upper divisions of the Park during winters and summers respectively. The average height of a male Hangul is about 5 feet while the females are relatively shorter. The antlers on males grow with age and are shed annually. The fallen antlers then form a rich source of calcium for the porcupines.

Situated in the lap of Zabarwan hills on the Srinagar city outskirts, the lush green Dachigam National Park is a famed paradise for wildlife enthusiast and explorer alike. Winding pathways decorated by wild creepers and berry outgrowths lead into the park, home to Kashmiri Stag or Hangul, the only surviving species of the Red Deer family in the sub-continent. Kashmir Leader’s Adeela Hameed and Bandhanpreet Kour talks to Nazir Ah Malik (park guard )to understand the journey that fauna and flora of the Park undergoes with each passing season and why the Hangul is facing threat of extinction in its natural habitat.

Q: How do the forest officials maintain the Park? In case of an emergency, what steps do you take?

A:I must say that we, humans, have very little control upon how the forest ecosystem works. Although we tend to the visible needs of the Park but elements of nature are the responsible agents that keep this niche of flora and fauna healthy. Air, birds and most importantly, the Himalayan Black Bear, are instrumental in seed dispersal and hence, in the Himalayan moist type temperate forest cover prevails here. There have been incidents of forest fires with damage to mostly shrubs and dousing it even take 2-3 days. However, we maintain that no serious disaster has ever befallen on the wildlife.

Q: Have you ever been attacked by wild animals here?

A: Not once but many a times. Back in 2008, I was once guiding an English lady, aged 66, through the jungle when all of a sudden we found ourselves between the cubs and a mother Himalayan Black Bear. It is the most ferocious animal, even more than the Grizzly. It was a narrow escape.

Q: What does your job mean for you?

A: I believe nature to be the greatest teacher. I work here for the love of nature. People visit this Park for research, to study it, to explore the wonder that it is. But I am a ‘Junglee’. I am enthralled by the variety this Park offers and I treat my work like worship.

Q: What is the response of the Park authorities towards growing encroachments, poaching, overgrazing that prevail mostly in the areas surrounding this heritage land?

A: I believe these issues come to effect because of the ever expanding human habitation. The population explosion leads to the need for land to built new habitations. This leads to illegal use of the forest land. But we are here to prevent that. We work to stop such nuisances from entering the Park and destroying it. Poaching has been drastically reduced but overgrazing is still a problem in upper reaches. Bakarwaals (non-local shepherds) settle for illicit grazing and destroy a part of the Park to move on to the next one. We are still lagging behind in controlling that but overall the Park area has been demarcated for safety. Another important factor is that common people are not aware of the benefits a forest provides. Hardly any local knows that just one tree produces oxygen worth of $30,000 per year.

Q: Have you ever seen a Hangul up close? How does it feel?

A:Yes, of course, I have. I was here with one of my friends in February many years ago and we saw 8 male Hanguls in a group standing just inches away. It is hard to describe the excitement I felt. I was elated beyond measure.

Q: What in your opinion is the root cause for decline in Hangul population?

A: Hangul, as you know, is only found in this National Park, not even anywhere else in Kashmir. Dachigam is its habitat and home and the destruction of the park by Bakarwaals, a sheep breeding farm inside the Park and even a military base has led to an alarming decrease in its population. Interference of any kind develops problems during gestation and birth of a fawn which leads to untimely abortions thus reducing the population.

Q: What should the wildlife department do in such a scenario?

A: There are many theories around this sensitive topic. Hangul is a critically endangered species and efforts should be made to protect it. People have been proposing theories about ex-situ conservation units and captive breeding programs. But this must be dealt with carefully. What if the Hangul we breed inside a special conservation chamber turns domestic and loses its identity in the wild? Such issues are to be tackled appropriately but as soon as possible.

Q: What is the reason behind man-animal conflict in your opinion?

A: Man-animal conflict arises because of unnecessary human interference in the habitat of wildlife. For example, Himalayan Black Bears are known for their fondness of food and they are great scavengers but only inside the forest ecosystem. When people surrounding the Park grow orchards nearby, the bears are tempted to visit which leads to chaos in the population. What we fail to understand is that unlike humans, wild animals don’t have instincts to differentiate human-made boundaries and survive only as per laws of Nature. Hence, we must take extra care to avoid such situations in the future.

Q: Have you ever participated in animal rescue? How long do you keep the wild in rehabilitation?

A: Yes, I have, many a times. For cubs, it takes time to find their mothers and once located they are released as soon as possible. This is because a cub cannot survive alone in a jungle. For adults, though, the duration of stay is limited. After proper screening, testing for injuries and medicating them for diseases, they are set free in their natural habitat. Studying animal behavior is the basic factor in determining the health of the animal.

Q: Is there any scope for students to research inside the Park? What are you views about this?

A: Many students from across the country are currently researching here in the National Park and I personally help them with any detail they might need, as do my colleagues and our Chief Wildlife Warden. There is still a lot to unveil in Dachigam, both in flora and fauna. It is best if people from our country work and discover new species here rather than foreign explorers. It will prove beneficial to the national scientific community.

Q: What is your message to tourists as well as locals visiting Dachigam National Park?

A: We are here for your guidance and for you to understand whatever you have in mind but please take care of this Park. Sustainable tourism is my motto and I am always thrilled to welcome people of all categories as long as they respect what we protect here. Pollution of any and every kind is not tolerated. We should believe in a positive change. That is what has kept our earth alive. Development and awareness about wildlife in particular and environment in general is mandatory. This has to be provided at elementary level in our future generations for the benefit of the ecosystem.

The writers are Environment Protection Enthusiasts and can be reached at adeelahameed1@gmail. com, amritbani19@mail.com