The entry point into this wildlife reserve, one of India’s most scenically beautiful, is only 14 miles (22 km) from Srinagar. First protected in 1910, this mountainous area forms almost half of the Dal Lake’s catchment area and its importance in supplying Srinagar with pure drinking water was recognized by the then Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir who initiated steps for the preservation of this environment. Maintaining the well-wooded and grassy slopes of this catchment area ensures a minimum of erosion and that the waters that feed the city are almost as clear and clean as in the Marsar Lake from which they flow. The area was also protected as a hunting preserve by the Maharaja. It was declared a sanctuary after India became independent and was upgraded to National Park status in 1981. Between 1910 and 1934, 10 villages were relocated outside the boundaries of the reserve, hence the name dachi-gam, a word which translates “10 villages.”
Within its two sectors, Lower and Upper Dachigam, spread over 55 sq miles (140 sq km), it incorporates a variety of vegetational types — riverain forest, grassland, broadleaved woodland, coniferous forest, bare rock faces and alpine pastures and scrub — spanning heights ranging from 5500 to 14,000 feet (1700 – 4300 meters) above sea level. Two ridges rise steeply on either side of the park, forming a natural boundary encircling an area of great topographic variety — deep gullies and wooded slopes, huge rocky outcrops and sloping grasslands. On the northern ridge rises the Mahadev peak (13,011 feet/3966 meters). The interlocking valleys continue into Upper Dachigam where, amidst 14,000-foot (4300- meter) ridges, nestles Marsar Lake, from which flows the Dagwan river. The park’s only road, part metaled, part jeep track, runs six miles (10 km) through the Numbal Beat of Lower Dachigam, along the main valley of the tumbling clear trout waters of the Dagwan river.
Home of the Hangul: The Dachigam area has been protected to preserve its unique Himalayan range of flora and fauna. Paramount among the latter is the hangul or Kashmir stag ( Cervus euaphus hanguu ), one of the most endangered species of red deer in the world. Dachigam is now the only place in the world with a viable hangul population. Though its decline was mainly the result of poaching, its home also suffered from other harmful forces: the presence of a large number of grazers bringing thousands of sheep, buffaloes and goats to feed on the lush high pastures of Upper Dachigam. The area was overgrazed and erosion was becoming apparent. Fanning this was the thinning of the birch and pine forests of these upper areas by the grazers who used the trees for buding their summer homes and, in the lower areas, destruction of the forest by local inhabitants encroaching on the park for fuel and timber. To make matters worse, a Government sheep farm took a four-sq-mile ( I 0 1/2-sq-km) chunk out of the park’s prime hangul habitat, adding to the upper area’s summer grazing pressures, and endangering the south-facing grassland slopes of Lower Dachigam through intensive sheep grazing.
These are continuing problems for the Wildlife Department even today. But in the last decade they have been greatly reduced so that the hangul population has increased — a Government census in 1983 meeratned at lueast 50¬0 indiv.iduals against an estimated 300 in 1954. The sheep farm is now separated by a fence and the grazers, though not totally removed either (yet), have been greatly reduced in number. More effective patrolling keeps poachers at bay and removers of forest produce to a minimum. Both the environment and the number of animals have thus greatly improved and with a permit available from the Chief Wildlife Warden in Srinagar, a visitor may enjoy the many splendors that the park has to offer.
A comprehensive appreciation of this undulating environment must include exploration on foot along the tracks and animal paths that run along the valley floors and traverse the slopes and ridges. Every season in Dachigam has its characteristic beauty and interest; the flora present marked variations throughout the year and much of the fauna partake of local migration and also include several hibernating species.
Winter Visitors: In winter, Upper Da-ehigam is inaccessible and even Lower Dachigam sees the temperature drop to as low as 14°F (-10°C) and between late November and early February may be shrouded in a thick blanket of snow. But it can present a stunning sight — a black and white scene of immense beauty and a stillness that accentuates the few forest sounds. High-altitude bird species move to the lower valleys for winter feeding on the remaining seeds and berries, even those to be found in the old droppings of other creatures. Flocks of cinnamon sparrows appear and the black and yellow grosbeak presents a startling splash of color against the white backdrop. Its clear call rings through the air, mingling with the chattering of the black bulbuls, a vociferous species in winter abundance. Even the monal pheasant, the male splendidly multicolored, may be seen at this ti me in the lower valleys. Winter with its lack of camouflaging foliage is one of the best times to view hangul. They congregate in large mixed herds in the shelter of the lower valleys where the park authorities have established mineral licks. In the harshest winter months, additional feeding is also put out and groups of 60 or more may be seen gathered there.
At this time too, one is likely to meet with large troops of Himalayan gray langur, an impressive long-coated subspecies of the black-faced gray langur (Presbyters entellus ), to be found over much of the subcontinent. Its winter diet consists largely of tree bark; its favorite trees, such as the poplar, being easily identified by the several dead branches that have become ring-barked from their gnawings.
The main predator in the park is the leopard (Panther pardus). Though these are few in number and only rarely seen, winter is the time one is most likely to come across the carcass of a hangul that has succumbed to this carnivore, and from which many scavengers will also feed an—jackal, hil fox, yelow-throated marten d wild boar. (Boar are not indigenous to the area, having been introduced from the Jammu region by a maharaja for hunting purposes. Unsuited to the harsh winter climate, they are, it seems, dying out.) The Himalayan griffon and the lammergeier or bearded vulture are also lured by carcasses and the attractive long-tailed blue magpie will generally be found feeding also. In the efforts necessary for successful foraging, winter is a time when one may meet with those smaller mammals, mainly nocturnal, that are otherwise extremely shy jungle cat, leopard cat, otter, Himalayan weasel, may reward the silent and patient observer.
Spring and Summer: By March the serene, harsh beauties of winter have given way to the richness of spring. As the leaves begin to sprout, the Himalayan langurs are quick to take advantage of the new source of food. Messy feeders, they drop many half-eaten twigs and branches to the forest floor. Hangul will frequently be found associating with these monkeys, waiting eagerly beneath their tree to feed on these dropped morsels.
Now another large mammal for which Dachigam is justly famous makes its appearance — the Himalayan black bear (Selenarcios ihibeianus). Having spent the winter hibernating in rocky shelters, it emerges hungry from its foodless sleep. Being omnivorous, it too will take advantage of a leopard kill, and in these first weeks many overturned stones lie along Dachigam’s paths as testament to the bears’ search for ants and other insects and grubs. As the trees come into leaf, the bears move into their branches which will provide the bulk of their diet for the rest of the year.
In spring the lower forest blossoms into a profusion of delicate hues. Wild cherry, pear, plum, peach, apple and apricot bloom white and pink amid the varying fresh greens of the new leaves. The main valley contains principally broad-leaved genera; oaks, elms, willows, poplars will be found there, while the side valleys, locally called nars, become thick with the creamy flowers of the Parrotiopsis jacquernontiana, a shrub of the witch-hazel family, which is interspersed with trees of walnut and Indian horse-chestnut. The hill slopes turn green and the valleys dark under the thick canopy of developing leaves. The fruits begin to appear, much to the bears’ delight. Spring sees an appreciable change in birdlife too. The prominent winter species have disappeared to higher altitudes and others appear to feed on the new vegetation and begin their breeding cycles. The beautiful golden oriole suspends its cradle from a high branch. The minivets flash scarlet and yellow as they move in noisy feeding parties with the tits, warblers and finches. Tree holes often house pygmy owlets and woodpeckers, most conspicuous amongst which is the Himalayan pied woodpecker, a smart black and white bird with red vent and, in the male, matching red cap. Among the lower-level shrubs and grasses hop the babblers, buntings and laughing thrushes, the streaked laughing thrush being one of the most commonly seen birds of Lower Dachigam.
The lower forests now lose the langurs as they move with spring to higher valleys. The male hangul are on their way up too, dropping their antlers and beginning the new growths encased in “velvet.” The females remain longer and give birth to their calves in the long grass of the lower slopes in May and June. The young are spotted and well-camouflaged for their early days when the hinds leave them hidden and alone, returning only periodically to feed them. This is the time the black bear turns predator — they can be seen crisscrossing the steep slopes in their search for the defenseless newborns. But after the first couple of weeks the main danger is over, since the calves can now outrun any wouldbe predatory bear. The calves then stay with their mothers, moving upwards to the high pastures of the park once the snows have receded.
The Upper Reaches: Winter remains late at these altitudes and comes early, but during the few summer months Upper Dachigam presents truly glorious views — vast rolling meadows, splashing clear streams, waterfalls, silver birch stands, deep azure skies and high snow-dotted ridges combine in delightful harmony. Comparable to the famous Valley of Flowers in the Garhwal in Uttar Pradesh, the green summer grass of these highland meadows is all but eclipsed by the immense array of alpine flowers dispersed in it—crimsons, golds and purples are the ground carpet’s dominant colors while more detailed patterns are picked out in blues, reds, orange and other more subtle hues. The delicately colored blue poppy is here and a number of medicinal plants like Saussurea sp., as well as other representatives of the rarer Himalayan flora, are to be found.
The change in elevation occasions a new variety of birds—the red-browed finch is an attractive one to look for in the birch forests. Higher still, above the tree line, redstarts, wagtails and the Himalayan rubythroat can be seen hopping among the rocks edging Marsar Lake. Alpine accentors are here and the wall creeper with its characteristic butterfly-like flight. The park’s higher altitudes still harbor a few Himalayan brown bear ( Ursus arcios isabellinus), endangered and rare throughout its range.
The brown bear is an inhabitant of the rolling uplands; ecologically separated from the forest-dwelling black bear, in Dachigam their ranges overlap. However the brown bear’s exact status is uncertain and few sightings occur. By contrast, the other hibernating mammal of these upper reaches, the long-tailed marmot (Marmota caudaia), is both visible and very audible. These endearing rodents of the squirrel family have their burrows on the treeless grassy slopes and their high-pitched whistling screams echo against the ridge walls.
Feeding and scurrying among the many boulders at the stream’s edge, if disturbed by the call of a soaring chough or sight of an intruding human, they stop to perch up on their haunches, thus enhancing their field of vision.Traditionally, Upper Dachigam provided i mportant grazing for the hangul and largescale summer migrations there were recorded. However, Dr Fred Kurt who studied the hangul in Dachigam for several years found almost no evidence of their presence in Upper Dachigam and had to conclude that “human interference led to considerable loss of the former range and that the present range is restricted to Lower Dachigam.” Besides this effect on the hangul the presence of the Banjaris, Bukarwals and Gujjars, with their herds of livestock, had a seriously deleterious effect on the environment.
In spite of Dr Schaller’s warning, the number of livestock head increased in the 1970s to an estimated 10,000. In 1977 this caused such pollution in the Dagwan river that the waters could no longer be collected. In the following year, the number of grazers was drastically reduced and grazing restricted to a limited number of valleys in Upper Dachigam. This is presently the situation and the result has been a return of the hangul to some of their summer haunts. In ungrazed, closed valleys, they may again be seen in this beautiful setting. Summer passes quickly in these high valleys and by late August the first frost and flurries of snow appear to herald winter’s return. Hibernating animals feed up quickly before their long winter sleep, while other fauna move once again to the protection of the lower altitudes.
Autumn Sightings: Autumn in Lower Dachigam presents another blaze of color as the leaves change shades to reds, golds, yellows and various hues of orange. The different species are easily distinguishable then in their varied tones with the majestic chinar towering above the others and last to retain a stately burnt-orange beauty before the bareness of winter. October is the main rutting month for the hangul and the lower valleys reverberate with the deep roaring calls of the stags. With full-grown antlers now clean of “velvet,” the stags look their impressive best. A full-grown male will carry a head of 10 or 12 points, though occasionally more may be counted. The bears are feasting on walnuts and acorns, laying on fat to tide them through the coming winter. Soon the monkeys and grosbeaks will again be in evidence—a sure indication that the circle of seasons has again turned fully to winter.
Being so close to Srinagar, the state’s capital city and a popular tourist destination, Dachigam, unlike the majority of the subcontinent’s parks and sanctuaries, also lends itself admirably to those with only a day or two to spare. Even such a brief visit is highly recommended, but aim for early morning or late afternoon as this is when the animals are most active and visible. A stroll along the flat paths of the Numbal Beat of Lower Dachigam, accompanied by one of the Wildlife Department staff, will be as rewarding for viewing wildlife as any of the more strenuous routes. Those with more ti me and energy may like to explore some of the lower ears; Drognar and Munyu, side by side, leading north from the jeep track, may be particularly rewarding in the late spring as these are favorite calving areas of the hangul and therefore may afford a view of the heavily spotted young. The rare serow can be seen here.
Upper Dachigam is for those who enjoy trekking and camping equipment is essential for such a journey, although within the park some shelters are available in the Sangargulu Valley of Upper Dachigam and at Gretnar, several thousand feet lower, where the kokias pheasant resides.