- The Sechu-Tuan Nullah Wildlife Sanctuary in Himachal Pradesh is home to endangered wildlife. In recent times, the extraction of wild garlic around the sanctuary, by local communities, has led to seasonal disturbance to wildlife.
- The communities around the sanctuary who depend on this extraction activity, understand the importance of sustainable harvesting and the disturbance caused to the wildlife in the area and have imposed self-regulations.
- However, the market for medicinal plants breaks through regulations set by the communities and the government, to foster individual aspiration.
- The views in the commentary are that of the author.
At an altitude of 3,900 metres, in the mountainous Himachal Pradesh, thin Bhoj trees (Himalayan birch or Betula utilus), dominate the landscape, an area known locally as Tapa-phraun (tapa meaning tree and phraun meaning thin). These Bhoj trees are also the last ones on the trail heading northeast towards Zanskar (Ladakh). Tapa-phraun is a thang – a plain, surrounded by snow-covered peaks, glacial slopes, moraines, vertical rock faces of mountains and closer to its edge by meadows on gentler slopes.
The Tapa-phraun nullah (stream) cuts across the thang creating an alpine wetland patch and escapes the enclosure through a narrow gully in the south. Joined by a couple of major nullahs, its water initially runs as Tuan nullah and is then joined by Sechu nullah, after which it pours into the Chenab river about 40 km downstream.
Together, these alpine and subalpine streams provide the name for a wildlife sanctuary – the Sechu-Tuan Nullah Wildlife Sanctuary.
Patrolling this sanctuary with an altitude range of 2,700 to 6,300 metres is not an easy task. Crossing the many cold rapids of nullahs (streams), ascending to the remote beat boundaries, a team of two forest guards and two non-permanent chowkidars (security guards) of the Sechu-Tuan Nullah Wildlife Sanctuary were on patrolling duty, one morning. At around nine that morning, Himlal, a chowkidar with the Forest Department, sat by the fire made from dry willow bushes, to cook breakfast. That’s when he spotted a Himalayan muskdeer (Moschus leucogaster), some 50 metres away. Locally known as repu, it is listed as endangered on IUCN Red List because of its limited range and the global population decline of 50 percent in the last two decades. The visitor, with a shape camouflaged in grey and tawny colours among lichen-crusted boulders, had elongated tusk-like upper canines (only males of the species have them) and broad toes and long dewclaws.
It leaped into the grass between the rocks on its shorter and thinner forelimbs and launched itself with its longer and stronger hind legs out of the tall grass — in a few bounding leaps it climbed to the safety of height and disappeared. Himlal, from the village Tuan Bhotaori (‘Bhotaori’ is a village with an exclusively Buddhist population), says that the repu had come for a drink at the nullah but had moved away because of human presence.
Himal lives in the last village of Tuan Bhotaori on this patrolling trail and has been a temporary worker with the state Forest Department for years. He takes care of the forest nursery and is also a person who effectively represents the forest department on the ground. He is an important link for the law enforcement department with the local community.
The sanctuary also houses the endangered Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus). This subpopulation of brown bears is found in the western Himalayas between mid-Uttarakhand till the eastern part of Gilgit-Baltistan and is an isolated population estimated to be only about 130-220 individuals. Known locally as temo, on the 14 km trail between Tuan Bhotaori and Tapa-phraun there had been five sightings of the bears, busy digging for roots or insects on grassy slopes — including a mother and a two-month cub in the distance.
Forest Guard Rajinder Kumar, part of the patrolling team, says that they attack cattle only closer to October before they go into winter hibernation. “There is not much human-wildlife conflict in the sanctuary, but seasonally there is some disturbance to wildlife from people harvesting medicinal plants,” he explains.
Both forest guards and the residents opine that there is great disturbance to the wildlife during the harvest period of medicinal plants. The very presence of people forces animals to shift their foraging areas which affects their foraging time. Even small teams on patrolling duty, had disturbed a foraging brown bear that had bolted up the steep slope till it reached the safety of a rocky mountain. The bear moved about a kilometre away from the patrolling team. The camp of the patrolling team had also changed the movement of the musk deer that was attempting to access water.
Wild garlic – a source of livelihood or a cause for disturbance to wildlife?
Wild garlic (Fritillaria cirrhosa) is a forest produce that people living in these mountains collect. This plant has found a market only in the last eight-nine years. Initially, companies sent agents with samples of this medicinal plant to Pangi Valley, and the market found favour with people in Sural Bhotaori, a village easily accessible by road and also a popular tourist destination.
Now, for 40 households in the village of Tuan Bhotaori alone, harvesting of polto (wild garlic or van lahasun in Hindi) provides an income of about Rs. 15,000 to 75,000 per household each year. With the extraction done within a week, hundreds of people, almost every member of the household, enter the wildlife sanctuary. About 150 people from the village of Tuan alone are distributed in different nullahs above their village, with most of them camping in the forest. This activity has disturbed the wildlife in and around the sanctuary.
It is not legal to remove polto from the sanctuary, but the policy allows extraction in Reserved Forests (RF) outside the sanctuary, thus creating problems in enforcing restriction. “People get away by claiming that they have harvested it in adjacent RFs,” says Virender Kumar, another Forest Guard, part of the patrol team. “The geography of the sanctuary makes it possible to easily protect the entire area against illegal harvesting; we require just two more guards,” he adds. Although senior officers know that their field staff strength is less than optimal, they say that there is a lack of fund to recruit more guards. In this scenario, field officers ignore certain violations.
Community efforts toward conservation
The Buddhist communities in all five Bhotaori of Pangi have strictly banned the hunting of wild animals, and the Mahila Mandals in these villages have also protected the Bhoj forests. While the former decision is guided by religious values, the latter is driven by reasons of sustainable use. People say that they have imposed these bans on themselves because the forest is their property, and it needs to be protected. “Our cattle depend on its foliage for fodder, we use ‘bhoj patra’ in the roofing of our houses and its dead wood is essential to heat our homes during the winter months of sub-zero temperatures,” explained Bin Dei, member, Mahila Mandal, and her husband Chain Singh, a schoolteacher from Chasak Bhotaori.
The village of Tuan Bhotaori sits at the confluence of two nullahs. The income from wild garlic extraction is a critical livelihood source for the village. So, there is a community initiative in the village to regulate the harvest of wild garlic, and people are banned from harvesting till the bulbs are mature — which is only for a week sometime in July.
The Forest Department issues a permit for the extraction of polto. To make the extraction sustainable for people and prevent local extirpations of medicinal plant species, the department opens only certain parts of the forest in a four-year rotational cycle. However, this is normally violated by the people. There are already signs of unsustainable removal, as the yield has reduced over the years. Whereas, earlier each household at Tuan Bhotaori would collect five-six kg of polto, now it is three-four kg.
People are still ignorant about how the plant propagates, its value chain after extraction, the final product, its uses, and the market. It is of conservation value to educate the people about the best practice of sustainable extraction. “Under SECURE Himalaya project, a MoEFCC and UNDP initiative, we have planned village-level educational workshops on sustainable extraction of medicinal plants,” revealed the Divisional Forest Officer at Pangi, while highlighting the efforts in progress.
Market forces threaten community regulation
During the patrol, Himlal is also on the lookout for signs of wild garlic being removed — in violation of the rules imposed by his village community at Tuan Bhotaori. He sees signs of digging that prove that they were a human’s handiwork. He is unable to decide if it is people from his village or people from outside — either way, the loss is immense according to him, and the community has lost a couple of lakhs of rupees. “We have been robbed,” he declared.
Community regulations are not working as desired. Market forces seem invincible — they easily tap into individual aspirations and render the whole process of extraction unsustainable. Passang Tsering, a schoolteacher from Tuan bhotaori has not given to this bleak outlook, “Community initiatives are successful to a large extent. The effect is there. The rate of loss has slowed down, at least.”
However, such optimism can easily mask the need for designing measures to counter market forces that aid the removal of medicinal plants unsustainably.
There is another dimension to this issue — conflicts with outsiders, who are either people from neighbouring villages, or from lower elevations of Chamba — south of the big mountains, or from as far away as Nepal — all driven by the opportunity of an attractive market. They are only guided by a myopic profit motive and are both ignorant about and careless with the methods of extraction. Local people stand up to this exploitative extraction, sometimes resisting physically. Outsiders once filed a case against Mahila Mandal members of Sural Batori village, because they were prevented from extracting polto. “Such harassments deter a community from protecting its natural resources. So, the forest department should support locals against outsiders. But, sometimes, even forest guards are pressured by politicians,” says a schoolteacher Rigzin (name changed).
In the imperfect world of conservation, it may be best not to keep all the hope in one basket of conservation ideology. There is an urgent need to strengthen community initiatives without weakening existing preservation laws, and also to actively work for a synergy between the two, against market forces and the individual greed that it fosters.
The author is a wildlife researcher.
Banner image: The endangered Himalayan brown bears can be found in the western Himalayas between mid-Uttarakhand and eastern stretch of Gilgit-Balistan. According to estimates, only 130-220 individuals remain. Photo by Narendra Patil.