Meet Tahir Shawl
Photo Courtesy: Tahir Shawl.
A prolific writer and dyed-in-the wool conservationist, he grew up in Rajouri, Jammu and Kashmir, and has spent a lifetime protecting wildlife and habitats in all the three regions of the state including high-altitude Changthang on the Indo-Chinese border, the Hemis High Altitude National Park – the land of the snow leopard and the Karakoram Sanctuary. He has studied and protected the endangered Tibetan antelope (chiru), and satellite-tracked the migration of waterfowls including Bar-headed Geese and the elusive Black-necked Cranes. With two decades of service for the J&K Wildlife Department behind him, he currently heads the famous Dachigam National Park, home to the hangul, Cervus elaphus hanglu as Wildlife Warden. He spoke to Bittu Sahgal about Kashmir and its magical wildernesses, which he is sworn to protect.
You have always seemed more at home in the wilds than in the office you currently occupy!
Well, I am a Kashmiri! Childhood walks through the woods were the norm. The solitude of sitting alone and listening to the strong roar of a glacial river, or watching fireflies float in the dark of the night… all these were ‘commonplace’ things. Having lived with and loved nature and all its manifestations – snow-capped peaks and icy glaciers, crystal cascades, cold hill streams, verdant forests tenanted by birds and butterflies… somehow I always felt part of the wilderness. It’s true. I am more comfortable in the outdoors.
You are remembered and admired for rescuing a critically-injured snow leopard in Ladakh and religiously tending to him for several months until he could be released safely back into the wild. Tell us more…
The animal was badly injured and there was no hope of its survival when I rescued it from a house in a remote village in Ladakh, after tranquillization. It had killed about 32 domestic sheep and goats. We shifted the animal to Leh in my vehicle, kept it in an enclosure near my official residence and tended to it day and night with help from local veterinarians for almost three months till it regained its lost skin and the fur on its back. It was satisfying to see it released safely back into its habitat.
What drew you to dedicate your entire life to the wilds of Kashmir?
You make it sound like this was some kind of sacrifice! I am living a dream-come-true. Those fortunate to have breathed mountain air, or air filtered through oak forests will understand what I mean. I sometimes wonder what I did to deserve such a fortunate existence. The pine forests around me are my friends! I wake each day to the calls of birds and animals as the eerie silence of dawn turns to day. Firdose-ba-rohe- zameen-aast… (heaven on earth)… in a hundred lifetimes I could not put the gift of living in Kashmir better than Amir Khusro did.
Who were your earliest inspirations?
Like most young persons, Jim Corbett’s stories had a profound impact on me and made me yearn to become a forest man. Sálim Ali’s famous books The Fall of the Sparrow, and Book of Indian Birds catalysed a special interest in birds. Many people who have written for Sanctuary Asia helped cement my love for the wilds.
You are an accomplished nature photographer and writer. And here you are… being paid to do precisely what you love.
(Smiling) How right you are! My interest in wildlife found expression through photography and writing, and by making it my profession, I am able to sleep, dream and live doing what I love.
Let’s talk about Dachigam. You seemed over the moon when you were given this charge.
After all my wanderings, it was always my dream to be trusted with the charge of this home of the hangul deer, which is watered by the Dagwan river. Though I’m also content to just absorb the park and allow it to speak to me.
Photo Courtesy: Tahir Shawl.
And your game plan to save this beleaguered protected area?
First, to take stock of the current situation (which I have already done), then to unite diverse people and departments to resurrect both Lower and Upper Dachigam to a measure of its former health. This is, of course, easier said than done. Few people truly understand the biodiversity value resulting from the altitudinal variations within this relatively small park. Though there is no wishing away the competing claims of people over the pastures so vital to the survival of the hangul, fortunately several politicians, students, scientists and even ordinary Kashmiris regard Dachigam as their priceless heritage.
List some of the immediate problems you must confront for us.
It’s a long list! This conifer and broad-leaved deciduous wilderness must be left untouched for wildlife. But this is not easy to achieve. Two of the most serious threats are fragmentation and habitat degradation. The 141 sq. km. national park is under intense anthropogenic pressure. Mushrooming of cement factories and the 230 stone quarries that supply the raw material from the Khrew and Khonmoh Conservation Reserves are gnawing into the vitals of the hangul’s home.
This is new. I have known Dachigam for over two decades and this was never the case. In the early days our worries were the trout hatchery, sheep farm and the grazing of domestic animals in the upper pastures.
Well, today, when I see the smoke and dust from cement factories and industrial plants and the accompanying blasts from stone quarries, I wince at the impact this has on the hangul and other fragile lifeforms.
How did this come to be?
Advantage was taken of ineffective demarcation of the conservation reserves at Khrew and Khonmoh. When I visited these areas after taking charge, heartbroken local residents informed me that the sites once used by hangul for fawning had been converted into stone quarries. I wish I could have restricted myself to delivering only good news (of which there is a fair bit) but Sanctuary readers must be told that parcels of forest that used to be studded with orchids, lichens, ferns, wild flowers, medicinal herbs and shrubs and riverine vegetation have been damaged.
And what is being done to remedy this awful situation?
The national park in the Zabarwan hills of Western Himalaya is the only hope of the last viable population of hangul and also other threatened species. I have been speaking with many who understand that returning these wildernesses to health is a non-negotiable priority. Our first task is to demarcate the boundaries, which all concerned departments have taken up on a war footing, using maps and documents that are being digitised. We are also marshalling political support to tackle illegal grazing in Upper and Middle Dachigam in summer, when bakarwals (herders) set up summer camps.
Will we ever see the trout hatchery and sheep farm move out?
The sheep farm remains a threat in Mulnar and Mahadev where around 100 hectares of prime hangul habitat has been usurped for years. Fortunately the State Cabinet has taken a decision to move the farm on advice of the State Board for Wildlife and it should be shown the door quite soon. This one step will alone give the hangul an extra lease of life because it will be freed up for oak, chestnut and other fruit trees on which hangul and bears depend. Barring monitored entry from the main gate, we have recently locked every other entry point to the sheep farm. We are also pushing for the trout hatchery to be moved out. As a first step they have agreed to stop the sale of trout from their hatchery inside Dachigam.
And on top of all this we have the havoc being wrought by climate change.
Global studies confirm that climate change is taking a toll on fragile ecosystems and wild animals are already under pressure. Both Upper and Lower Dachigam are bearing the brunt. We have had scanty precipitation this winter and virtually no snow. I anticipate a major water problem in the coming summer. The recent dry spells in winter led to quite frequent bush fires. All these will affect the natural behaviour of wildlife.
What other evidence do we have of climate change impacts?
We have reports that bears and some other wild species that normally hibernate or aestivate in winter have been seen moving about in places. My staff also worries about the lurking threat of increased man-animal conflict. The erratic weather will impact the wild fruit production in the forests and this may force bears to raid nearby crops and orchards.
Photo Courtesy: Tahir Shawl.
Are ordinary citizens in Srinagar even remotely aware of such facts, given that the Dagwan is their principal source of drinking water?
The children are, but most adults, frankly, are not. The Dagwan river originates in Upper Dachigam’s Marsar before reaching Harwan where the Public Health Department is able to tap water for Srinagar’s drinking needs. I posed the same question to some officials of the Public Health Engineering Department, who visited the park recently and they too felt we had to do something drastic about educating the people of Srinagar about the threat to their lifeline.
How can ordinary people help?
It’s not difficult. Our job is to protect the forest. The public’s duty is to support our staff and officers. The real people defending our wildlife are the unsung heroes and crusaders – our ‘lower rung’ field staff who work 24x7 in difficult conditions. They are the ones the nation should recognise and appreciate. To them goes the credit normally usurped by others. I feel this is best done through awareness created with the help of children, teachers, and NGOs including the Wildlife Conservation Fund and other members of civil society.
You mentioned children. You may be aware that Sanctuary is working with Kashmiri youth to seek their help to save tigers across India. I promise you that a million young children from every corner of India will support the people of Kashmir in their quest to save their natural heritage.
Then what are we waiting for? Let’s begin today itself. Unity truly is strength. If we can unite young boys and girls, then with them we can win the support of their parents too. This mega force across Kashmir could impact every home, school, and street positively. I like the idea and promise you that a ‘Save Hangul, Save Tiger’ campaign will win the hearts of all sections of society.
That sounds wonderful. Switching to another issue, how serious is the problem of poaching and hunting for the pot?
Very serious. Selective hunting was once legal in J&K, with hunting permits being issued for specific animals at specific times. But today, I am happy to confirm, that the Government has placed an official blanket ban on hunting by amending the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Protection Act, 1978.
Are you telling me hunting has stopped in J&K?
Not quite. It’s going to take much more to curb hunting of migratory waterfowl in the wetlands of Kashmir, and stray incidents of poaching do take place even in Dachigam and other Protected Areas. But we are fighting this as hard as we can.
Tourism? Can it possibly be turned into a conservation tool that benefits bears, hangul, wild sheep and goats and other wild creatures such as snow leopards?
Forests and wildlife areas, particularly harbouring flagship species, are always popular tourism destinations. But such visitation requires to be disciplined. My belief is that true ecotourism can and will soon play a crucial role in sustaining ordinary Kashmiris and this can help us reduce the stress between people and parks. After all, if we do not encourage people to experience and fall in love with nature, how can we hope to win their support to protect our wilds? Virtually, all wildlife habitats that support creatures such as markhor, musk deer, snow leopards, Black-necked Cranes, and so many other species are in danger today. If we can reach the benefits of tourism to locals, then species and habitats will be protected better. But this requires dedicated effort and wise interventions, or uncontrolled tourism could end up aggravating the problem.
What other options do we have to protect Kashmir’s wildernesses?
Well, I for one would like to see security forces playing a more proactive role in conservation as they once did in the 1980s. They are present in remote areas and could keep a check on hunting and poaching. But this needs sensitisation because conservation needs nuanced strategies. We would like to see workshops, interactions with experts, seminars and capacity-building initiatives. Perhaps soldiers who are already doing exemplary work in the field of conservation and wildlife protection could be conscripted to work with others in the forces. That would help.
You mentioned a joint campaign to save the hangul and the tiger. Sanctuary would like to work with you on this.
Then let’s start right away. Both are iconic species. I spoke about this to Mahmood Shah, who is Director Tourism for Kashmir region and he said his department would like very much to work with us on this. After all the tiger is our national animal and the hangul is the state animal of J&K, found nowhere else on Earth. But the campaign needs a spotlight and priority of the kind that Project Tiger and the Asiatic lion currently enjoy. All too few people in our country even know that without extraordinary effort, we could well lose the tiny population of hangul deer left. Such are the battles that can unite a nation and the sooner we begin, the better.
Author: Bittu Sahgal, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 12, April 2016.