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Meet Qasim Wani

Meet Qasim Wani

Wani has guided many of the great names in Indian conservation, such as Sálim Ali, Dr. Karan Singh and even Indira Gandhi, through the mountains and valleys of Dachigam.
Photography by Qasim Wani.

Born in Harwan, Dachigam, Kashmir in 1933 to Fatima and Abdul Rahman Wani (the late Maharaja Hari Singh's head shikari), Qasim Wani knew from the age of eight that he was destined to grow up to protect endangered hangul deer and their magical Himalayan glades in Dachigam. A living legend, he spoke to Bittu Sahgal in December 2001 when he travelled to the city to accept the Sanctuary-ABN AMRO Lifetime Service Award.

How do you feel today after having spent a lifetime protecting Dachigam?

I feel tired. Also happy that the hangul deer, which so many people said we would never be able to save, is still here with us today. But more than anything else, my eyes are full of tears because I thought that the world had forgotten Qasim Wani. You proved me wrong. You never forgot. You honoured me. For all these years I have thought of you, your family. I was always loved and respected by you all. These are the riches of life, not money and material things.

How can anyone forget you? You are virtually an entire chapter in the history of Idia's wildlife movement.

If you say so but times have changed. Everything has changed. Old values and old people seem not to exist even in the memories of the young.

Would you share some of these with Sanctuary readers?

All old people have memories they wish to share. Too many memories. I remember Dr. Salim Ali when he came to visit Dachigam in Kashmir. He used to talk to me about Bombay and I never imagined that one day, I would actually come here. He was older than me and used to say everything is changing and that our wildlife may not last much longer.

Did you know Dr. Salim Ali well?

He was a big man. A famous man. But I knew him well and he was a very good companion in the forest. I remember one July many years ago in Dachigam when he complained to me that his eyes were not as good as they used to be. But he still wanted to go out birdwatching every single day! I was scared that he would fall and hurt himself on the stony trails but he was full of spirit. When he was tired, we would stop along forest trails and eat ripe mulberries, which he loved. We also used to scan distant hills with binoculars to find hangul and bears. I learnt a lot about birds from him.

What was life like in those days?

It was slower. Kashmir was truly a heaven on earth. My life, of course, was and is Dachigam. My father Abdul Rahman Wani served Maharaja Hari Singh for 50 years as his shikari. I remember patrolling with my father, Dachigam's oak and chinar forests, since I was eight. We were respected and honoured. Our entire family, more than 40 members, has protected Dachigam.

Wani spent his life protecting the hangul and its home, the Dachigam National Park. The hangul continues to survive despite being on the brink of extinction for decades. Photograph by Vivek Sinha.

Dr. Karan Singh still speaks very highly of you and wanted very much to be here with us. You knew each other well, of course.

Dr. Karan Singh and I are the same age. Did you know that his father Maharaja Hari Singh used to call him "Tiger"? We both grew up in Dachigam. I lived there and Yuvraj used to spend at least 15 days in a month there. In July and August each year the Maharaja's family stayed in Dachigam where beautiful houses such as the one at Drapahama had been built. Numerous smaller forest homes such as those at Dagwan, Gratnar and Sangargulu still exist.

I remember you telling me stories years ago, about how well the forest once used to be looked after.

The hangul deer and its home were both looked after. They respected and treated the whole forest as a precious living thing. Maharaja Hari Singh used to travel all over India and whenever he saw some unique forest facility, or a good management idea, he would tell my father, "We must do this for Dachigam." The Maharaja had 300 goats, but if a leopard ever got one, it used to make him happy, not angry!

But Dachigam was also a place where the royal families used to come to hunt.

Yes, many royal families were invited to Dachigam for shikar. I remember shoots organised for the Maharajas of Jodhpur, Patiala, Jaipur, Alwar, Bikaner, Kutchh and the Nawab of Bhopal. Our family was greatly respected then and we were treated very kindly. My father, in particular, received many tokens and gifts including binoculars, guns and mementos. But in the turmoil and confusion of partition in 1947, the enemies of Maharaja Hari Singh attacked our home because they accused us of being close to him. We lost everything. All our family records, certificates, letters of appreciation, guns and possessions.

How did shikar and conservation work together?

In the early days shooting was done only with the Maharaja's permission. The forest used to be protected totally. No one risked angering the Maharaja by stealing wood. And everyone knew that if they were caught poaching, the punishment would be severe. Now everything has changed. Poachers think that they can get away with anything. Not all forest guards have an intimate relationship with and love for the forest and its wildlife. Some are very lazy. Times have changed.

Has your life ever been at risk in the forest?

The only real threats came from poachers and villagers who wielded axes or guns. But there have been many scrapes with wild animals too. I was once escorting a Belgian lady through the oak forests just below Drapahama. I had suggested that we go early and set up the camera at a location where I knew the bears would come around 5 p.m. Just as we set the camera up, a bear literally dropped down on us from the very tree under which we sat. The lady, called Sabina, managed to escape, but the bear grabbed her camera and in the process of retrieving it, I got my hands slashed. But that was not the bear's fault at all. It was my fault for not first looking up the tree! Very often, while scanning far-off hill slopes, I would discover to my surprise that a bear had walked close by me. I was never scared, but always respectful of bears.

The Marsar lake, Upper Dachigam. The hangul graze on these pastures in summer. In the winter, the deer move to the more hospitable Lower Dachigam valley. Photograph by Bittu Sahgal.

I too have walked with you and seen bears at touching distance. I have always felt safe in Dachigam.

The forest is indeed the safest place in the world. But it is important to know the forest, to read its signs and understand it. You must know when trees fruit, when bears wake from hibernation, what leopards eat and when the hangul start their migration between Upper and Lower Dachigam. I remember once when a forest guard accompanying Dr. Karan Singh along a forest trail pointed out a hangul track. Yuvraj looked down and was furious because it was actually a cow's hoof! He was so angry that he insisted that only my brothers and I were to be entrusted the task of guarding Dachigam. My whole family has thus looked after Dachigam for years. This forest has employed us all. It has fed us. I was officially appointed as a forest guard in Dachigam in 1961 and I hope I die in Dachigam itself.

Dachigam was always a place where politicians were invited. Did you get to meet them too?

All the time! I remember when Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad was the Prime Minister and D.P. Dhar Saheb was the Deputy Minister. They both trusted me and instructed me to protect Dachigam with my life. I also met Jawaharlal Nehru in Drapahama when Gandhiji was with him. I remember being asked by my father to get wild jasmine leaves to feed the goat that was tethered by the side of Gandhiji's chair. Nehru obviously loved forests and particularly Kashmir, but I never saw him venture deep into the forest on walks or treks. His daughter, Indiraji, was very different. She kept returning to Dachigam, even after she became Prime Minister of India. Very often she used to ask all her guards to stay back and only one would come with us. She had her own video camera and in 1984, while walking on foot through Dachigam's forests, she filmed a Himalayan black bear. Rajivji and Soniaji were with us then and so was my Chief Wildlife Warden, Mr. Inayat Ullah. I was heartbroken when Indiraji was murdered later that year. The wildlife of India lost a true and great friend that day.

You must also have helped many people study the hangul in Dachigam?

Yes. Dr. M.K. Ranjitsinh was always very interested. Also Dr. Holoway. One month before E.P. Gee would visit Dachigam in winter, he would write and ask me to start estimating the number of hangul stags and hinds in the Dagwan valley. People like him must never be forgotten. His kind of request gave my life purpose and I would wake every morning at 4 a.m. to do a good job. Winter was the best time to count hangul because Upper Dachigam was covered with snow and the hungry hangul had to come to the narrow Lower Dachigam valley, where they would congregate in large herds and were artificially fed. Leopards would follow them down there. The bears, however, would solve their food problems by sleeping all through winter.

Wani’s family served as shikaris for Maharaja Hari Singh before Independence.
Photograph by Qasim Wani.

I remember you telling me of the life cycle of bears when we used to walk together in Dachigam. Can you relate some of this for Sanctuary readers?

When the bears wake up from their sleep in March, they are very thin and weak, you can even see their ribs. At this time a herb called Vapal Haak grows profusely. They eat huge quantities of it as it is rich in iron. Pregnant women in our families are also fed this saag as it gives them strength. Around this time, the bears can also be seen lifting stones to get to insects and ants. By June and July, the mulberries and raspberries are in fruit. Around September, acorns and walnuts are ready to eat. By October, the wild rose plants are fruiting and are eaten in huge quantities by the bears. All this food is over by the end of November and this is when the bears hibernate. But if it is a warm year, they may stay around longer. At such times I have watched them for hours. Sometimes they hold up their cracked paws and breathe on them as though warming their feet. If the bears mate in October, the cubs are born around May. But if the mating takes place in June or July, very few cubs survive because they are born in winter when there is no food available in the forest.

And what can you tell us of Dachigam's condition today?

I am glad to say that the Himalayan black bears are doing quite well in Dachigam, particularly in the oak patches between Drapahama and Dachigam. But I am worried about the fact that leopards seem to be coming out of the forest more often.

Has militancy harmed the national park in any way?

The problem is not militancy. Poaching, in fact, is now virtually unheard of because the poachers are afraid of the army and no one carries guns around! But I am sorry to say that the strict rules forbidding the grazing of livestock in the Upper Dachigam pastures are not being implemented. Thousands of animals can be seen. Bakarwals cut trees for fuel. Sheep, goats, buffaloes and even horses can be seen roaming around even in Pahlipora and Drapahama. How can the hangul and bear survive this?

Why do you think this is happening?

Somehow the motivation and desire to protect seems to be missing. I look at my body now and see that it is old and weak, but I remember as though it were yesterday how, at a moment's notice, we would wake up at 2 a.m. and enter the forest to apprehend poachers. We used to patrol forest paths daily for hours on end to prevent wood poaching. Now something is wrong. Perhaps younger forest guards want an easier life, even though they get 15 times as much salary as we used to. And forest officers all over India seem to spend more time in cities than in forests.

Qasim Wani walking with visitors in Dachigam.
Photograph by Qasim Wani.

What was it that motivated you in the early days?

I don't know. But I loved every day of my life in the forest. My family knew that I could leave for the forest at any time and often I would leave hours before dawn to climb 1,600 m. to Sangargulu in Upper Dachigam, just to get there in time to be able to sweep the slopes across the valley with my binoculars to see bears and hangul grazing on the slopes less than 200 m. from each other.

What advice do you have for younger forest guards?

(Smiles) I hope that they are interested in listening to advice! I would tell them to do as we did. Walk alone in the forest, even as they keep in touch with each other by wireless. This is the best way to defend the forest. Also, as we did, they should record everything they see. I still have my old diaries with records of the number of hangul, place, time of day and also special incidents that can help us all understand the ways of the forest better. I remember, for instance, when wild boar (which were artificially released in Dachigam) and bears have taken turns to eat the carcass of a dead hangul. I also remember when you came to Dachigam with all the children from Bombay for your Cub Camp. Those were good days.

And now?

Now? It is Allah's will. He gave me a job to do and I have done it. Now he will send someone else.

“We used to scan distant hills with binoculars to find hangul and bears.” Photograph by Qasim wani.

Any regrets?

I wish I had been educated. Even now, I cannot read or write. All the things I know I discuss with people. And so, often, they write my experiences down and claim them to be their own! I also wish that my family tradition of serving Dachigam was alive. Not one of my children is a forest guard, though one of my nephews is in the Forest Department office. A forest guard's job is very valuable and next to impossible to get. Not only because of the chance to work with wildlife but because it is a lifetime passion!

by Bittu Sahgal, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXII No. 1, February 2002.


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