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You must be aware of the fact that our country is one of the richest when it comes to biodiversity. But, sadly the insatiable appetite of humans to hunt for fun has greatly reduced the number of animals here. Thankfully, some people realised the importance of conserving them, and it spawned the need to establish wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. Now, some of these are especially renowned for their conservation efforts while others for their natural scenery, earning them a place in the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage Site list. The latest entry in the natural category of the list is GHNP or Great Himalayan National Park. It is known both for its natural vistas and its efforts in protecting the regional wildlife.
The best part about it is that it is in the mountains (Himachal Pradesh), for me, the most beautiful geographical feature on earth. The very moment I can afford a few days off work, I am heading to this site. For those, who are saying to themselves, “What is in a national park and why would I go there to see animals, when I can see them at the city zoo?”, here are a few reasons why you should be visiting it.
Rich Biodiversity – the First Obvious Reason
Well, I don’t need to tell you that you should be going to a national park primarily to see animals. Again, don’t start saying, “Forget the national park, I can see them at the zoo”. Yes, you can see animals at the zoo, but behind bars or cages, mostly dozing away in the sun or in front of an air cooler if their cage is enclosed. But, when you go to a forested area, you enter the ‘Wild’. You get the chance to see animals in their natural habitat without any cages or fences.
For me, visiting GHNP makes even more sense because it is home to two of my favourite animals, brown bears and wolves! Yes, I like these animals instead of the usual dogs or cats. I don’t know why bears, but wolves because I am into those vampire and werewolf folk myths (think Underworld, not Twilight!). A pack of wolves, hunting, or a brown bear, standing upright on its hind legs with a fish in its mouth, would be the ultimate sight for me. However, the most important and also the rarest animal, which the national park is renowned for conserving, is the Snow Leopard. Its name tells you that it lives almost exclusively in snowy areas; hence, seen only in the upper reaches of the park, above the tree line.
To spot them, you have to be extremely quiet and patient, and must have the eyes of a sniper. They are really shy and will take off on the slightest hint of your existence in the area. Their white coat with brown rings accounts for a highly efficient camouflage, making them almost indistinguishable from the snow. You may get to see them feeding on blue sheep (bharals), musk deer, gorals or tahrs. Another significant mammal, you could see in the park, is the red fox, infamous for its cunningness. If you dwell too much on folk tales, then keep your kids away from them.
Butterflies are known for their distinctive colour patterns, and they seem to make the surroundings prettier. At Great Himalayan National Park, at least 44 species of butterflies are found! Make plans to come here between September and November as during this time, most animals that live in high altitudes descend to lower elevations to escape the bone-numbing cold, which will soon come with heavy snow.
Abundance of Birds – Paradise for Ornithologists
I didn’t forget mentioning the avian diversity here, because I wanted to dedicate an entire section to it. The reason? The park is home to over 200 species of birds of all colours and sizes. The western tragopan, the state bird of Himachal Pradesh and symbol of the park, is undoubtedly its most iconic winged creature. Apart from this, you can also see the monal, koklass, white-crested kalij and cheer pheasants here. There are loads of other small to medium-sized birds with varied colour schemes, present in the park.
What really intrigues me are raptorial avian species, commonly called birds of prey. In the Himalayas, most of them tend to be quite large as larger breasts equal bigger and more efficient lungs. At high altitudes, the oxygen level is low; that is why, birds that live here are larger than those in the plains. One of the most common raptors here is the golden eagle, the largest in the family. If you are lucky, you may be able to spot them descending from the sky, pouncing on a goat or deer, and flying off with it! That is truly a sight to behold. Other birds of the same type that live or migrate here are black eagles and booted eagles.
Now, coming to my favourite type of birds, vultures. There is something about these long-necked birds that I like. May be the idea that they feed off the dead, creating an aura of mystique. If you see a dead animal, stop and wait. A group of cinereous vultures or Himalayan griffon vultures will shortly be there. With a wingspan of around 10 feet, they are the two largest vultures in the world. Another vulture, which constantly scouts the park for carcasses, is the lammergeier or bearded vulture. It doesn’t just feed on dead animals, but on their bone marrow. They will take a bone in their beaks, soar to a great height and then throw them on rocks to break them into smaller pieces. Red-headed vultures are also commonly spotted in the national park.
Coming to my second favourite type of birds…owls. I Traditionally, owls have been associated with wisdom. Just look at how they turn their heads to 360 degrees…they, for me are the true nocturnal creatures (again the night and darkness being popular subjects for Heavy Metal songs). Collared owlets, tawny owls, mountain scops owls and Indian eagle owls (some of the largest in the family) are present here in abundance.
Opportunity to Camp and Trek – Ideal Vacationing Site
Great Himalayan National Park is a great site not only for observing endangered species of animals in their natural setting, but also to camp and trek. The protected territory ranges from around 5200 feet to 20000 feet in altitude; hence, while trekking here you can see almost all Himalayan landscapes. From pine forests at the lowest elevations, you will enter thick growths of cedars, firs, spruces, junipers, oaks, maples and birches, along with bushes of rhododendrons. Did you know you could eat the flowers and that their juice is a good blood purifier? As the tree line ends, you will notice the appearance of lush grasslands with colourful alpine flowers like those of the highly poisonous aconite or wolfsbane and hemlock herbs. Beyond these lie barren lands that are permanently covered with snow above 19000-feet altitude.
You could camp in forests amidst conifers, beside a gurgling brook, on velvety meadows, or along glaciers if you are really adventurous and carrying extremely warm clothes. Imagine going to sleep with the sound of owls and waking up to cool, fresh air and a magnificent sunrise! Trekking is possible in the four main valleys inside the park: Parvati, Tirthan, Sainj and Jiwa Nal. You can also hike to the top of Pin Parvati Pass for a really thrilling experience. On the way, you will pass by small villages, where the traditions are still untouched. The best time to trek here is obviously summers, when the snow is negligible, the temperature is bearable and the trails can be negotiated easily.
Consider the fact that trekking will not only be following forest trails, but also involve camping. And since you will be in a national park, the chances of seeing the regional wildlife will always be high. This in turn translates into unlimited chances for photography; if not animals, you can always click photos of the pretty surroundings. So, you won’t have to take a separate trip to see animals or camp as hiking will give you both these opportunities. Once you come here, you will automatically realise why UNESCO recognised it as a World Heritage Site. It deserved the status owing to its scenic natural surroundings and wildlife conservation efforts.