By Rahul Banerji
Less than an hour’s drive from the heart of Srinagar lies a most extraordinary forest.
Today it is a protected expanse, a national park.
A hundred-odd years ago though, it was the hunting preserve of the then maharaja who turfed out the inhabitants of ten villages to set up a personal hunting preserve.
Thus was born Dachigam, or “ten villages”. By Independence, ownership had shifted to the state and thirty-some years later, it was turned into a national park, one of five such in Jammu and Kashmir.
Given that it is such a short drive from the Srinagar city centre, Dachigam is a tribute to those tasked with keeping it in pristine shape.
Entitlement and privilege being what they are here, it was an eye-opener to see the park the way it is with villages and settlements – not to mention Srinagar itself – situated in such proximity.
Even a single fallen tree cannot be cut, trimmed or shifted as it in turn becomes an ecosystem that helps regenerate the larger forest.
Quite naturally Commanding Officer Anjali had pencilled down a day’s visit to Dachigam. She had also roped in her man on the spot, Billalsaab, to make sure all would go off smoothly.
And so it did, as with all of the CO’s other plans that are usually worked down to every tiny nitty and gritty.
In turn Billalsaab had asked his friends to make sure we had the best experience, information – and gossip – on Dachigam.
So Pradeep and his taciturn guru, whose name we never learnt, were on hand throughout our visit to the sanctuary with stories and little jungle tips about this beautiful forest.
And Dachigam does catch the eye.
Divided into two tracts, the lower and upper forests, it is marked by steep, wooded valleys, a burbling river that also once fed Srinagar city’s water needs, a sprawling oak forest and pastures, and even a little lake.
The Himalayan Red Deer or Hangul has its last refuge in Dachigam, and numbers have been on the rise in the last 20-odd years, Pradeep tells us.
Some of the group are fortunate it getting a glimpse of a buck, which is a rare sighting indeed at this time of year as feed is now plentiful and well distributed.
The larger herd, some 50 in number Pradeep tells us, is nowhere to be seen.
Dachigam is also where we encounter two bears and a leopard that about put the seal on the trip.
Jeremy is a Himalayan Brown Bear, or Red Bear, who has been caged by the park authorities on account of him being a naughty one.
He’s coaxed out of his den, and a first sighting is a wow moment. This bear embodies bearishness, little round ears, black eyes, a snout that begs you to smile and an all-round roguishness that is completely endearing.
Imagine Winnie the Pooh on a super-large scale.
“Don’t get too close, or be fooled by his looks,” we are warned.
But selfies are a modern day must and Jeremy times his display perfectly, waiting till he has the largest possible audience before giving us the full Monty.
An adult Himalayan Brown can stand nine feet or more and weighs in excess of 300 kilos. Jeremy is suddenly a towering, clawed presence from a cuddly teddy bear lookalike.
But it’s just a put-on and the bear’s a showman as well, milking the moment for his share of fame that will travel with his visitors.
Dachigam houses two other projects,
Wildlife SOS helps rehabilitate rescued Himalayan Black Bears, a much more sedate cousin of the bigger Brown Bear.
At the moment, it has three females and a male who have been brought in either as orphans or from captivity as performing animals.
Helping the bears to live normally, or as normally as possible, is the aim of Wildlife SOS and clearly the bears are in good hands.
We linger at the enclosure hoping for a proper look at the bashful bears.
The male has long since disappeared into the bush, but one of the females is coyly hanging on to the fence, snout firmly buried in her armpit.
Just as we are turning away, she relents and presents us with the famous sighting of the moon smile, a white splash of fur across the chest that gives these animals their other name – Moon Bear.
Beauty on the move
And finally, there’s Julie the beautiful, Julie the restless. A full-grown female leopard who has been caged for the last few years because she had grown too fond of raiding villages in the area.
Julie is a prowler, on the move non-stop. She’s big, the furry paws an indicator of her power and strength. And her eyes are always on the horizon, looking out beyond the cage that is now her life.
One look at Julie and you realise she will be gone the moment there’s half a chance, something the park staff are well aware about and respectful of.
And soon enough, it’s time for us to be gone as well. Night’s falling, the evening Azaan will sound soon enough and there’s an iftaar to look forward to after our hosts have finished their evenings’ prayers.
Down the road, Jeremy, Julie and the rest will settle back into their little routines as well, their rhythms beating a much older and more primal beat that the one you and I hear.