Shimla Water Catchment Sanctuary: This gift of nature is a model for water conservation and a fabulous walk in the wild

Surprises show up where you have no hope. Take Shimla for instance. What more can you do as a visitor there…may be take a walk on the Mall Road, or check out an eatery, tour its popular buildings, or do a round of the museum perhaps? Like in several of our popular hill stations, slapdash ugly concrete structures have become a reality in this Capital city of Himachal Pradesh. They now often come in your way of grabbing a clear view of the mountains or the valley below. Add to Shimla’s misery a sizeable floating population of tourists besides the load of its permanent residents, and you know there is no hope for a breather there.

And then, a surprise! Barely 8 kms from the city, on the Hindustan-Tibet Road (National Highway 22), I chance upon this verdant paradise, of 1020.32 hectare, bursting with pines, deodars, oaks and firs and yes, sound of birds twittering away, and sprightly ghorals prancing about. Perched on altitudes of approximately 1915 metre to 2750 metre above the sea level, this is the old water catchment area of Shimla, turned into a wildlife sanctuary by the name of Shimla Water Catchment Sanctuary in 1999. Still, it is a hidden gem of Shimla. The sanctuary, among many interesting things, has the highest reported density of koklass pheasants in India under natural conditions. Steep and precipitous at places, the sanctuary is bifurcated by a host of seasonal streams which form the catchment of the Aswini Khad. The khad drains into Giri river, a tributary of river Yamuna. It also connects the Chail Wildlife Sanctuary through a forest corridor.

On a visit to Shimla on work, I, by sheer luck, become a part of an enthusiastic team — two seasoned academics and a senior forest officer whose penchant for nature is pretty popular locally — all set to walk the 14 km stretch. On a good day, you can drive down the first 7 km stretch. After a bout of rain in the morning, it is not quite a good day. So bundled with biscuits, juices and water, and also an umbrella each, we present ourselves in an SUV at the high iron gate of the sanctuary headquarters, Khalini, 4 km from Shimla Bus Stand on the Pantha Gatti Road. An old forest guard reluctantly gropes his pockets to find the key to the lock that hangs from the gate and drags it open. He prods you to take the car on the first 7 km stretch, assures the road is motorable. We all are somewhat relieved to hear that we have to walk only the last 7 kms.

As the car takes the rutted twisting road — at times gravelly, at times slushy and many times mounded — through the dense forest, the forest officer, Sanjeeva Pandey, tells us about what the sanctuary holds. Though deodar is the dominant species of the area, it has a host of other trees like the ban-oak, moru–oak, kharsu-oak, kail, spruce, silver fir, poplar, rhododendron, taxus, chir, kainth, khanor, acacia mollissima, etc. He explains, “The forest here is two storied. While these trees occupy the top canopy, the middle and the ground area is covered by a variety to grass species, ferns and vascular herbs. It has shrubs like desmodium, indigofera, salix, berberis, rosa, rubus and daphnae. There are large blank spaces serving as grassy meadows which go a long way in increasing the prey base for large mammals.”

So, what kind of animals it has? And before we know it, we spot a few ghorals frolicking about just a few metres away from us. Our cameras go click, click, click, to can them but their movement is faster.

Ghoral is classified as near threatened as per the red data list; the sanctuary serves as an important protection ground for the species. Besides ghorals, there are barking deer, sambars, langurs and also “uncertain record of having leopard cat.” In winter, bears can be spotted in the sanctuary. The main predator here is leopard though it is believed to be locally threatened. So are barking deer and ghoral since the ’80s. Though locals remember spotting musk deer here, its believed to be extinct here. (According to IUCN, a survey in 1980 revealed no signs of its presence.)

The area is infested with birds typical of the Himalayas. Besides the koklass pheasants, there are specked wood-pigeon, Himalayan woodpecker, yellow-billed magpie, black crested tit, green backed tit, kalij, partridge, etc. According to the forest department, a census carried out in 1979 gave an estimate of 17-25 pairs/per 2 kms which is the highest reported density under natural conditions for the bird (Gaston and Garson, 1981). Once, these forests had Chir pheasants. The forest department tried to re-introduce the species in 1968 but none reportedly survived.

Soaking in this information, we head towards a point where the road forks into two: one goes on an ascend to the forest lodge Seog Rest House, and the other to a clearing where stand two dilapidated forest department quarters, one for the Forest Ranger and the other for the caretaker. We take the one that goes to the quarters. The clearing also has the 16 feet water reservoir built by the British in 1901 to tap water from falls all around the forest and supply it to the Viceregal Lodge a few kms away. Surrounded by thick forests all around it, the huge reservoir with the capacity of holding 240,00,000 gallons of water is a wonderful accomplishment of human ability. Today, the water is supplied to the residents of the nearby Dhalli area.

A little off the reservoir starts the narrow lane deep into the sanctuary. As one treads on — at times in the company of multi-hued butterflies, at other, finding one’s way through the shrubs that have grown wild with the monsoons, it is an amazing feeling of being up close with nature. You stop by to note the interesting ferns, shrubs, the trees even as the birds coo. You also stop by to soak in the splendour of many waterfalls (There are 19 of them) whose water reaches the reservoir. The technology employed here is pretty simple. Water that falls down from the height is collected in a storage area a few feet below from where it reaches the reservoir through thick pipes. We marvel at the ingenuity of thought shown and wonder why we do not tap all the water from such natural falls in our hills to supply water to the nearby areas. At the end of the seven km stretch is a huge waterfall. Just before it, we find yet another clearing which has a wooden bench that overlooks the pine filled valley. With blobs of clouds passing by, it is a spellbinding sight. Pandey draws our attention to the fact that the sanctuary has huge potential for research on a variety of subjects of biological importance and ecological monitoring, say, ethno botany, ethno zoology, forestry, wildlife related or ecosystem related studies, etc. “It also has potential for conservation education for local people and tourists,” he underlines.

On returning to the clearing with the forest quarters, we are served elaichi chai in small ceramic cups by the hospitable caretaker. Sitting on the clearing, sipping the delicious tea as the day is preparing to give in to the impending night, we cool our heels. And tell each other what a discovery it has been. Really, there are surprises in nooks; you only need to meet them.

How to get there

By air: The nearest airstrip is Jubbar Hatti Airport, 35 kms from Shimla

By rail: The nearest railway station is Kalka, 38 kms away from Shimla

By road: From Delhi, take the highway to Chandigarh via Haridwar and reach Shimla. From Shimla, it is 8 km away on NH 22

To visit: You have to take prior permission of the DFO, Shimla Wildlife Division. Permission is granted on payment of a fee. There are fixed visiting hours.

Nuggets of history

The British got the forest comprising the catchment area on perpetual lease from Rana of Koti Estate in 1878 on behalf of the Shimla Municipal Committee. In return, the Committee paid Rs.2200 as annual revenue to the Tikka of Koti besides half of the profit from the felled trees.

In 1891, some more area was added.

After the British left, the area came under State control and was notified a protected forest in 1952.

It was first notified as a sanctuary in 1958, re-notified in 1982, and finally notified as a wildlife sanctuary in 1999. The area remained under the control of Municipal Corporation Shimla till mid 2006 and under the control of Shimla Forest Division (Urban) till March 2009. Due to reorganisation of divisions, the area of the sanctuary is transferred to the Wildlife Division Shimla from April 2009.

This is one of the sanctuaries in Himachal Pradesh free from habitation and rights.