To retain the pristine ambience of the Shimla Water Catchment Wildlife Sanctuary, fuel-run cars transporting visitors are being replaced by battery-driven vehicles

Till as recent as a week back, fuel-driven vehicles were being allowed into the Shimla Water Catchment Wildlife Sanctuary, situated in the midst of a dense forest of oaks and deodars — eight km from Shimla town. Not anymore, however. The Himachal Pradesh government has finally realised that increasing noise and air pollution caused by these vehicles could harm the wildlife. The State Forest Department has decided to introduce golf carts and battery-driven cars in place of fuel-run ones for visitors to the sanctuary situated at a height of 2,750 metres.

Air and noise pollution are not the only causes of concern. Non-biodegradable waste dumped in the sanctuary from vehicles plying on National Highway 22 that winds through the sanctuary as well as illegal entry of horses from nearby tourist spots like Kufri are major problems being faced by the forest officials.

Once home to the endangered Musk deer, this sanctuary is now known more for the high density of Koklass Pheasant. Five out of the seven species of pheasant found in Himachal Pradesh can be seen in this natural wildlife habitat. According to forest officials, no musk deer has been spotted for years but there are a large number of barking deer and gorals among the 700-750 animals in the sanctuary that include leopards, Rhesus macaque, yellow-throated martens and Indian Crested Porcupine. There are also about hundred species of birds — Himalayan woodpecker, yellow grosbeak, Verditor Flycatcher and Scarlet Minivet to name some of them.

The sanctuary has over 250 species of flora that includes medicinal and other herbs like ajwain, Gucchis and wild turmeric. It also boasts of nearly 70 varieties of butterflies. Spread over 1,020 hectares of dense coniferous forest, it consists mainly of white oaks and deodars along with blue pines, green oak and spruce in the higher patches. According to senior forest officials, there are about 15 leopards and over 500 gorals and barking deer here. This is one of the few sanctuaries in Himachal Pradesh that is free from human habitation and the forest area has been preserved since the last century.

As you walk down the forest trail, you can spot a barking deer or a goral before they swiftly disappear into the dense forest cover and the chance of capturing them in the camera vanishes. “Animals who live in natural habitats are very shy of human beings, even a whisper can scare them away,” said a forest guard.

This natural wildlife habitat is often referred to as ‘a sanctuary with the difference’. It is not just the animal sighting that draws nature lovers here, but also the charm of walking through a serene environment in the midst of the verdant forest. As its name suggests, the sanctuary is the catchment area for sources supplying water to the Shimla town. There are 19 natural water sources on this 14-km stretch. The water is carried through pipes for supply to Shimla after treatment.

This forest area belonged to the Rana of Koti once upon a time; he gave it on lease to the Shimla Municipal Committee in 1878. Declared a reserve forest by the British 125 years ago, it was in 2006 that this sanctuary came under the Himachal Pradesh government’s Forest Department and was handed over to its wildlife wing only in 2009.

We met Kalpana, daughter of the guard of the Irrigation and Public Health Department who has been given a quarter near the Seog reservoir, as she cycled her way to her home after her computer classes. Twenty-two-year-old Kalpana, who started cycling on this path from Class VI, said that she regularly came by leopards, barking deer and gorals while on her way to school and college.

Asked whether she was scared of travelling alone through the forest with leopards around, her reply was, “For me, this pathway is like my home; these leopards, too, are used to seeing me every morning and evening and maybe they even recognise me! I have never been attacked and no untoward incident has ever happened.”

With the ban on fuel-run vehicles, not many people are coming to visit the sanctuary, say the forest guards. But once the battery-driven vehicles start plying, more visitors will be able to visit here.

A machan-like wooden watch tower was constructed recently and another one is in the pipeline. This is both for forest officials to keep a close watch on the sanctuary and also for visitors to have a better view, said Ashok Chauhan, Divisional Forest Officer, Wildlife, Shimla.

Mr. Chauhan, however, said that they do not want to develop this sanctuary into a tourist resort. “We want nature lovers to get the joy of walking through this dense forest without disturbing the wildlife and the eco system.”