For the best experience, open
on your mobile browser or Download our App.

J&K: New Study Paints Grim Picture of Land Use Changes in Dachigam National Park

The park, located near Srinagar, lost 8% of its forest cover in 55 years while the ‘exposed rock’ area reduced by 13%. There was an increase in the park’s shrublands and alpine pastures.
Dachigam National Park. Photo: Nadeem Hassan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Srinagar: Dachigam National Park (DNP), a critical conservation reserve abutting one of India’s four biodiversity hotspots in J&K’s Srinagar, has lost nearly 8% forest cover, a new study has found.

Funded by the Government of India under the National Mission for Himalayan Studies, the study notes that Kashmir’s iconic Dal Lake in Srinagar city and other water bodies in the catchment area of DNP have nearly halved in size, from 19.82 sq km to 10.62 sq km.

The study, a model-based analysis of data, topographic maps and ground situation from 1965 to 2020, warns that these changes are “indicative of fragmentation of natural habitats” which will have a direct bearing on the park’s biodiversity.

The peer-reviewed study appeared in the September issue of the journal Springer, painting a grim picture of the land use changes in Dachigam which is located in the Zabarwan Range of the Himalayas and is home to the Kashmiri stag (Hangul) among other endemic and critically endangered species.

This is the first time that an official study has concluded that not only the park’s forest cover but its “core zone” – a protected area where human intervention is illegal – has also reduced, both outside the park and within, by more than a third.

Noting that the designation of DNP as a ‘protected area’ hasn’t prevented habitat loss over the years, the study notes that the pastures and shrub-lands in the park will grow by 48% and 37% respectively while the forest cover is not expected to change much by the end of this century.

Located some 22 km from Srinagar city centre Lal Chowk, Dachigam Park and its catchment areas are spread across 337 sq km in the eastern part of the Himalayas, serving not just as a habitat for some of the world’s richest biodiversity but also as a quaint getaway for adventure lovers.

Dachigam used to be a residential area before World War 1. As wild animals were frequently sighted there, the then Dogra rulers of Jammu and Kashmir vacated the inhabitants of ten villages there and converted it into a hunting reserve.

The reserve, which was declared a protected area in 1910, has thick coniferous forests, undulating pastures and gurgling water streams flowing down the mountains that not only sustain the Himalayan biodiversity and livelihoods of herding communities but also bring drinking water supply to Srinagar city from the high altitude alpine lakes of Lidder Valley.

A herd of Hangul (Kashmiri stag) in Dachigam. Photo: Tahirshawl/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

The 55-year study, which also analysed the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) earth observation data, notes that the absence of a proper “land use policy” in Jammu and Kashmir accompanied by rapid and unplanned urbanisation raises troubling questions about the park’s future.

Experts believe that the loss of habitat will increase the likelihood of man-animal conflicts and it may also have a direct bearing on the fate of the Kashmiri Hangul, which is accorded the highest protection under Schedule I of India’s Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

Irfan Rashid, assistant professor at the University of Kashmir’s Geoinformatics Department, said that the degradation of land cover can have serious implications not just for DNP, which was declared a national park in 1981, but also for Dal Lake, which is located downstream of the park.

“Any reduction in green cover would increase the silt load in the stream that ultimately pours out into Dal lake. This would lead to enrichment of Nitrogen and Phosphorus in lake’s waters, a process called eutrophication, that has immense implications for lake water quality, biota and aesthetics,” Rashid, one of the study’s authors, said.

The study comes out at a time when the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change told parliament in March this year that the forest cover in J&K increased marginally by 0.14% since 2019. According to official data, 39.15% of J&K is forest area, spanning 21,387 sq km.

Unsustainable development and unregulated human footprint have accelerated climate change which is feared to cause irreversible damage to the mountain ecosystem in the Kashmir Himalayas. Experts believe that the diminishing size of Dachigam will shrink its natural habitats.

“The most serious concern is the increase in the incidence of human-wildlife conflicts which are becoming more frequent all across Kashmir since a lot of infrastructure development (roads, buildings) is happening in otherwise natural forested landscapes. Other issues could be increased nutrient enrichment of waters from domestic sewage,” Rashid told The Wire.

Approached for comment, a senior officer in the Jammu and Kashmir administration referred The Wire to the Regional Wildlife Warden, Kashmir, Rashid Yahya Naqash, who sought to question the methodology used in the study while also rejecting the findings.

“There has been no negative change in Dachigam. The park is healthy and there are several studies which have found that the park’s forest cover has increased over the years,” Yahya said, referring to a 30-year study from 1989 to 2019 which suggests that the park’s forest cover has increased by between 14.91% and 16.96%.

When The Wire pointed out to him that the latest study was based on scientific data and ground validation, and that officials of the Wildlife Department and the University of Kashmir were part of the study, Naqash sought more time before responding. Later, both the officials didn’t answer calls.

According to the study, the park has lost six sq km or close to 8% of its forest cover in 55 years while the ‘exposed rock’ area reduced by 4.26 sq km (13%) from 27.28 sq km to 23.02 sq km. However, the study notes that the reduction in forest cover has seen an increase in the park’s shrublands which grew by 7.3 sq km (56.28%) while the park’s alpine pasture increased by 8.02 sq km (31.89%).

The study has also found that the land around the park under agriculture shrank by 75.16% (from 40.02 sq km in 1965 to merely 9.94 sq km in 2020) and alpine pasture nearly halved by 46.68% or 5.28 sq km.

Unsurprisingly, the study notes that there has been a three-fold increase (326%) or 24.66 sq km expansion of the built-up area around the park, which includes orchards, and residential and commercial areas, while aquatic vegetation outside the park expanded by 174%.

The study points out that the water-intensive croplands around DNP shrunk by 75% in the 55-year study period and they have been replaced either by built-up areas or apple orchards, a trend which is projected to accelerate in coming years.

Make a contribution to Independent Journalism
facebook twitter