Biodiversity under threat in Trikuta Hills

Dr Rahul Kait
Trikuta hills, popularly known as Vaishno Devi hills, constitute a part of outermost hills of Jammu Shivaliks. It lies at a distance of 48 km from Jammu city which is the winter capital of Jammu and Kashmir State.
It lies between 320 59? and 330 10?N latitudes and 740 55? and 750 50?E longitudes. Trikuta hills are characterised by a highly mountainous terrain, the tract being quite rugged and cut into deep gorges and high ridges. The hills suddenly emerge from the Katra valley, situated at an altitude of 750m above mean sea level on north bank of Banganga river. They arise steeply up to Surajkund above Bhairon Ghatti (2167m amsl). The area drains into Chenab through two perennial streams namely Banganga and Pei Nallah. These hills harbour a very rich avian and mammalian fauna. State govt. in 1981 had notified Trikuta hills as trikuta wildlife sanctuary but it remained unoccupied uptill 2011 when the state board for wildlife has recommended for its denotification on grounds that there is lack of information about the fauna present over there.
Threats and disturbances
Road Construction: Construction of roads has lead to the fragmentation of habitat, construction of 2nd route from Adhkunwari to Bhawan has added to the habitat fragmentation of the area and has adversely affected the biodiversity in general and mammals and pheasents in particular, by restricting the free movement of the animals in the habitat.
Construction of railway tract: Construction of railway tract is another factor responsible for restricting the free movement of animals especially that of mammals and this effect will be augmented when train will start running on the tract.
Railing and sheds: Continuous railing alongside the roads which lead to the Bhawan and Continuous sheds which have been constructed on the tract to protect the pilgrims from landslides and snow avalanches have added to the effect of habitat fragmentation. Landslides: Construction of the road to Bhawan and railway tract to Katra and Quazikund has not only fragmented the habitat but also enhanced the landslides which have destroyed and will still destroy the habitat.
Helicopter services: Helicopters carry the pilgrims from Katra to Sanjichat and vice versa and are a great source of noise in the hills especially at Sanjichat, Katra and adjoining areas.
Road accidents: Another factor responsible for decline is road accidents, though the road accidents are restricted to lower altitudes where there is network of motor able roads. The frequency of the accidents is high during pinch periods when there is scarcity of waters in higher altitudes and the wild animals especially mammals descend down to quench thirst and in this process meet with the accidents.
Large number of Pilgrims: Data of pilgrims visiting every year shows that the there has been a continuous yearly increase in the number of pilgrims. This yearly increase in the number of pilgrims visiting Bhawan has been the main reasons for the developmental works like, construction of hotels, shops, latrine and bathrooms which have destroyed the wild habitat in Vaishno Devi Hills.
Water Scarcity: Water Scarcity, particularly during summer season when the springs dry up, is another area of concern in the Trikuta Hills, which leads to the migration of wildlife to the areas where there is abundance of the water.
Hunting: Inhabitants of the study area especially those living in rural areas kill birds and mammals for meat and sometimes it has been observed that the wild animals were killed because of the conflict such as crop and fruit raiding and killing of their cattle.
Electric wires: Electric wires along the tract have been found to cause the deaths of many birds. The most affected mammalian species has been the fruit bait.
Noise: Noise by pilgrims is one of the most harmful factors which distract the wildlife from the area and the most affected groups are carnivore mammals and birds. Noise by Helicopter service is a potent factor which has lead to the scarcity of the wild life in and around the helipad.
Vehicles: Vehicles, which run between Adhkunwari and Bhawan, though known as environment friendly also add to the disturbance and habitat fragmentation.
Street lights: Street lights along the whole tract, illuminate the area during night, thus create problems of roosting, more over the activities of the nocturnal animals are also disturbed by the lights.
Flash Photography: Pilgrims take photographs during night and flash photography during the night also adds to the disturbances of the wild animals.
Fire: The wastes of pilgrims are collected and burnt along the route. It often results into spread of fire in the area, which destroys both, habitat and diversity.
Following conservation measures need to be strengthened and practically implemented: It is necessary to check uncontrolled and non planned development, as if it is not checked it will further destroy biodiversity, ecosystem and landscape that attract the tourists.
Tourism, conservation and community development should work together. Authorities concerned, need to spread awareness among the tourists/pilgrims to avoid damage to wildlife and its habitat. Trained guides should be employed for creating interests in wildlife, spreading awareness among the pilgrims, local people and the employees of different departments in the area. Good guiding and interpretation can make any species interesting to the public and Pilgrims may be attracted towards wildlife watching, this will become a source of earning to the local people and Government.
Wildlife watching tourism, besides a source of entertainment, enthusiasm and excitement, develops a strong will to conserve wildlife among the tourists. It can certainly make important contributions to the conservation by raising the awareness of the animals observed and their habitats. We need to grow wildlife tourism, as with the growth of the wildlife tourism environmental awareness among the people can be increased. Certain points, away from the pilgrimage tract should be used for wildlife watching and the fee collected at these points be used for conservation of wild life in the area. Trained guides should be deployed along the whole tract, which will help decrease disturbance. We need to involve all the groups (stake holders), who are associated in one or other way with tourism, in devising and implementing various conservation and management strategies. Flash photography during night hours, which disturbs wild animals, should be banned.
Litter of horses at Stables and along the Tract be properly removed and disposed off after pre-treatment, at places where it will cause minimum pollution. It has been noticed that huge amount of waste, created by more than 70 lakh pilgrims visiting the area annually, is just thrown down the hill and when the pile grows big, that pile is just burnt causing further air pollution and in the meantime the waste continues to be thrown down another hillside. The same should be disposed off in a scientific and environment friendly manner.
Railing alongside the roads should not be continuous as it completely isolates animals living on one side of the route from those of other side, especially for mammals and some birds like pheasants. Horizontal expansion of the buildings (both Govt./Non Govt.) should be stopped and vertical expansion be encouraged as it covers less area and thus destroys minimum wildlife habitat.
I will strongly recommend the construction of cable-rope way on the pattern of Gulmarg Gondola which besides providing the easy and time saving mode of transport will considerably reduce the disturbance to wildlife in the area. Bridges at different places over the highways should be constructed which will act as safe corridors and will help reducing the frequency of accidental deaths in the study area. Model (shown as under) can be used.
(The author is Assistant Professor in Zoology Govt College for Women, Parade, Jammu.)