THE FIRST thing that was different was the famous landmark on the roadside at Lata, The big rock under which climbers sorted out their gear among the milling pack goats has been decapitated and a rain gauge installed on top. Next to it shops have been built: 'Nanda Devi Tea Stall'.
Another change has been the election of Bal Singh Butola as headman ending the twelve-year reign of the somewhat turbulent Jagat Singh. Bal Singh makes an unassuming host and embodies the best qualities of the hill thakur—initiative and self-respect. As a concession to the dignity of office darn had been eschewed in favour of the less potent chang.
The biggest change was the depressing news that a club from West Bengal calling itself 'Mountain Lovers' had wilfully taken pack goats into the virgin North Inner Sanctuary, flouting the laws governing National Parks and cocking a snoot at environmental concern to keep at least one corner of the Sanctuary free of domesticated animals for the bharal.
Before one becomes strident in denouncing the selfishness of some modern climbers, the special problems of Nanda Devi Park have to be appreciated. The fact is that not even the juniormost of the Park staff have yet entered the North Inner Sanctuary for the simple reason that they do not possess the equipment. And who am I to curse the money-minded shepherds when I could never have hoped to get in without their bridge over the South Rishi at the Goof a campsite?
In spite of the expedition traffic and the existence of a trail along the gorge, to call the trek a 'highway' is a dangerous overstatement. Beyond Bhujgara an innocent-enough looking rock overlooking the river had accounted for the lives for two Australians—one young, one old, in two successive years. It isn't the terrain by itself but the combined effect of exhaustion that leads to accidents. And the chief characteristic of the slabby terrain of the gorge route is for the holds to look deceptively easy but all tend to slope outwards and downwards. In the rains the rock is treacherous, at all times some fixed rope is necessary.
One cannot blame senior Park officials for neglecting to visit their mountain paradise. How will they get in? Significantly Lavkumar Khacher of the World Wildlife Fund, whose report on the Sanctuary forms the basis of the new National Park, went along with a mountaineering expedition. Getting in is only the start of your problems/ Unless you are a well-equipped party the first snowfall can cause panic and you begin to calculate how many clays you can last out on a lone tin of condensed milk till the snow melts on Dharasi. 1 was lucky in that I was well-received by lonely liaison officers at empty base camps. If the members had been there it might have been a different story.
When I reached Lata I had to waste a day because there was not a single able-bodied man left in the village. Every one of them was inside the Sanctuary carrying. I spent the day crossing the cliff above Reni to visit Paing the last village on the gorge. The same was true here though I met Ajaib Singh with several ascents to his credit who had just returned from Nun in Kashmir.
I had hoped to locate Ummed Singh -of Paing who was the explorer who discovered the alternative route into the South Inner Sanctuary bypassing the Rhamani slabs. I had wrongly credited Pratap Singh of Lata with this achievement and wanted to piece the true story together.8
It seems Ummed Singh had worked out the route entirely on his own sightings from the twin base camps of Trisul in the south and Rishi Tal in the north. The pass at 18,000 ft on the Devistan ridge (coming to be known as 'Nanda Kharak Pass') is in a direct line between these two camps. I crossed it from north to south and found it far too punishing for loaded men. The view of course is breathtaking though the fourth quarter of the Sanctuary (Inner South) is concealed by Devistan.
Ummed Singh went with his goats in the summer of 1979. He was roundly abused and threatened with official reports by some conservation-conscious military expedition. This frightened him off and he never went back. When nothing came of the threats in 1980', the shepherds decided to try their luck again in the summer of 1981. Ummed Singh took one toll of livestock numbering less than 500. Pratap Singh and his two companions took three tolls numbering nearly 1500 animals.
A month after this assault on the Inner Sanctuary the forest department notice-boards began to go up on the Joshimath-Rishikesh road announcing the creation of 'Nanda Devi National Park'. Later in the year the Himalayan Journal carried an article4 by the vice-president of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation acknowledging an awareness of the ecological damage being done by the domesticated flocks in the bharal's domain. Dr Lamba of the Zoological Survey (engaged on a three-year survey of the Sanctuary for the Department of the Environment) spoke out loudly against the goings on in the Sanctuary but was awarded a half-inch column in the daily press. A foreign expedition responsible for damaging the forest around Dibrugheta (I was an. eye-witness) were given three full columns in the same newspaper after their successful climb of Nanda Devi. A letter of protest about this distorted coverage was ignored by the editor of the Statesman.
After hearing suitable rumblings in high places about the urgent need to stop the rot in the Sanctuary and rumours that it should be closed for at least five years to all comers I set out in September J 982 with the fond hope that at least a start would have been made in keeping out the goats from the Inner Sanctuary. To my despair I learnt that 4000' had forced illegal entry. Having paid entrance and camera fee to the forest guard I signed the Park register and calculated that with the number of expedition members plus porters carrying and fetching, the number of human entries across Dharasi pass in 1982 approached another 4000. To their credit the forest department have disallowed entry by the gorge, for trees had been felled at random for poles.
A liaison officer I met calculated that the porters of the Dhauli valley had earned nearly two lakhs of expedition rupees in the short five-month season. Typical of their hard work was my own porter Natha Singh who on the day I arrived had set out with a load- and-a-half for Lata Kharak. By nightfall he was back home again grinning with nearly a' hundred rupees in his pocket and ready to go again next morning. But if anyone feels they are overpaid you are free to try the climb to Lata Kharak with 30 kg on your back.
Apart from my own solo venture (known after three successive years now as 4Bal Singh ka member') and the Zoological and Botanical surveys I met only one party of non-mountaineers. Four young men had come from Delhi having been told by the tourist office that the Sanctuary was a three-day trek! They couldn't afford a porter and lugged up their supplies to Lata Kharak. Having no guide they couldn't find the water-hole. To compound their agony a party of well-heeled foreign climbers set up camp next door and tucked in to elaborate four-course meals. When it started snowing they very sensibly decided to come back next year with a porter.
I must say of all the Parties I met this was the most interesting. They loved the area and admitted their mistakes. By contrast I met an old Frenchman shaking his fist at Trisul. He had been invalided down from a summit attempt and was cursing the mountain for depriving him of an altitude record with which to impress his friends in the Alps.
There seems to be something cockeyed in creating a Park for the nation where only rich foreigners can afford to go. The wildlife of the Sanctuary is India's heritage but we seem to be selling it for a mess of pottage ('peak fees').
In spite of their best intentions mountaineers are spoiling the Sanctuary. For example we located the base camp of Nanda Devi by a heap of rusting tins. Where could they have come from? Look up and you see a red mess tent. A hand comes out and 'clonk', another tin of beans hits the glacier. At least we know the menu as we climb up. The actual campsite is scrupulously clean with a well-dug latrine site. But how can you teach porters to crush and bury tin cans. They have the peasant's inbuilt caution that sometime you can re-use them. This was true of all the caves we stayed in. Rats kept on walking off with the plastic tops of water bottles and we were reduced to drinking tea from, old bean tins. I actually dug holes for our two or three tins of provisions but the porters after listening carefully to the logic of cleanliness continued to chuck them down the hillside as though they knew best.
So much for human idiosyncrasies but what of the silent long- suffering devotees of the goddess, the wildlife of the Sanctuary? As my second porter I was given Kundan Singh the village carpenter who in his time had been to Camp 3 on Nanda Devi but who had not been inside the Sanctuary for- four years. He confidently predicted we would see 'duniya bharke' of bharal and couldn't believe it when after a week he hadn't seen a single animal. Where had they gone, for now they should he coming down to the meadows of the South Sanctuary? The answer is one of those ecological chains that lead back to the culprit—mountaineering expeditions. They have an objective to be fulfilled in' a. limited time. They are' willing to pay extra and will rope in anyone at any price. The leader is told by the forest guard that orders have come from. Lucknow that pack goats are not allowed into the Inner Sanctuary. A relation of the guard who lives in Joshimath and knows how things can be arranged offers himself as a trouble-shooter. He takes five hundred rupees from the foreigner, tells the guard he accepts full responsibility and the goats go in. The local shepherds, hearing of this, threaten to blackmail the guard if he doesn't let their sheep in also. The wretched guard files a report that five talis numbering 4000 sheep and goats had entered the Inner Sanctuary by main force in the summer of 1982. With them bhotia sheepdogs. The latter had driven the bharal from their traditional grazing area. These are minor details to a foreign expedition leader. He has paid the government to climb mountains not fuss himself over ecological fall-out.
Luckily it is only the South Inner Sanctuary where the bharal has been dislodged, though this is the best grazing area. In the North Inner Sanctuary we saw up to three dozen bharal in any one day (and base camp observers confirmed this was usual).
We were told the same held true for Dunagiri base camp in the North Outer Sanctuary (generally considered well off in wildlife sightings, though snow prevented us from reaching there) and Trisul in the South Outer Sanctuary. In late September the colouring of the bharal exactly matches the faded khaki of the scree meadows and without binoculars one may not notice a large herd grazing. The porters are quick at spotting any movement (most of them' are reformed poachers) and usually the young of the herd would give the herd's whereabouts away by prancing and butting and revealing their white hindquarters. One morning above the lake on Changabang glacier I painfully followed four bharal up the steep scree hoping for a photograph. But they moved effortlessly to keep me out of shooting distance and T had to give up from breathing problems. This would be about 16,000 ft. At night the bharal come down to the lake and drink. Returning from this unsuccessful stalk I found a recent carcase of bharal eaten by a snow leopard. Hie skin was still on the muzzle.
On the way to the South base camp I got an excellent photo, of snow leopard pug marks fresh in the mud of South Nanda Devi glacier. Like us the leopard had lost the way and had backed off a dangerously soft layer of mud near a crevassed area. On returning to the tree-line at Ramani a large black turd on the path proved the presence of a very contented ordinary, leopard who was delighted with the presence of all the Lata sheep. Further down the gorge near Deodi while clawing a way through the birch jungle to get a photo of Nanda Devi I came across two latrine sites of musk deer- pellets. Base camp observers claimed to have seen kasturi while trekking. Also I heard a report of a black bear with two cubs seen scavenging at the Lata Kharak campsite.
Birds of the larger variety abounded in the South Inner Sanctuary. Flocks of snow pigeons numbering more than twenty went screaming past in formation making the art of flying seem hard work while the black chough with' its orange bill and legs lazily followed the human action with some elegant aerobatics. Lower down the yellow finches had shown marked curiosity in 'our camping habits and would assemble their friends before plucking up courage to investigate. Pheasant and partridge were seen on the passes.
The flowers had all gone by mid-September and on the 23rd we had three inches of snow at Dibrugheta. The most disgusting sight on the trek was the muddy skid down to that lovely, fading oasis from the Malathuni curtain. The path up from the nala is equally muddy and many climbers risk injury long before they reach base- camp. In the steep fir jungles the erosion of the rich black humus is alarming as thousands of feet seek to brake themselves against the exposed tree roots. Humus has been described as the foundation of human civilization and in its indecent removal one can see how the loveliness of a wilderness can be reduced by unthinking boots to a barrenness in a matter of a few seasons.
What can be done to stop the rot? I feel strongly that Nanda Devi should be declared an inviolate peak and mountaineers should approach all Sanctuary peaks from outside the outer curtain. But Indian wildlife lovers have to be encouraged to fill the vacuum left by foreign climbers otherwise an empty Sanctuary will be a poacher's paradise.
To restrain entry of domesticated animals the bridge at Deodi should be felled. That would confine the shepherds to their tradi- tional grazing lands north of the Bishi. Its absence would also restrict heavily laden porters and all but the most ardent traveller.
One good sign in 1982 is that both the Lata headman and the resourceful Ummed Singh took their sheep to Nitl. Apparently the Sanctuary as a grazing area is too wet and the livestock develop hoof and neck diseases. I met the shepherds shearing at Lata Kharak and they blamed the poor fleeces on inadequate grass. If alternative grazing were provided the shepherds would move from the Sanctuary. I was surprised to meet two shepherds who had come all the way from Kangra in Himachal Pradesh to graze their flocks in Nanda Devi Sanctuary. Of course grazing is free. Anomalously so is entry into the National Park for locals. Porters who earn good wages could perhaps pay a token entry fee to experience the feelings of law-abiding citizens.
The forest guards (for this is the mentality in spite of their title of wildlife warden, etc.) need some basic equipment like hoots and sleeping-bag and extra rations. Ideally they should be of high- altitude porter calibre. The headmen of the local villages in the Dhauli valley should be made honorary wildlife wardens for they are keen on co-operating with the mainstream of respectability.
The basic problem seems to be the absence of any interested and energetic individual in the forest department who cares for the area.
Jai Nanda Devi.
Note : While the article was in press, the government has closed the Sanctuary to mountaineers, trekkers and locals.—Ed.