Himachal park gets Unesco heritage tag

Shimla, After Gujarat's Rani ki Vav (queen's stepwell), the Great Himalayan National Park Conservation Area (GHNPCA) in Himachal Pradesh, India's richest biodiversity spot in the western Himalayas, Monday got the coveted Unesco tag of a World Heritage site.

The World Heritage Committee, which met in Doha, Qatar, included GHNPCA in the World Heritage Natural Site List. It was India's lone entry.

Earlier, the Unesco added Rani ki Vav in Gujarat's Patan town to the list of World Heritage sites.

"It's a great honour. Now it's an international site... will get global attention. The uniqueness of the park is that the rights of the locals have been protected," state Principal Secretary (Forest) Tarun Sridhar told IANS.

Besides the GHNPCA, India has six other natural sites in the Unesco World Heritage list, including the Sundarbans in West Bengal.

The state's chief conservator of forests Sanjeeva Pandey, who was in Doha to represent the state's claim for the heritage status, said this was indeed a significant moment in the conservation history of the western Himalayas.

"This was about nine years ago when the Friends of GHNPCA, an informal group of volunteers, started believing that the area should have global support to protect a part of the unique environment and biological diversity," Pandey wrote on his Facebook page.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Unesco's advisory panel on nature, last year deferred "the examination of the nomination of the GHNP to allow the state to finalise the addition of Tirthan and Sainj wildlife sanctuaries (adjoining the GHNP) to the nominated property to create a single area".

The World Heritage Committee said the state "has to continue to resolve rights-based issues with respect to local communities and indigenous people in the site".

Official sources said the legal process of inclusion of Sainj (90 sq km) and Tirthan (61 sq km) wildlife sanctuaries into the GHNP (754.4 sq km) involve resettlement of three villages from Sainj and providing monetary compensation to the right holders, specifically shepherds, in Tirthan sanctuary.

With the inclusion of both the wildlife sanctuaries in the GHNP, the total area, known as Great Himalayan National Park Conservation Area (GHNPCA), spreads over 905 sq km.

Formally declared a national park in 1999, the area stretches from 1,800 metres to 5,200 metres in altitude with a major part of the GHNPCA lying above 4,000 metres.

"GHNPCA harbours the most important gene pool of the Western Himalayan flora and fauna," the Unesco said on its official website.

The GHNPCA, located in Kullu district and some 250 km from here, is home to several rare and threatened species, including the western tragopan, chir pheasant, snow leopard, Himalayan musk deer, Asiatic black bear, Himalayan tahr, blue sheep and serow.

Some 25 threatened IUCN Red-listed plant species are also recorded in the park.

Wildlife officials said the GHNP is one of the two national parks in the world that is home to the brilliantly plumaged western tragopan. The Machiara National Park in Pakistan also supports this species.

Another endangered pheasant, the cheer, is also found in the GHNPCA's grassy slopes. Other pheasant species, the monal and the koklas, are in abundance in the temperate zone, while the kaleej occurs in small numbers below 2,000 m.

"I count 70 blue sheep... the largest group of mammals I have seen in my years of trekking in the park (GHNP)... It is a good sign that the park is providing a safe habitat for a species that once was hunted for its meat and fur coat," US expert Payson R. Stevens and Sanjeeva Pandey wrote in an issue of Sanctuary Asia journal.

Since 2000, the two experts have trekked over 1,500 km in the park.

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