￼I had always heard that the most ill-tempered beasts one could hope (not) to encounter in the wild are mighty elephants and unpredictable bears. But then, my idea of exploring a forest was never on foot. It was always inside the safety of a vehicle, where, if things went south, at least I had a shot at escaping. Walking through a forest in search of wild animals was never conceivable to me. And black bears? That was out of question. But then sense does not always sway you to safe grounds, where matters of adventures are concerned. It is in these moments of excitement that sometimes you take the plunge before thinking things through. So there I was, at the gate of Dachigam National Park on a fairly pleasant Srinagar afternoon when the words of my guide Nazir Malik rang in my ears, "I will not be responsible for your life if you do not do exactly as I tell you." Not worrisome at all.. As it happened I was in Srinagar to explore a relatively lesser known valley, and recalled that the forest of Dachigam had always been on my bucket list for Kashmir. The idea really was to watch the onset of autumn, but when I heard that the wilderness is home to the endangered Hanguls and Black Bears, I thought I could try my luck at spotting some of them. After paying the requisite fees, Nazir drove me in a golf cart to the head of the trail. It must have been around 4pm when we ventured in. I had no idea what to expect and quietly followed Nazir on the winding trail. After about ten minutes we reached a small clearing and stood with our backs to a tall oak. It is a magical feeling to be in the middle of a towering forest, soaking in the stillness and silence. For the moment the forest looked empty, like all its residents were enjoying a siesta or, for all we knew, quietly watching us from behind the bushes. Nazir whispered to me to stay put, while he stalked to the edge of the clearing. He scanned the area with his binoculars looking for any sign of the beast. After some time he signaled to me to watch closely in the direction he was pointing. My heartbeat rose in anticipation and my eyes remained fixed on the horizon. From out in the distance, barely 50 meters from where I stood, emerged two black figures - a mother bear with her little cub trailing right behind. They ambled across totally unfazed by our presence. Then as magically as they had appeared, they melted away among the trees. All this happened so fast I couldn't get a clear shot. But boy! Was I delighted on just seeing one so close! ￼Nazir in the meanwhile had moved on, and was bidding me to follow him. The canopy on the trail ahead was dense and allowed only a few shafts of light to filter through. He found another suitable spot to look around and we waited in silence. Back in the golf cart Nazir had told me that all wild creatures are wary of sudden movements, so while on the trail, if we were to have a chance of watching the bears from up close, we should be as still as possible. So there I was, trying to contain my excitement and keep still. Our patience was soon rewarded. Out in the distance Nazir pointed out to another of Dachigam's notorious residents. I think he'd spotted us way before we did him, though; when I focused on him through the lens, he was looking right at us from the undergrowth. Unlike with the mother and cub, I was able to get a clear shot of this one. But it didn't look like he took to our presence well and he darted soon enough. Things thus far had been running like a dream, but then the wild always has a way of surprising you. All this while I had assumed that we would be trying to spot bears on the ground, but then something happened that I was completely unprepared for. Around twenty meters to my left I saw some movement in the tree tops. Not sure what it was, I took a side step to catch a better view, only to realize an adult bear was climbing down the oak. I froze, not knowing what to do. Luckily, though, we were at a safe distance and the bear was in no mood to confront us. From thereon, as we progressed, my first instinct was to look up the tree whenever we stopped to ensure I was not standing in the way of a 100 kg beast darting down after a scrumptious feast. "It's the time of feast for the bears, a feast of acorns. The are fattening up for the winter," explained Nazir. What till now looked like a sleepy grove had suddenly come alive. I realised that there were a lot of bears up in the trees. We stood there quietly and in the next ten minutes we spotted at least three more. I could not get a clear shot though, so we moved ahead to see if we could catch one in good light. We walked to another clearing and waited again forest a bear to make an appearance. We didn't have to wait long - it was as if the forest was filled with bears. A young male emerged from behind the bushes. And soon another. By this time I had lost count. When the light began to fade Nazir told me that we should call it a day. We traced back the same trail we had taken, hopped into our plush ride and rolled out towards the forest gate. After a lively discussion we agreed the day's bear tally was one shy of a dozen. It was a truly incredible and humbling experience. ￼But, mind you, even though we managed to get out unscathed and even though Nazir goes in to check on these beasts every other day, this should not be your motivation to venture in. Trying to look for bears on foot can be quiet intimidating and isn't quite everyone's cup of tea. As for me, I'll be going in for therapy soon, to fix that surge of madness that accompanies the prospect of watching wild creatures on foot.
The Dachigam National Park, used to be the private hunting reserve of Maharaja Hari Singh. It was declared a protected sanctuary in 1981. Spread across an area of 141 sq km, it is located only 22 km from the bustling city of Srinagar. It is home to the Asian Black Bear, Leopard, Yellow-throated Marten, Himalayan Weasel, Common Palm Civet, Mouse Hare and the famous Hangul or Kashmir stag
With the beautiful sights and sounds of the forest-such as this spiderweb catching the waning sun-it is easy to forget that Dachigam, like most other national parks in the country, is not immune to man-animal conflict. Shrinking habitat has led its most famous resident, the black bear, to venture out to nearby fields, often resulting in retaliatory action. But there's good news too-the forest department is doing their best to keep encroachers at bay
Dachigam National Park is blessed with one of the densest population of black bears in the country. A 2015 study estimated the presence of more than 100 bears in the park and its surrounding agricultural lands. During the months of September-October the furry beasts can be spotted in Lower Dachigam, feeding on acorns, walnuts, hazelnuts, beechnuts and chestnuts, building up on fat reserve for their long winter hibernation, which usually lasts from December-March
The joys of walking this untamed landscape include spotting wild red berries hidden amid a rich foliage that makes cosy the black bear's turf-also the home of the Hangul or the Kashmir stag. The Hangul belongs to the red deer family and Dachigam is the only place outside of Europe where it is found. If you wish to catch a glimpse of the majestic creature during the summer months, you need to obtain a trekking permit and visit Upper Dachigam
Walking through clumps of plum, peach, pear, apricot, apple, oak, elm, poplar and pine trees, it is common to spot pine cones hanging from the boughs, or strewn around the forest grounds-perhaps for you to smuggle away as a keepsake
Nazir Malik is one of the oldest and most respected guides at Dachigam, a place he knows like his own backyard. In 2016, he was conferred the Sanctuary Wildlife Service Award for his conservation work at Dachigam. For all of Malik's serious skills, the expert birder makes for interesting company in the wild. He is the kind that would quip casually at the beginning of your adventure, "If you don't do exactly as I tell you, I will not be responsible for your life", leaving you laughing nervously, and of course, well-prepared
Autumn is one of the best times to witness the magnificence of nature at Dachigam. Leaves of all tree species take on a different colour and it is a sight to behold. Chinar leaves, with their distinct shape and gorgeous burnt brick colour, look beautiful strewn around the grounds of the forest department office