Srinagar: Where rebels once fought deadly gun battles with Indian soldiers in Jammu and Kashmir, officials are now planning wildlife safaris, reflecting a sharp drop in violence in the state.
Trips through grassland and rocky outcrops—scenes of many clashes between security forces and rebels—will give visitors a chance to observe nature “close-up”, the state’s joint tourism director Sarmad Hafiz said. “It will be a thorough adventure.”
The first safaris will start by June in Dachigam wildlife sanctuary, 22km outside the summer capital, Srinagar, the tourism official said.
The move follows a big fall in insurgency-related bloodshed in the spectacularly beautiful region known as the “Switzerland of the East” for its snow-capped peaks, fast-running rivers and verdant valleys.
“Dachigam is absolutely safe. We’ll encourage such ventures,” said Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Anil Kumar Mathur.
The sanctuary, which sprawls over an area of 140 sq. km, is home to endangered red deer, black and brown bears, musk deer, leopards and large bird species such as black partridge and pheasants.
It is located in the mighty western Himalayas, with terrain ranging from gently sloping grassland and pine-clad hills to sheer cliffs.
“Watching rare stags dancing will be a real treat for visitors, as will spotting bears and leopards,” said wildlife warden Rashid Naqash. “We also have rare species of wild flowers, shrubs and trees to show off.”
While the insurgency has killed people in their thousands, animals have flourished after locals were ordered to hand in their guns as part of efforts to quell the revolt in the state.
“It meant there were few weapons left to shoot animals and birds, and they flourished,” said Naqash.
The walk-and-drive safaris, which will last for seven days, will serve as a pilot project for similar ventures elsewhere in the state.
“We’ll house people in tents and small huts,” said Hafiz, adding that the safaris would comprise a maximum of 12 persons to avoid damaging the environment.
The Kashmir insurgency, since 1989, has left more than 43,000 people dead by official count. Human rights groups put the toll at 70,000 dead and disappeared.
But, during the last few years, militants have been cleared out of Dachigam, the Indian Army says. Overall, the number of insurgency-related deaths in the state has fallen to an average two daily, from 10 in 2001.
The fall in violence comes against the backdrop of a slow-moving peace process between India and Pakistan to settle the future of the disputed region.
Kashmir also plans to reintroduce trekking and mountaineering in remote areas to bring back tourists scared away by years of shootings and bombings.
“We’re expecting a bumper tourist season,” Hafiz said.