Every morning at four, the call of the male tragopan echoed over the valleys of the Great Himalayan National Park, breaking the stillness of the night and revealing the bird’s general location to us. That was our cue to leave the warmth of our tents and look for the speckled bird’s whereabouts. Hidden in the foliage and in hides constructed out of jute bags and bamboo, we sat with our cameras waiting for hours, hoping that the rare bird would show up.
Our team of wildlife filmmakers from Riverbank Studios in New Delhi had spent two years searching for the elusive western tragopan—a rare pheasant that had never been filmed in the wild in India. Scientists estimate that only 5,000 of these birds exist in the wild. It has been spotted in parts of Pakistan, while in India it is mainly found in small pockets of undisturbed forests in Himachal Pradesh.
The Great Himalayan National Park is the bird’s most protected habitat and we had visited it several times, without any luck. This time, we hoped our search would finally end. So, fingers crossed, we began a three-day walk to a camping ground at an elevation of 10,000 feet, on a three-week trip.
Locally known as jujurana—the king of birds—the people of the region believe that God created the tragopan with feathers from all the other birds. According to them, that’s what makes the tragopan one of the most unique and beautiful birds in the world.
Summer is the best time to spot the bird. This is the season when it travels up from the lower forest, hoping to find a mate at a higher altitude. Its loud mating calls at this time make its location easier to figure out.
Gushaini village, which is a ten-hour drive from Delhi, is the point of access to the park. Here we leave luxuries of technology and transport behind, and follow the Tirthan river, as it gushes out of the forest, spraying us with its cool glacial waters. The rhododendrons are in bloom during summer and, as we walked on the narrow mountain paths lined by old oaks and deodar trees, we would spot the exuberant burst of colour. It took us four hours to cover the eight kilometres and reach the entrance to the park. These lower elevations are the perfect place to see the Himalayan goral, an antelope that lives in small herds and is often sighted at dusk or dawn near the ridges.
From the gate, the path became steep and challenging, rising up at a 70-degree angle. The snow-covered Greater Himalayan mountains stretched endlessly above and around us. In the distance, the river flowed between two mountains like a silver thread. The wind played with our hair and the trees formed a canopy protecting us from the afternoon sun. After six hours of difficult hiking, we reached our camping ground in the darkness of evening.
When your eyes can’t see much, the other senses get heightened. The sounds of the forests filled our ears. The porters began building a fire to cook our dinner and to dissuade predators from wandering into our campsite. Earlier, we had encountered signs of a Himalayan black bear in the vicinity. A passing porter had informed us that a mother bear was in the area with her cubs. A bear can be dangerous alone but a mother bear protecting her young can be lethal.
We sat around the blazing fire plotting our strategy, knowing that no amount of planning could help us find the tragopan. It would have to be a waiting game; we were hoping that chance would be on our side.
Waking up to the break of dawn in a forest is one of the most special experiences for the human soul. Tearing away from the warmth and comfort of the sleeping bag might seem like the most difficult thing to do, but once you are standing on the edge of the campsite, staring out at the valley below, waiting for the first sight of the sun and you can smell the tea that the porters are brewing on the campfire, it all feels right.
A forest has the capacity to quieten you. In the silence of the hide, I could hear an orchestra—the flutter of the monal’s wings as it passed by in a flash of blue, the crickets, the griffons flying above, the falling leaves, and the wind playing in the higher reaches of the trees. One day, a Himalayan pit viper, a highly poisonous snake, slithered past one of us. It had come out of hibernation.
We set up four camera traps that were programmed to start shooting when they detected movement, hoping to capture the bird when we were not around. Every evening we would check what the cameras had caught. Some days, they would have photographed a passing black bear, goral, and even leopards. The images revealed the diversity of wildlife that was around us, but there were no tragopans in our photos.
One day, we decided to trek for five hours to reach the highest point of the route through the park. As we climbed, the trees started to disappear and the topography changed from rhododendron forest to tiny shrubs and alpine meadows. This grassland was home to the Himalayan brown bear. At this altitude where the grass meets the snow, hikers can spot blue sheep, Himalayan tahr, and if lucky, even the endangered musk deer (hunted for its musk). We got some fabulous footage of the forest.
Nearly two weeks went by, tracking and waiting. There were days when we could hear the tragopan close by, foraging in the tall bamboo grass, but before we could turn our camera on, it would fly away and all we would see were snatches of its crimson coloured wings.
On other days we would not hear the tragopan at all, so we would sit in the camp killing time, watching the light change. In the quiet moments we had the chance to smell the sweetness of the trees, feel the soft grass under our feet and the cold wind on our faces. The porters would tell us stories and supply us with endless cups of tea.
Then one day, just like that, we found it.
A tragopan had come down to feed on the bamboo grass that it loves. Chance or perseverance, we will never know, but it was framed perfectly in our camera. It was almost as though it walked into the frame and stopped to pose before flying away. This was a moment of celebration. The porters, who had also become obsessed with our quest, rejoiced with us.
Appeared in the August 2013 issue as “In Search Of The Tragopan”.
The Great Himalayan National Park is in the Kullu District of Himachal Pradesh, India. It covers an area of 754.4 sq km and is one of only two national parks in the world to hold the endangered western tragopan. It is around 110 km south of Manali and around 500 km north of Delhi.
Air The closest airport is Chandigarh (300 km/7 hours away).
Rail The closest major railhead is also at Chandigarh, but visitors can get closer via the UNESCO World Heritage Kangra Valley Railway from Pathankot to Joginder Nagar (110 km/3 hours away).
Road A road trip from Delhi (500 km away) takes over 12 hours with large sections of steep, mountainous roads, that are only recommended for the adventurous. There are two major routes—the Chandigarh-Aut one is shorter, but the Shimla-Jalori Pass circuit is more scenic.
Summers (Mar-Jun) in Kullu are pleasant with warm, sunny days, cool evenings, and temperatures rarely exceeding 30°C. Owing to the high altitude, winters are very cold, with snow and sub-zero temperatures between December and February. The area is prone to landslides during the monsoon (July-September). April to June and October to November are the ideal times of year to trek through the Great Himalayan National Park.
There are many organised treks and hikes available in GHNP. Routes have been charted (maps can be procured from the tourist centre) and even first-timers can explore the Eco zone surrounding the park with short day-hikes and experience majestic views with relative ease.
Serious hikers can embark on a number of routes within GNHP that can be up to eight days long. The most popular treks are to the Sainj and Tirthan Valleys. BTCA (Biodiversity Tourism & Community Advancement) is a local organisation that promotes ecotourism, providing employment to locals who have been displaced by the formation of the park. Guides, cooks, homestays, and treks through the GHNP can be booked through the organisation (contact Mr. Gopalakrishna at 94182 82148; doubles approx ₹2,000 per day all inclusive; treks and itineraries available on www.greathimalayannationalpark.com).
Entry ₹50 per head; ₹30 for students with identification. Camera ₹150 for a non-commercial video camera
Outside of homestays and park lodges (complete list on www.greathimalayannationalpark.com), visitors can stay at the nearby village of Gushaini, which is the starting point for most treks in the region. Himalayan Trout House provides comfortable accommodation along with fly-fishing classes (94181 28383; www.mountainhighs.com; doubles from₹6,000 including lessons, equipment, licenses, and guide; ₹2,600 for accommodation only). Raju’s Guest House is a peaceful, secluded hotel with warm, wooden interiors and great food (01903-225008; ₹1,600 per person, inclusive of meals).