A walk in wonderland – The New Indian Express

Express News Service

Long walks along winding roads, gabled colonial bungalows and magnificent churches, quaint cafés and bakeries drawing people in with the wafting aroma of freshly brewed coffee and cake… Landour, 
a cantonment settlement next to the hill station Mussoorie, has its obvious charms. There’s more waiting to be discovered in this Uttarakhand enclave, a six-hour drive from Delhi, if one is willing to dig deeper. One such less-known treasure is the Jabarkhet Nature Reserve. Claimed to be the state’s first privately owned and operated wildlife sanctuary, it is a must-visit for anyone who wants to experience Mussoorie beyond the daily chaos of diesel fumes and tourist footfall.

Set up as a partnership between Vipul Jain, owner of the property, and Dr Sejal Worah (conservationist and programme director at WWF-India), the forest was in a state of degeneration when the duo took on the uphill task of transforming it into a private wildlife sanctuary in 2013. As part of the restoration process, almost 500 kg of trash was removed before the 110-acre Jabarkhet Nature Reserve which opened to the public in May 2015. Today, it stands as a testament to Jain and Worah’s commitment to preserving the ecology of the forests around Mussoorie. 

“I think the most important step in the forest restoration was to involve the locals. Otherwise, they would look at it as a place to collect firewood or gather feed for their cattle, not as a forest to be nurtured.” They faced a challenge from an invasive plant called Eupatorium which prevents the growth of native grasses. Dr Worah reveals that once it was cleared from certain patches, the ecology of the forest was transformed. Currently, they have close to 40 species of grass. “It’s primarily an oak forest and in the Himalayas, such trees are heavily logged by the locals for fodder and fire. Once restoration began and chopping was controlled, the trees had acorns which we hadn’t seen for many years. This also attracted wildlife—for instance, bears that weren’t spotted here for as long as 40 years, now feed on berries and acorns,” she says.

the crested-serpent eagle

The fresh air punctuated with shades of green, sprinkled with reds and browns is likely to pique the interest of discerning travellers. The Leopard Trail, one of the most popular routes in the forest, is much frequented by the big cats. While it may be difficult to spot one, visitors are likely to see herds of deer playing hide and seek amid the dizzying variety of flora. If one is lucky, one can find crouching civets, wild boars, Himalayan black bears, and the elusive red fox, which visits the sanctuary during winter, especially when it snows.

“But the sightings are rare. It’s only when you head out early in the morning that one can spot wildlife. Our primary focus is to educate visitors about the significance of Himalayan forests,” says naturalist Virendra Singh, who takes groups on guided walks into the forest. He talks about the broad-leaved Masur tree, also known as the Mansuri berry, from which Mussoorie gets its name. “Oaks and deodars are also important eco-fighters in the hills, preventing soil erosion and regulating temperature,” he adds.

The reserve is home to 150 species of birds. Little wonder that a walk along hillsides covered with wildflowers and wood roses is always accompanied by intermittent chirping. There’s also the Ridge Trail that takes visitors to the Flag Hill Top, the highest point of the reserve; the Wildflower Trail that resembles a grassland; the Rhododendron Trail with its fiery red blooms in spring and the Mushroom Trail that boasts over 100-plus varieties of fungi during monsoons. Next time in Mussoorie, scratch the surface to find wilderness beckoning you.

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