Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Sardar Naseer Tareen: A Man for all Seasons

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As the son of the last sardar (chief) of the Tareen tribe of Pashtuns of Pishin, north of Quetta, Naseer Tareen should normally be wearing the mantle of the sardar. He is, however, anything but the archetypal tribal chieftain: he is suave, cultured, educated, outspoken and down to earth. If that is not remarkable enough, Tareen is also one tribal chief who never approved of hunting and in a society where meat eating is macho, prefers vegetarian eating. His Urdu is untainted with the hard Pashtun accent and his English gives away his two decades in the United States where he studied and worked.

When he first went to the University of Connecticut in 1958, he had hoped to return home with a degree in International Relations to join the coveted Civil Service. However it did not take long for his mentors in school to realise that his real line of work was theatre arts or communications. ‘There I was, the son of a Pashtun sardar, being told to pursue what would be called the mirasi’s work at home,’ he says with a laugh. Perhaps because he never saw himself as a bureaucrat, Tareen was looking for a way out, and a year later he decided to study Film Making.

In those days the mere act of changing subjects or universities in the States without prior permission of the State Bank of Pakistan made it impossible for guardians at home to transfer money to the States. Unaware of this law, Tareen found himself insolvent. In order to self finance his studies, he briefly worked for a private radio station for South Asians. But seeing that the pittance he received would never allow him to save enough to continue his studies at Columbia, he joined the Embassy at Washington as an assistant in the Information Division in 1960. Four years later he had saved enough to return to his studies. But since he had earned the ‘dishonour’ of following the mirasi’s trade, as he says, he decided to go whole hog. Columbia was out, and he applied to the California Institute of the Arts, the most prestigious art school in the United States.

The next four years were ‘the most productive’ of his life as he studied film making. Upon graduation he worked for a short period with Disney Films, but his heart lay in documentary film making and he changed companies several times until 1971 when he decided to return to Pakistan. Once at home, however, he faced severe adjustment problems and for the next nine years shuttled between Pakistan and the United States.

Towards the end of 1981 he returned home for good to moot the idea of a documentary film on the culture and history of Balochistan. The idea was approved, but before the provincial government would finance it, they asked Tareen to make a quick one on the ‘teeming’ wildlife of the province. In his search for this wildlife Tareen realised that it ‘teemed only in the files of the Wildlife Department’. The one good thing to happen was that in the course of this exercise, the little known area of Torghar Mountains caught Tareen’s attention.

An off shoot of the great lump of wind scarred rock known as the Toba Kakar Mountains, Torghar lies about 100 km due north of the town of Qila Saifullah and runs some 100 km in a east-west direction. With mild summers and harsh, frosty winters Torghar was once home to leopard, wolf, and hyena among large carnivores; while among ungulates the unique straight horned Suleman Markhor (Capra falconeri jerdoni) and the urial (Ovis vignei cycloceros) were common. Interestingly, C. f. jerdoni is found only in this and a few adjoining mountains – and nowhere else in the world! However, following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the influx of modern automatic firearms, the wildlife of Torghar was seriously depleted.

Filming in 1983 Tareen spotted but a handful of Capra and Ovis specimens. Most of these were females for males with their handsome antlers were favoured as trophies. Dismayed, Tareen returned to the United States to discuss the situation with experts of the US Fish and Wildlife Department. Subsequently, in order to assess the situation, he invited three experts to visit Balochistan. This visit and the ensuing meetings concluded that only a private conservation effort could save the animals of Torghar from extinction.

In order to make the effort self sustaining, the Americans suggested instituting trophy hunting. The only problem, however, was that there were no trophies. And so the next year was spent trying to raise some money. In 1985 help in the shape of US$ 10,000 arrived from the owner of Pizza Hut in the States and the Torghar Conservation Project (TCP) took off with seven Game Watchers. A complete ban was imposed on hunting in the area which worked rather well for Tareen had the support of the chief of the Jogezai tribe who controls the area.

In 1987 the first harvest of five aged urials was taken, and two years later the first markhor was culled. Controlled hunting brought the population of markhors and urials roughly at par and between 1987 and 1993 TCP enjoyed a steady inflow of cash with each markhor fetching US$ 10,000 and each urial half of that. This inflow of cash meant more jobs for the locals and an increase in the area falling under the jurisdiction of TCP. This brought a sense of ownership of and loyalty to the park among the families living within its precincts. A case in point as when a man, disgruntled with the allocation of jobs, shot a markhor in defiance only to become a fugitive hunted even by his closest clansmen. After remaining in hiding for several weeks he finally sent a message accepting the given job quota if he were pardoned.

Today Torghar actually teems with urial and markhor, and Tareen is thinking of re-introducing the carnivores – a mountain that was on the verge of becoming what biologist George Schaller had called Stones of Silence (title of his brilliant book) is living once again. If anything, Torghar is a fine example of conservation in the country and perhaps the best of a private effort.

Although Tareen is very modest about the success of TCP and generously shares the credit with his team, his efforts as the kingpin in Torghar have not gone without appreciation. In the end of July 1996 Tareen received a letter from the Dutch Embassy in Islamabad informing him that Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands in recognition of his conservation efforts has appointed him Knight of the Order of the Golden Ark. Accordingly, on November 30th this year in a ceremony in Soestdijk Palace in Baarn (Netherlands) the insignia of the Order will be conferred upon Sardar Naseer Tareen.

The above article appeared in The News on Friday in 1995
Postscript, 22 June 2013

Sardar sahib is like no one else I know. I arrive in Quetta and take my bags straight to his home completely unannounced. It is lunch time and he sits in his sun room as a vegetarian delight is laid out. After the greeting and asking after my wife, we sit down and eat. The conversation flows for Sardar sahib is a conversationalist par excellence. He begins to talk about his passion: wildlife conservation. It is as if I had just popped out to the loo and no preamble is needed.

The one thing that strikes any listener is the ardour with which Sardar sahib talks of – and works – for the cause. Well into his seventies, he is still capable of doing a remarkable lot of work and travelling great distances. In fact, when I first met him in March or April 1993 and having heard him talk, I came away thinking, ‘This man cannot be for real?’

I had never seen anyone like him in this country where it is difficult to find people faithful to what they profess to believe in. Just forget about fiery passion. We are a nation of phonies and fraudsters. Everything is a fancy and false façade here. Sardar sahib was passionate and informed then, and he is only more so twenty years down the way.

So, as we eat, my bags are placed in the guest room where I always stay. No question has ever been asked how long I intend to remain. I stay, am fed and if transport is needed, ferried around in Sardar sahib’s vehicle which is usually a not fancy four-wheel drive. I do my stuff independently and whenever we sit down together, the conversation starts once again as if we had only been briefly interrupted. If there are a few things I know about wildlife, most has been gleaned from Sardar sahib in my short and infrequent encounters with him.

Over the years, I earned his friendship and it was always taken for granted that when in Quetta I will stay with him. Some years ago, working for an NGO I was putting up in a hotel and because of the tight schedule, did not inform Sardar sahib. In the course of the work, I had to visit some office and as I was coming out, I confronted Sardar sahib and another dear friend Dawood Bareach. Sardar sahib was offended. He held out his hand, fingers spread, in the abusive khalla in my face. ‘Where have you been?’ he demanded. It was out of course that I should be in Quetta and not be staying with him. But my apology was quickly accepted.

Since Sardar sahib is a focal point for anyone heading into the outback of Balochistan, people gyrate to his home and office. Several times it has happened that I am introduced to someone on their way somewhere and Sardar sahib says, ‘Ask this hobo, he might like to go with you.’ And I have ended up getting freebies to the most wonderful places in Balochistan.

My last visit with this remarkable man was on 8 September 2012 in his home in Quetta after he had been operated upon for cataracts. My dear friend Munir Moosiani of Moola and I went together. By the way, I don’t think there is anyone in Balochistan who does not know Sardar sahib. Munir had to tell him about the spotted gecko of Moola that people were trapping in huge numbers to export as pets to USA and that something needed to be done before the reptile went extinct.

For the first time, I saw a dejected Sardar Naseer Tareen. He said the law and order situation did not permit him to travel as freely as he once did and as he would still like to do. It was affecting his work. The man of the spontaneous laughter and so brimming with joie de vivre and excellent conversation was dispirited because of the lawlessness rampant in his province. This was the first time I recognised bitterness in his voice.

Sardar Naseer Tareen with Munir Moosiani

He had a project in the area around Dureji (Lasbela district) and when I asked if I could be sent there, he said he would not permit me unless he was certain I would be safe. Another time, and he would have laughed out loud to say the same thing and perhaps add that there would be a few people heaving a sigh of relief at my final departure. This time round, there was grimness in his manner.

It broke my heart. Sardar Naseer Tareen, my mentor and guide, was shattered by a political situation beyond his control.

Related: Obaidullah Baig - my hero

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 10 July 2013 at 21:36, Anonymous Qambar Abbas said...

Another mice read with a very personal touch.

At 11 July 2013 at 00:13, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Nice to meet you Mr Tareen. And Salman Sahib, this shows your love for the man.

At 11 July 2013 at 00:28, Anonymous M Behzad Jhatial said...

While reading this story and aftermath, it was too hard to believe that such a personality exists in our society. Me being in Quetta have become curious to see this Tareen. This is story of a man who has been more than a personality as far as feelings are concerned. Don,t know what to say at the end for such a person, the real hero.....

At 11 July 2013 at 00:59, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

''Would be called the mirasi’s work at home''....lols. It happens in our culture that we suffocate the real talents saying them mirasi, bhand, any so on.
Nice read by the way.

At 14 July 2013 at 17:47, Anonymous محمد ریاض شاہد said...

Sir i really enjoyed the post.

At 23 April 2014 at 15:06, Blogger javaria tareen said...

Impressive piece of writing , I m looking forward to meet Sardar Sahab on my way back to Quetta.

At 23 April 2014 at 15:09, Blogger javaria tareen said...

Impressive piece of writing. Really enjoyed it. I really appreciate your efforts for bringing a personality like him from Balochistan. I am looking forward to meet Sardar Sahab on my way back to Quetta.Thank you Sir.May Allah be with you always.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

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Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

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Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

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