Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Some Came Looking

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By the late 1980s it was vaguely known among the small number of trekkers in Pakistan that Deosai was home to a large population of brown bears. It was early in 1987 when one such person, Vaqar Zakaria, a chemical engineer by profession, heard it on the Islamabad trekkers’ grapevine that another trekker was all set to go to Deosai to see the bears coming out of hibernation. Like Zakaria, Anis ur Rahman was himself an experienced mountain-walker who ran a thriving dentistry practice in town.

Liaison was established. The notion, broadly speaking, was that since the bears break out of hibernation at the beginning of summer, Rahman and Zakaria would get up into the plateau just in time to watch them pour out of their caves and hiding places. As the word was that Deosai virtually crawled with the beasts, and because the common Pakistani had never seen a bear in the wild, much less one breaking out of hibernation, the duo decided to take a two-camera team from Pakistan Television to film the monumental event.

Neither ever having been on Deosai before, it was not known to them that summer does not begin on the plateau in the end of April. They had barely cleared Satpara village, just outside Skardu, and started up the trail leading to Deosai when they ran into a light sprinkling of snow on the ground that steadily got deeper as they went higher. Hampered by the unfit cameramen, the trekkers and their team of porters made very slow progress. After spending two nights en route, they eventually fetched up in the heart of snow-covered Deosai by the Bara Pani* stream and set up camp in freezing cold.

For three days, early each morning, they diligently climbed a nearby hill, set up the tripods and cameras and waited for the bears to show up. The bears did not oblige: not one answered the cue. The only positive aspect of this failed expedition was the cementing of a friendship between Zakaria and Rahman.

Over the next two years they took jeep trips across the plateau in high summer hoping to meet some of those teeming bears. Their quest remained unrequited. From the locals, however, they kept hearing of the hordes of bears that thronged the plateau. Tapping into the files of the Wildlife Department, they learned similar things: Deosai was home to no fewer than six hundred brown bears. Recognising that they were doing something wrong, the duo cast about for expert counsel. The time to see the bears, Ashiq Ahmad of WWF-Pakistan told them, was October. That was when the grass on the higher slopes browned off and the bears were forced into the lower parts of the plateau, thus becoming more visible.

On a borrowed Aga Khan Foundation jeep, the two went into Deosai yet again – this time late in the season. Turning southeast along the Bara Pani stream, they camped some five kilometres downstream of the bridge over this river. Never having seen a bear in the wild, when they did spot an animal they were undecided: in that surreal landscape where the rolling hills make deceptive points of reference, one moment it looked like a marmot and the next like a large bovine. But as this unfamiliar animal passed within thirty metres of them, it resolved into the definite size and shape of a grown bear. And so the first of the purported six hundred bears of the Wildlife Department was seen in October 1992. Except for a few more, the remainder of those animals, it eventually turned out, flourished only in the files of the Wildlife Department!

The spotting of the first bear was sign enough that there were more to be seen. The question, however, was concerning their exact number. Back in Islamabad, Vaqar Zakaria and Anis ur Rahman set about contacting international networks for technical and financial support. The first financial support, from World Society for Protection of Animals, was sufficient to organise a proper research expedition for the following two-year period. A newspaper advertisement raised a team of biology students as well as a self-taught naturalist then working with Sindh Wildlife Management Board. In addition, the sponsor also sent in a researcher from abroad. The hiring of biology students was hard work, however, and took a great deal of screening for suitable persons. This exercise sadly revealed the pathetic state of training in the country’s premier institutions of higher education.

In the summer of 1993, Himalayan Wildlife Project, as it was named (later renamed Himalayan Wildlife Foundation), established the sponsored research camp on Bara Pani some six kilometres downstream of the bridge and for the first time ever the bears of Deosai became the subject of scientific inquiry and census. Three months of gruelling work in harsh conditions from August through the end of October, showed, unlike all claims of the locals as well as the Wildlife Department, that Deosai was home to just nineteen bears of both sexes and various ages.

With the bear population established, small as it was, it was vital not to just go away and forget all about them. Even if one were to rely on the reports of untrained observers, it appeared that once upon a time Deosai was home to many more bears and that their number had fallen. There were reports of bear trappers from the lowlands who came for the cubs to be trained for dancing or bear baiting (see box). There was also word about the miraculous medicines to be prepared from various bear parts. If HWF were to dust their clothes and go away never to return, the precarious few left were sure to go the same way as their predecessors. Something had to be done.

Joyless they dance; unarmed they fight

The dancing bears are the lucky ones. Their only plight is that they are dragged from place to blistering hot place across the lowlands to entertain at village carnivals. A brown bear makes a sorry sight as it plods along city streets behind its trainer guided by a rope attached to a nose-ring. Trained from the very beginning, the animal learns to do its clumsy, bi-pedal motions to the monotonous beat of the traditional dug-dugi – a small hourglass-shaped drum. It is a remarkably sad commentary on aesthetics that there should be a people who can find the sorry, graceless spectacle of a dancing bear entertaining.

Animals destined for bear baiting are the most traumatised and an even sadder commentary on the ethics of the better-off class of Pakistan. With their fangs and claws surgically removed shortly after their capture, the young cubs are fattened until big enough to be pitted against two or three dogs at a time. This is the favoured entertainment of the so-called feudal aristocracy of the country. For the bear it is an unequal contest from the start. Deprived of the armoury nature endows it with and chained to a peg to restrict its movement it has no defence against dogs that come in fully armed and unrestricted. The fight stops when the bear trainer thinks the animal is gravely injured. It stops, only to begin again at another time.

Law restricts, if not totally bans, such cruel treatment of animals. But with Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) being utterly ineffective in the country, the responsibility of prevention of this inhumanity rests with the Wildlife Department. However, because of the connections of the rich and the powerful who enjoy this barbarous display, there is no scarcity of political pressure on the Wildlife Department to turn a blind eye to the goings on. There are also reports of high political offices intervening for the release of confiscated animals – if such confiscation ever takes place. These ghastly spectacles are no secret affairs. They are advertised by cheaply printed and widely circulated billboards that announce the venue and make no secret of names of sponsors and patrons. Some of them are big names in politics.

Established in 1997, a bear sanctuary at Kund (Nowshera district, NWFP) was meant to be the home of rescued de-fanged and de-clawed victims of bear baiting. That there is but a single bear in it, demonstrates how seriously the government takes this responsibility. Though a few more bears made it to Kund over the years, the monsoon floods of 2010 destroyed the sanctuary and killed the animals.

Moreover, the first year’s field work had shown that there were not just bears on Deosai, but several other large and small mammals, several dozen species of migratory birds and a great variety of flora. Most of this bio-diversity was under threat. The wolves were shot for preying on livestock, the streams were routinely despoiled with explosives and nets by fish-greedy picnickers and falcon trappers regularly took away birds to be sold to Arab Sheikhs. Simultaneously the flora was under immense pressure from domestic livestock. Deosai was an eco-system crying for protection and was yet largely unknown to the rest of the country. The field season that year was closed with a meeting between HWF and the Wildlife Department. In consequence, even as early as 1993 a paper declaration was made for Deosai National Park (DNP) and a rough boundary encompassing some 3000 square kilometres was delineated.

* The title means Great Water in Urdu and Hindi. In Shina the stream is called Bara Vai and in Balti Chhogho Chhu. The meaning is the same in all languages.

Book is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore 

Related: Apricot Kingdom: Baltistan in History and Fable

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 19 March 2014 at 10:33, Anonymous Hasnain Leghari said...

Deosai heaven on earth

At 19 March 2014 at 10:35, Anonymous Nadeem Khawar said...

Your words are very precious!

At 19 March 2014 at 10:35, Anonymous Asad Azim Shan said...

We must take every step to save Deosai.

At 19 March 2014 at 12:07, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Nadeem. But it is your photography that does the trick!

At 19 March 2014 at 12:07, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Asad, good work has been done. Now all the support is needed to keep it from being undone.

At 19 March 2014 at 12:08, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Hasnain Laghari

At 26 March 2014 at 19:58, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

I am your new reader. Would love to read this book.

At 27 March 2014 at 06:42, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Athar, you can get this book at Sang e Meel, Lahore. Please call them at 042-3722-0100.

At 21 August 2014 at 23:07, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this book available in any of the bookstores in Rawalpindi/ Islamabad? Having visited Deosai many times would love to view it from your perspective.

At 23 August 2014 at 12:00, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Please try Mr Books and Saeed Book Bank in Islamabad


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days