Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Hope for the Suleman Markhor

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Markhor – Snake Eater in Persian, is a magical name for a mountain goat. Some believe it actually ate snakes that earned it the name, but this shy and illusive animal has never really been caught dining on snakes. T. J. Roberts, the naturalist, therefore believes that the name comes from the Pashto: mar meaning snake and akhur for horn, that is, Serpentine Horn.

Belonging to the genus Capra there are seven recognised sub-species of the species falconeri. Of these five inhabit the mountains of Pakistan. Their corkscrew antlers that twist up and outward differentiate each sub-species and make these handsome animals valuable as trophies. The styles range from the single twist and wide spreading flare of Capra falconeri falconeri (a.k.a. Astor Markhor) in the Northern Areas of Pakistan to the three tight twists in the unflared horns of C. f. jerdoni (Suleman Markhor).

This sub-species together with C. f. chiltenensis of the Chiltan Mountains south of Quetta was once widespread in the dry highlands of Balochistan. Sharing this terrain with them was the urial (Ovis vignei cycloceros). But like everywhere else growing human pressure told heavily on them, together with all other wildlife, causing a serious depletion. To make matters worse, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan resulted in a mass influx of modern weapons as well as armed ‘refugees.’ And so in the first few years of the 1980s whatever wildlife once abounded in these mountains was very nearly exterminated.

Enter Naseer Tareen in 1983. A native of Pishin (north of Quetta), he had returned home after more than twenty years of studying and working in USA. A film maker by training, he was sold on the idea of making a documentary on the history and culture of Balochistan. The idea received official sanction, but on the condition that he first make a documentary on the wildlife of Balochistan.

‘Our mountains are teeming with all sorts of animals and the filming should take no more than six weeks.’ He was told.

And so he went into the field with Raza Abbas, an experienced cameraman, hoping to return with enough exposed film to make the required documentary. The Chiltan mountain having shortly before been designated a national park had a reasonable count of C. f. chiltenensis, but everywhere else the team turned up blanks. In the Torghar Mountains north of Qila Saifullah they were able to spot only five young females and one injured male of C. f. jerdoni. Having expended the stipulated six weeks without a foot of exposed film, Tareen realised that most of the wildlife ‘lived only in the pages of the files maintained by the Wildlife Department.’

Disappointed, he shelved the project, recognising that more important than filming the dwindling wildlife was its protection. And so he returned to the States in 1984 to discuss the status of the Suleman markhor with the US Fish and Wildlife Department. Later that year three experts from USA visited Balochistan to see the situation for themselves. Mohammed Rafiq, the then Chief Conservator, well known for his forthright manner, was not the one to mince words and was quick to point out that in the tribal setting of Balochistan it was near impossible to enforce controls. There was nothing for it, the meeting decided, but to make a private effort at conservation.

One thing was clear: even a private effort would need funds to operate. But none whatsoever were available, therefore in order to make the project sustainable the visiting experts suggested trophy hunting. Unfortunately, however, under the circumstances there were no trophies to be hunted either. Torghar the non-starter, it seemed, was teetering on the brink of complete and total perdition.

In 1985 hope arrived in the shape of US$ 10,000 from a man who had never been to Torghar and had little hope of ever doing so. It came from the owner (since deceased) of Pizza Hut in USA and was arranged by one of the experts who had visited the year before. Although at that time this was not a large sum, it nonetheless was enough to begin the Torghar Conservation Project (TCP). Seven local men were hired as Game Watchers, a few tents and binoculars together with ancillary equipment were purchased and work began.

A complete ban on hunting was imposed and by 1987 urial, having always been in greater number, were ready to be harvested. That year five trophies were taken. Two years later the first markhor was hunted. Allowing only one markhor every year the programme has been able to bring the Ovis and Capra populations roughly at par. With each markhor fetching US$ 10,000 and each urial half that, the years between 1987 to 1993 saw a steady inflow of cash. But in the last two years there has been no trophy hunting, consequently payment of salaries is currently five months behind.

The number of Game Watchers was increased from seven to thirty (currently stands at forty-one). Salaries came regularly at the beginning of each month and the people soon came to recognise that TCP augured well for them. With more staff available the programme was extended to another part of the mountain.

At Qila Saifullah we changed to an aging jeep and after a generous lunch at the home of the Jogezai chief we drove due north across the dusty plain of Khusnob. We were following the timeless route along which Powinda nomads of Afghanistan come every autumn to the warm climes of Lower Balochistan and Sindh only to retreat again after the wheat harvest in the lowlands. Once they walked with their herds of goats and sheep which served as ready cash, but now the herds are gone for the Powindas work as farm help and labourers. Thus unencumbered, whole families rode on their way to Afghanistan atop tents and household affects on trailers behind red tractors – the Powinda way of entering the 21st century.

Then we were winding up the contours of Spinghar – White Mountain, to descend to the village of Rod Jogezai. Beyond the village lay the wide open Khaisor valley: a vast well-watered grassland bordered on the south by the jagged escarpments of Spinghar and on the north by those of Torghar or the Black Mountain. This flat grassland could have belonged to the Mongolian steppes; only there the hills are well rounded and rolling, here they are sheer and jagged.

Well after nightfall we saw a fire flickering in the void. It marked Naseer Tareen’s encampment by a small, clear stream a couple of kilometres from the village of Tanishpa in the heart of Black Mountain, exactly one hundred kilometres and five hours north of Qila Saifullah. Somewhere in the escarpments that rose darkly around us were the urial and the markhor that this man had saved from extinction. And this was what I had come so far to see. Shortly after daybreak I left with the watchers Khushal Khan (late twenties, boyish grin and very little Urdu) and Noor Dad (fiftyish, heavy beard, quiet man with a sad smile and no Urdu). With us was Qurban Ali (keen sense of humour; considered anybody with more education than himself worthy of reverence) who had driven me out to the mountain and who was now playing interpreter.

As we worked our way up the narrow Basha Gorge to Lajwar Sakhar (Lajwar’s Rock) Qurban told me of the time that Lajwar, a local lad, kidnapped pretty Basha from distant Loralai and, fearing for their lives, came to hide in this wild and desolate country. Lajwar made the overhanging rock their home and it was called after him; and since Basha was the one to make the daily pilgrimage to the water hole in the gully, it came to be known as her gorge. The interesting aspect here was that ‘gwezh’, the Pashto word for gorge sounded surprisingly like its English equivalent. En route the watchers showed me the nest of a flycatcher with one hatchling and two eggs, a thrush’s nest with four eggs several chukar partridges and a water hole with the spoor of a markhor and stone marten from the night before.

No sooner had we reached the jutting rock of Lajwar than Noor Dad and Khushal had their eyes glued to their binoculars. Having had to wait endlessly for wild animals in other areas of the country it was no small surprise when within five minutes the pair was excitedly setting up the spotting scope. On a far ridge was a pair of young female markhors. After several solitary animals and a few in pairs we were able to see a herd with six mature females and four yearlings. But as much as I had wanted to see a male, there was none. Back in camp Tareen told me that males, being strictly nocturnal, spent the entire day in caves coming out to forage after sunset. The only time to see them is during the rut in autumn when the clack of jousting horns resounds through the mountain and when they chase the females around the slopes.

The following day we drove to the settlement of Brinj and then walked up through Nattu gorge to the towering spur of Mullawai. This was urial day. On a distant ridge, sharp against a deep blue sky, we saw a herd with more than a dozen animals. Since urial and markhor rarely intermix we had to scour another hill for markhor. And as if to make up for the day before, we spotted a male that my guides said was three years old. What a handsome specimen it was too.

Having spent two days with these seemingly wild men I had discovered the secret of success of this conservation programme. It is especially remarkable in a society where a firearm is easy to come by and where the thing to do is bag an animal or two to be considered man enough. Of no help is the dearth of education which leads to a total lack of empathy for the cause of wildlife. The programme, I knew now, is successful because of Tareen’s own sense of commitment and enthusiasm which is as intense as it is genuine. This fervour has naturally filtered down to the men working with him.

Every time an animal was spotted both Khushal and Noor Dad were beside themselves with excitement: it seemed they were seeing their first ever live markhor. On both evenings as the sun neared the western hills it took an effort to tear these men away from their roost. There was always the insistence to stay just a bit longer in the hope of seeing an early rising grown male. At the end of the first day we had heard two gun shots. Leaving Qurban and me to pick our way back the pair took off into the gloaming to investigate. There was no less than 300 square kilometres of open range-land where the gun appeared to have gone off, yet the two watchers’ sense of responsibility goaded them into the darkness. They returned after ten at night to report someone’s attempt on a partridge.

Assured of regular salaries by the success of the programme, it is natural for the locals to become so deeply involved. Nevertheless there is something to be said for Tareen’s unobtrusive motivation.

‘I tell them this mountain is their mother; they live if she lives. If they let her die, it is the end of their life as well. They must therefore respect her water, her air and her wild animals,’ he says.

That is ancient, timeless wisdom. That is what someone would have told his or her children twenty, thirty thousand years ago. It is this wisdom that gives Tareen and his colleagues the commitment that makes Torghar a success. Moreover there has been active help from the Jogezai chieftain (our host at Qila Saifullah), whose authority extends across Torghar. With the chief’s eyes and ears everywhere it is difficult for a poacher to go undetected. Even so there has been one case of illegal hunting.

Game watcher vacancies are distributed among the families living in the mountain and sooner or later someone was bound to think he had been wronged. In defiance one such man went out and shot a markhor only to flee when the chief’s men came to get him. After more than a year as a fugitive, directly as a result of family pressure, the man has recently sent reconciliatory messages: if he is pardoned he will make do with the allocated job quota. But this is possible, Tareen points out, because of the interest the Jogezai chief takes in the project. For Tareen, making this inroad was easy for he, though a bachelor himself is related to the Jogezais through marriages.

With the wild ungulates well on their way to recovery Tareen is now considering reintroducing the leopard that once freely roamed these hills. Together with the markhor and urial it preyed on porcupines that are common in the area. But since the leopard periodically resorted to domestic animals as well, it was exterminated. The result has been a pestilential increase in the population of porcupines and today these rodents wreck untold damage on trees and crops.

The idea of reintroducing leopards has met with some resistance for the locals believe it will naturally take a toll of their domestic stock.

‘I tell them the odd goat or two is merely the leopard’s salary for keeping the porcupines in control,’ says Tareen. Slowly the number of tribals who subscribe to his viewpoint is increasing. When they are ready and ask for it a pair of leopards will be set free in Torghar. With TCP well entrenched, helped on the way by a Rs 100,000 grant from the government, Tareen and his colleagues can now look forward to the future. The recent past has seen the establishment of an NGO called Society for Torghar Environmental Protection (STEP) and with almost militant fervour Tareen asserts that the project will be entirely self-sustaining through trophy hunting. Though a reduction in permit fees could increase the number of hunters, Tareen is averse to selling the animals cheaply. This, he points out, is happening with the Badakhsan markhor in Central Asia. In Torghar he hopes to make the hunter pay for his trophy and help run the project.

Whereas STEP will provide additional jobs as Game Watchers, it also hopes to improve health, education, communication and agricultural facilities in Torghar. Traditionally the economy depended on raising domestic livestock. However, since this can put wild ungulates under pressure STEP hopes to diversify the economy by improving fruit farming and agriculture. Toward this end they have already levelled several stretches of land along the waterways for the planting of new orchards. All told, Torghar seems set on the way to rehabilitation. And since good things are contagious, STEP has been approached by tribal groups from at least seven other mountain ranges of the province to help initiate similar conservations programmes.

As our gear was loaded on the jeep and we said our farewells, Noor Dad squatted next to a reclining Tareen and spoke quietly, earnestly. Perhaps there was the question of the salary he had not received for five months, or that of an additional job for his grown son. Perhaps he had heard of someone bragging of taking a markhor. Perhaps it was nothing; merely a friend’s parting dialogue with a friend.

And when our jeep pulled away I thought Noor Dad looked almost sad. I watched him straighten his turban, dust his clothes and with a flourish throw his large hand-cloth over his shoulder. Then he tossed a slow wave in our direction, turned around and strode off into the narrow gorge that led to his home. What a silly notion that he was sad. He was home; he was with the mother. And she lives.

Note: This is from 1995 or the year after. The effort of conserving was VERY successful and today every winter hunters from the Americas and Europe visit to cull aged and unwell males, and the local population earns good money. They have several infrastructure schemes from this money as well as a couple of schools and dispensaries.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 18 July 2015 at 00:42, Blogger Siddharth Agarwal said...

It almost absorbed me into the scheme of things, especially the last paragraph about Noor Dad.

At 18 July 2015 at 11:20, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Siddharth. Torghar continues to be my favourite place. It has been a success and it is very nice to see the people as part of the success.


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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

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