Friday, 19th January 2018

Hunters become guards of snow leopard in Chitral



CHITRAL: “They saved nine of my goats in lieu of only one,” said Gul Ashraf of Kuju village as satisfaction radiated from his face while talking about the conservation project of snow leopard launched by the Snow Leopard Foundation (SLF).

“The project has brought about a big change in our attitude towards the wild cat and our hostile attitude has been replaced by friendly feelings; no sane person could think of shooting the animal even if it carries onslaught against their herd of goats,” he said. The human-snow leopard conflict has been quite frequent in the past while the density of the cat population is thought to be much higher than now which can be substantiated by the fact that it forms an integral part of local culture.

The folk tales and songs are replete with the description of the wild cat while the people name their children after it as Purdoom (snow leopard) even now which indicates the intimate relation between the two. Before the arrival of automatic rifles with long firing range here the villagers warded off the cat with clubs when it would attack their goats in the pasture and even in villages. The modern rifles, however, subdued the cat leading to the fast depletion of its population over the past few decades and it filled the conservationists with high degree of apprehension about its very survival. The cat was, in the meanwhile, put in the list of endangered species heading towards extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The area now forming the Chitral Gol National Park is said to be one of the famous habitat of the cat since the olden times and a pair of the animal with cubs made their presence every time at the low altitude in the vicinity of villages, says Dr Inayatullah Faizi, a former project manager of IUCN. The other places of its presence were Gahirait Gol, Broze Gol, Koghuzi, Kuju, Agram Gol, Shasha and Kalash valley of Rumbur which supported a large population of the markhor and ibex, both considered the favourite food of the cat, he says. It was in 1980s that Schaller, a renowned conservationist, told the world about his sighting of the animal in Chitral Gol area after its mysterious disappearance from the area for over a decade, he said. The depletion of markhor population due to unchecked poaching had in turn made the wild cat an endangered species, Dr Faizi said.

The Snow Leopard Foundation has now started the Livestock Support Programme, which is aimed at providing compensation and incentives to the affected farmers losing livestock to the predator, says a senior associate at SLF

Kamal Abdul Jamil, a senior associate conservation at SLF based in Chitral, said that one of the potential dangers to the survival of the cat was its killing by the herdsmen to protect their livestock from it. He said that livestock keeping formed the major component of pastoral economy and the loss of one goat inflicted a great loss on the farmer. “A common man does not know about the ecological importance of the animal due to the lack of awareness,” he said, adding that no compensation was paid to the affected herdsman by the provincial wildlife department as there was no such budget for it.

Mr Jamil said that in such a situation, it was SLF which rushed to the rescue of the wild cat to save it from being annihilated in its rich habitat of Chitral flanked by the Hindukush range of mountains.

“The inclusion of community in the conservation process produced instant results and soon the hunters become the guards of the wild animal,” he said. The herdsmen of the villages facing the danger of marauding cat were organised by the project through a chain of Snow Leopard Conservation Organisations (SLCOs).

To support the livelihood of local communities, SLF has now started Livestock Support Programme which is aimed at providing compensation and other incentives to the affected farmer losing his livestock to the predator, Mr Jamil said, adding that it also included insurance of livestock in the snow leopard grazing areas.

Herdsmen were convinced that they had been losing 10 times more goats to the foot-and-mouth and other diseases every year than the cat killed them and it would be prudent to check the disease instead of predation. Mr Jamil said that the idea was welcomed by the herdsmen while measures were started to be taken to control the diseases which ranged from immunisation to provision of medicines and hiring services of veterinary doctors to carry out check-ups of animals in the pastures. The SLCOs were also provided with funds which the office-bearers utilised for collective well-being of the villagers, he said.

The perishing of cattle heads by outbreak of diseases is now a thing of the past which has materialised the slogan of ‘give one to save nine’, said the herdsmen in the villages of Kuju and Bokhtuli Gol. Daulat Khan, an octogenarian of Kuju village, told this scribe that he would now welcome the cat to prey his goat while in his youth he had many encounters with the wild animal to protect his herd of goats. He said that the new generation knew about the importance of the wild animal.

Legal protection has been provided to snow leopard while the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has included it in the third schedule of Wildlife Act 1975 by giving it a status of protected animal. Due to its status of protected animal, its hunting or possession, dead or alive, and trade is illegal. However, no law can debar the people from offensive against the wildlife in the absence of community participation which needed proper education and incentives. SLF has got the point and successfully enlisted the support of the target communities in Chitral as the retaliatory killing of the animal in the grazing lands posed the highest threat to it. The other threats to the endangered species include loss of prey population, poaching for financial gains and lack of awareness.

Regarding the loss of prey population in Chitral, Imtiaz Hussain, the divisional forest officer of wildlife department, said that the phenomenal increase in the population of markhor and ibex over the last couple of decades had induced the cat to return to the area. He said that the population of markhor and ibex was brought to the desired density by community participation and establishment of 23 game sanctuaries across the district besides a national park. Mr Hussain said that the habitat of the cat was not restricted to a certain geographical area, but it roamed in a very vast area and normally travelled 1,500 kilometres in a year, which was recorded by signals sent by the radio collar tied to a snow leopard in Chitral Gol National Park some years ago.

The presence of the snow leopard in Chitral is indicative of ideal ecological environment where biodiversity can flourish well, he said.

Published in Dawn, December 21st, 2014

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