The markhor: Between a majestic animal and an economic asset
The recent news about trophy hunting of markhor and ibex in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) has sparked intriguing public debates. Many have questioned the ethics of this practice, while others have asked about its social, ecological and economic impact.
The question of ethics in trophy hunting is an intractable one that I will not focus on here. Rather, I will look at the ecological and economic effects of trophy hunting in GB in its historical context.
Trophy hunting in GB is not new. In the second half of the 19th century, the princely state of Kashmir became a paradise for big game hunters of the British Raj. Visitors’ guides to Kashmir, as far back as 1884, mentioned the area around the valley for its potential for big game hunting of such charismatic species as markhor.
The markhor, a goat endemic to the region, was one of the most sought-after species of big game hunters for its unique trophy. A member of the Caprinae family, it is a wild goat with flaring horns that can reach a staggering length of five feet. The markhor was of particular attraction to the sportsmen who preferred it over its cousin, the Asiatic ibex.
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By the end of the 19th century, intense hunting by British sportsmen had driven the Kashmir markhor to local extinction in the Pir Panjal range around the Vale of Kashmir.
The sportsmen now looked north towards Gilgit, Astore and Baltistan to continue their quest for markhor and ibex. Here, they shot markhor and ibex of all sizes with relative impunity. In some cases a single hunter shot more than 30 animals in one season.
Markhor suffered more than ibex in this British onslaught because the former stays at relatively lower altitudes and so is easy to hunt.
After being shot out in the Vale of Kashmir as early as the 1890s, markhor were now meeting the same fate in Gilgit and Baltistan.
A colonial legacy of patronage and hunting
In 1913, the Kashmir Game Preservation Department put a complete ban on markhor shooting in the Bunji Valley in Gilgit and Rondu Valley near Skardu, which harboured one of the biggest populations of the Astore markhor.
There are no reliable figures of the markhor and ibex population from that time to assess the impact of trophy hunting on the overall population, but it may be reasonable to assume that there were cases of local extinction due to overhunting.
One reason for this assertion is that unlike today, when there are legal limits on which animals can be shot — only markhor or ibex with a trophy of 38 inches or more can be shot — British sportsmen are reported to have shot animals with trophies in the lower 30s.
Trophy hunting by the British in this region was not only ecologically damaging, it also had a dark social underbelly. The dominant forms of transport on the Srinagar-Gilgit road at that time were pack animals and humans.
Prior to direct British involvement in the region, the Kashmir state had required the people of Baltistan, Astore and Gilgit to provide free labour, known as begar, to state officials travelling on the road.
While begar was ostensibly for official purposes and hence for officers of the Kashmir state and British Raj on official duties, in practice it was utilised by a much wider array of people.
One benefactor of this exploitative and draconian system was the British sportsman, who often used physical and violent means to recruit villagers to his hunting party as porters and game guides.
One British sportsman wrote in 1892:
“In many places the natives will deny the existence of game, and will tell any number of lies to induce the traveler to leave their village and go to some other one... this anxiety to get rid of sportsmen is partly caused by the unwillingness of the people to furnish the supplies required by the travelers; but I fear that it is partly to be attributed to the conduct of Englishmen, who have thrashed or abused villagers for not showing game, when they were doing their best.”
There are several accounts of frustrated British hunters where they describe villagers fleeing to the mountains upon the approach of a hunting party. It would be an understatement to say that the villagers of that period did not see sportsmen and trophy hunting with a favourable eye.
Harnessing conservation for development
Things have changed a lot over the last 100 years. Today, villagers across GB welcome hunting parties to their villages and are eager to participate in the trophy hunting programme that was started by the government in the 1990s.
The programme has had a positive economic impact on the participating communities. Under this arrangement, the communities were asked to take actions to protect the ibex and markhor populations in their areas in return for a share of revenue generated by the sale of hunting licenses to international and national hunters.
Initially, six communities were selected under this programme, and today more than 40 communities participate in it throughout GB.
Under the scheme, communities receive 80 per cent of the licence fee and the GB government gets 20pc. In the 1990s, the license fee for a markhor hunt was around $25,000; today it is over $100,000.
The license fee for ibex is $3,000 for international hunters, and Rs100,000 for Pakistani nationals. No Pakistanis have purchased shooting licenses for markhor given the high cost.
Each year around 60 hunting permits for ibex and four hunting permits for markhor are issued in GB. Out of the 60 permits for ibex, about 10pc to 15pc are reserved for national hunters.
The money from trophy hunting is distributed to the participating communities at the end of the hunting season in April-May. This money has served as a strong incentive for communities to protect the markhor and ibex in their areas.
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In the initial years, there were some hiccups in the programme when some communities stopped getting their share of the revenue, but today the local communities reliably get paid within six months of the hunt.
In the summer of 2017, my students carried out a survey in the Gojal region about local perceptions of trophy hunting programmes.
In many villages, we were told that everyone has a ‘share’ of the money raised through the trophy hunting programme. Villagers no longer hunt animals themselves, although they did in the past.
One villager informed us, “previously, the animal would be brought to the village secretly, and was consumed by the family and acquaintances of the hunter, with no benefit to the rest of the village.”
Now, they all benefit. They told us that if a villager does shoot an animal illegally, the entire village takes action and cases end up in court.
In another village, we were told that the money from trophy hunting goes to a fund and then used on a variety of projects. For example, “the money was used to build a guesthouse that cost Rs1.3 million, fund healthcare, provide scholarships and provide loan[s] at low interest rates for people to start businesses such as grocery stores and small restaurants.”
In Khyber village, we were told that every adult in the community, man and woman, receives an equal share of the trophy hunting money. They told us about the irrigation canal project completed with the community paying Rs50 million for it.
Now, all the local “ex-hunters” accompany the hunter with the permit to assist and monitor. One person said, “this resulted in an increase in the ibex population, as now they can be easily seen even in our fields”.
These interviews shows that the core issue in the success of any good trophy hunting programme is the control and allocation of economic and financial resources that flow from this activity.
Limits of market-based conservation
Ecologically, it seems that the trophy hunting programme has had a mixed impact.
It is estimated that when the programme was scaled up in the 1990s, there were around 100 markhor in GB. Today, GB government officials claim that the number is close to 1,200. The ibex population has been reported to have seen a similar rise; GB wildlife department officials say that it stands at more than 10,000.
While some contest the reliability and validity of these figures, the officials state that they are based on the wildlife population surveys it carries out twice a year. These surveys are conducted in conjunction with representatives of communities and NGOs. In these surveys, the department determines the population of trophy-sized animals and sets the quota for each area accordingly.
While government survey reports are to be taken with a pinch of salt, it seems from the testimonies from people on the ground that the population of these species is indeed increasing.
The effect of trophy hunting on the overall population of markhor and ibex may be positive; however, there are two other concerns that ecologists have with trophy hunting.
The first concern is that because of selective hunting of the biggest male trophies, over time, the average trophy size decreases — thus affecting population fitness. This may or may not be true of Pakistan’s trophy hunting programme because despite its seeming success, there is no study which has looked at this relationship. It would require charting the the size of all markhor and ibex trophies over the last 20 years or so.
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The second concern with trophy hunting is its effect on snow leopards and wolves, the main predators of markhor and ibex. Farmers already see these predators as a threat because they kill domestic livestock. Incentives created through trophy hunting have added intensity to this preexisting negative relationship between farmers and predators in the region.
In our interviews, villagers complained that the snow leopards are eating their markhor which are worth “aik lakh dollar.”
This new conflict shows the limitations and challenges of incentives or market-based programmes for wildlife management.
The incentives created through the trophy hunting programme have introduced a new ethic in the concerned communities whereby their relationship with ibex and markhor is redefined. This new relationship is based on market ethic and rationality, in which these species are seen in purely utilitarian terms.
People now protect their wild game species not as God’s creation, but as an economic asset.
In this new situation, then, other wildlife species, such as snow leopards and wolves, which are important for the health of an ecosystem but do not provide any economic benefits to people, become useless and not worth protecting.
What should the government do?
There are some regulatory steps that the wildlife department can take to ensure that only those villages will get the permit where there is no persecution of predators. But this is very hard to monitor and requires periodic surveys and equipment which GB wildlife department lacks.
For now, one can only rely on the goodwill of the communities that they will provide protection to all wildlife and not just those which bring in economic benefits.
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