WILDLIFE: CAN THE URIAL BE SAVED?

14 Jun 2020

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Recently, only small herds of no more than four or five sheep could be spotted even in the sprawling wildlife sanctuary of Chumbi Surla in Khushab district | Kamran Hussain Shah
Recently, only small herds of no more than four or five sheep could be spotted even in the sprawling wildlife sanctuary of Chumbi Surla in Khushab district | Kamran Hussain Shah

It is still early in the morning as Chakwal district’s wildlife officer Mirza Abid Hussain leaves his office on a field visit to the Salt Range. His brow is furrowed as he worries over a nagging concern: the persistent poaching of partridges and urial, a species of mountain sheep. The acute shortage of manpower and equipment in his office provides him little help in the way of conserving these endangered species found in the mountain range that skirts the southern part of Punjab’s Chakwal district.

Fifteen sanctioned posts, of wildlife watchers and inspectors, in Hussain’s Punjab Wildlife and Parks Department (WPD) lie vacant. That leaves hardly enough wildlife watchers to cover the vast terrain of the Salt Range.

With only one vehicle in use by Hussain, it is next to impossible for the existing staff to nab any poachers who go about killing the urial unnoticed.

The Salt Range boasts of historic sites including the Katas Raj Temples, the Rohtas, Malot and Nandna Forts, while its lower areas are enriched with vast beds of salt, coal and gypsum. The rugged mountains, covered with dense scrub forest, sprawl over an area of 300 square km and include the Jhelum, Chakwal, Khushab and Mianwali districts, where natural springs wend their way into lakes and where different species of wildlife, including migratory birds, play a vital role in the ecosystem of the area. There is a national park, six game reserves and five sanctuaries in the Salt Range, made for the purpose of wildlife preservation.

A young urial stands alert on a mountain peak in the Salt Range | Babar Bukhari
A young urial stands alert on a mountain peak in the Salt Range | Babar Bukhari

What makes the Salt Range particularly attractive is that it is the habitat of the Punjab urial (Ovis vignei punjabiensis), a mammal with six sub-species. Just as the markhor is known as a wild goat, the urial is known as a wild sheep. The Punjab urial has large horns and reddish-brown long fur that fades in colour during winters. The male urial is characterised by a black ruff that stretches from its neck to its chest. The average shoulder height of the Punjab urial is 78cm to 92cm and, according to the Gazetteer of the Jhelum District (1904), the average size of the male urial’s horns is 24 inches to 26 inches — although males with horns as long as 32 inches have also been found. Besides being hunted for sport, the urial is often killed for its meat, while upper-class drawing rooms are also decorated with their taxidermied heads.

Poaching and unchecked trophy hunting of the Punjab urial, a mountain sheep species, may be driving the animal towards extinction in the Salt Range

The current status of the urial population in the Salt Range is unknown to the wildlife department, as it is to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The first-ever survey to gauge the population of the urial was carried out in June 2011. Based on the survey, a report published by WWF, in the same year, revealed that 50 percent newborn lambs were taken away by poachers within a week of their birth, every year. April-May is breeding season for the urial and the poachers keep an eye out for pregnant females. According to the report, 110 urial were found in select 28 percent areas of the entire Salt Range, while in some pockets their presence was rare.

It was not until 2019, eight years after the first survey, that the Ministry of Climate Change took the initiative last September and conducted another survey. Despite the survey being completed in November, its findings are yet to be released. According to two members of the survey team, the findings are being kept confidential deliberately as they present a dismal picture.

The majestic Punjab urial has large horns and a reddish-brown coat that fades in colour during winters. The average size of the male urial’s horns is between 24 - 26 inches | Babar Bukhari
The majestic Punjab urial has large horns and a reddish-brown coat that fades in colour during winters. The average size of the male urial’s horns is between 24 - 26 inches | Babar Bukhari

“Although a scientific analysis is yet to be done on the findings of the survey, the situation is bleak,” says one team member. The Chumbi Surla Wildlife Sanctuary in Khushab, sprawling over 55,000 acres, is supposedly a safe haven for the urial. The law does not permit any person to even enter the sanctuary, even for the purpose of a visit. But even here the urial had not flourished. “Even though the urial lives in herds, during our survey, we did not see a single male urial in the sanctuary. Not even a herd of more than four or five urials was spotted,” the surveyor says.

Although it is illegally hunted throughout the year, the annual trophy hunting of urial takes place in winters under official patronage. From December till the end of March, mostly American and Russian hunters participate in this sport after paying a hefty permit fee of 18,000 US dollars for one animal. Last winter, about 16 male urial were killed.

The first-ever survey to gauge the population of urial was carried out in June 2011. Based on the survey, a report published by WWF in the same year revealed that 50 percent newborn lambs were taken away by poachers every year within a week of birth, as April-May is the breeding season and the poachers keep an eye out for pregnant females.

In an initiative for better wildlife conservation, and in an effort to combat the poaching of urial in particular, the Punjab government has allowed the setting up of community-based organisations (CBOs) under the Punjab Wildlife Act (amended in 2007). Presently, five CBOs are operating in the Salt Range.

From December till March end, foreigners come to hunt urial for sport, under official patronage. The permit fee for one animal is 18,000 dollars | Dawn file photo
From December till March end, foreigners come to hunt urial for sport, under official patronage. The permit fee for one animal is 18,000 dollars | Dawn file photo

Trophy hunting is conducted by the CBOs in their respective areas. Each CBO gets an average of three permits a year. As per law, the government gives 80 percent of the permit fee to each CBO, to hunt one urial in an allotted area. The fee is intended to be used for the conservation of wildlife and the welfare of the people of the area. But so far, neither the performance of the CBOs nor the money given to them has been audited.

“The CBOs are not being monitored, and wildlife conservators, poachers and the general public who frequent the areas have complained that the CBO heads are also involved in poaching,” says an official, on request of anonymity.

“In many cases, CBOs get the urial killed in the sanctuary instead of their allotted area,” says Suleyman Khan, the inspector general and joint secretary at the Ministry of Climate Change.

The WPD also complains that, in addition to their being short of staff and equipment, there is no cooperation from the police or the forest department.

“In the annual trophy hunting, if a poacher is caught by the wildlife department, he cannot be fined more than 100,000 rupees,” laments director-general WPD Syed Tahir Raza Hamdani. “If his case is referred to the local court, he is most likely to be let off the hook.” Hamdani also adds that the department needs at least 1,200 more employees for effective monitoring.

Wildlife watchers, who serve under the basic grade-five pay scale, are at imminent risk whenever they encounter poachers. “The poachers carry all kinds of weapons and are always present in large hunting groups, while the law does not permit our watchers to carry even a single weapon,” explains Hamdani. “So the balance of power is ridiculous in these encounters.”

WIldlife sanctuaries in the Salt Range are home to the endangered mountain sheep known as the Punjab urial (Ovis vignei punjabiensis) | Babar Bukhari
WIldlife sanctuaries in the Salt Range are home to the endangered mountain sheep known as the Punjab urial (Ovis vignei punjabiensis) | Babar Bukhari

In 2012, a wildlife watcher, Waeem Iqbal, sustained a lifelong injury when he was shot by a poacher in Chakwal. He still wears a back brace for the spinal injury he suffered as a result of the encounter, and he is unable to do field work. In another incident, a watcher was brutally tortured by influential poachers as he had dared to stop them.

These wildlife watchers, who protect endangered species like urial and partridges by risking their own lives, receive no reward except their monthly pay.

The courts rarely penalise poachers as they may be influential and rich or they hire influential lawyers while, in some cases, the judges too are fond of hunting. In Chakwal, the most notorious alleged poacher of the urial is an influential lawyer. He has never been fined but, recently, the current district wildlife officer did manage to nab the lawyer’s younger brother. Other issues that the WPD faces are weak prosecution by the district attorney and an indifferent attitude of the judges towards the protection of wildlife.

In the rare event that poachers are caught, they push back more aggressively and their hunting activities get intensified. In their minds, they are proving their clout to the officials of the wildlife department, but in this game of revenge, it is the vulnerable fauna, such as urial and partridges which bear the brunt of the poachers’ ire.

In Chakwal district alone, there are many gangs of poachers who have never been apprehended. However, since Hussain took charge of his department, he has imposed fines on poachers he spotted in Facebook photographs, posing with urial they had hunted. Hussain has also registered cases with the police against two poachers on charges of illegal possession of weapons.

The enraged poachers started a malicious campaign against Hussain and the watchers who had tracked them. “If some big fish are caught, I am sure poaching can be controlled effectively,” says Hussain, who has also sustained a bullet injury in the past during an encounter with poachers.

In the last two months, as many as 14 poachers have been caught. “Every poacher cannot be caught as the area is vast and there are only a few watchers out here,” Hussain points out. But he hopes that his efforts can help bring about positive results in the future.

Besides poaching, the urial are also under threat from mining activities in their habitat. The Salt Range is dotted with coal mines, and the owners and workers of some mines are also involved in poaching. Frequent forest fires, common during the winter, and an ever-increasing population of jackals that prey on young urial, are some of the other serious threats this endangered mammal is exposed to.

“The population of urial suffered a setback three years ago when scores of mammals died due to an infectious disease,” reveals Khan, who himself owns a game reserve in the area. This disease was caused by the domestic sheep brought in the area by pastoral nomads. Unfortunately, this issue was hushed up. Khan adds that a huge number of urial were killed in the area of Jhelum district. “I was not in this department [Ministry of Climate Change] at that time, but I took up this issue with concerned authorities and banned entry of pastorals nomads who would bring herds of hundreds of sheep and goats,” Khan maintains.

Bader Munir, the renowned international hunter, Punjab honorary game warden and head of a CBO working in the Salt Range, sees human encroachment into the traditional urial habitat of Pakistan as the biggest threat. “Housing schemes and other developments on the peripheries, and sometimes even in the middle of urial territories, are destroying wildlife,” says Munir, emphasising the need for stricter laws.

According to the 1904 Gazetteer, the Salt Range once was home to animals such as the leopard, the lynx, the hyena, the chinkara and wolves but, today, all five species have been driven into extinction in the area. If urgent steps are not taken, the day is not far off when the urial too will be found only in history books.

The writer is a Dawn correspondent in Chakwal

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 14th, 2020