A HERD of Kashmir markhor grazing on a grassy field near Chitral town. —Photo by writer
A HERD of Kashmir markhor grazing on a grassy field near Chitral town. —Photo by writer

THE only veterinary hospital of the city was swarmed by young people from a nearby village. Tears could be seen in the eyes of most of them; they had just rescued a Kashmir markhor of about four years that had been trapped on a steep cliff, at considerable risk to their own lives. During the rescue operation, the markhor had sustained injures and had been rushed to hospital, while the villagers had gathered there out of concern for the animal’s health.

Such a high degree of their attachment to the animal’s welfare and zeal for conservation of wildlife can only be attributed to the provision of markhors’ trophy hunting, which brings them a heavy dividend in the shape of permit fee. Once declared as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the wild goat is no longer threatened with extinction in Chitral, where its population has increased sufficiently — for which credit goes to the local community. The population of the impressive animal with iconic corkscrew horns had dropped to below a hundred in Chitral in the 1970s and it faced total annihilation due to the ruthless and unchecked poaching despite the presence of a full-fledged department for its preservation.

In such a grim situation, Dr Mumtaz Malik, the then divisional forest officer of the wildlife department (who later retired as the chief conservator), came up with the concept of Village Conservation Committees (VCCs) to engage the local community in efforts to protect the animal, with the result that local people became their “guards” instead of “poachers”. Today, the southern parts of Chitral district — from Arandu to Shoghore along the Lot Koh River and up to Koghuzi along the Mastuj River — are inhabited by about 3,500 Kashmir markhors.

Talking to Dawn, Dr Malik said that after his appointment as divisional forest officer in 1975, he travelled to every nook and corner of the district, from Baroghil to Sha Junali in the extreme north to Madak Lusht and Arandu in the south and found that the animals were in grave danger due to flaws in the hunting system then in practice. “I came to the conclusion that the common man should be made a stakeholder in the conservation process to achieve the desired results and this notion formed the basis of the VCC model that was replicated in other provinces and regions as well,” he said.

Under this model, the villages supporting the population of markhors and other wildlife were organised into VCCs, which were statutory bodies incorporated into the Wildlife Act and had elected office-bearers chosen by the villagers. The committees were given a defined role in the conservation process and financial powers to spend 80 per cent of the permit fee for trophy hunting given to the communities.

Dr Malik said that in 1996, the trophy hunting permit for markhor was auctioned at $50,000 in Chitral while three permits were issued every year by the wildlife department, keeping in view the animals’ population in the district. He said the VCCs appointed local people as community watchers to look after the pastures and stop poaching. Infrastructure like roads, drinking water supply schemes, protection walls, and irrigation channels were also provided from this fund, apart from giving small business loans for self-employment.

All of this served to solidify the link between village folk and the conservation job because they were beneficiaries in one form or the other. “Using my personal rapport with the hunting clubs in America, France, the UK, Australia and other countries, I attracted them to Chitral for trophy hunting. It is due to this reason that the fee for trophy hunting in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is higher than in Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan,” he said.

The areas supporting markhors have been divided into two conservancies, named as Gahirait-Golen conservancy (9,500 hectares) and Toshi-Shasha Conservancy (20,000 hectares), apart from the Chitral Gol National Park (77.5 square kilometres). Both the conservancies contain 12 VCCs each, whose activists act as agents for the conservation of markhor and other species of wildlife. Two years ago, the collective savings of the two conservancies was recorded at Rs112 million, which was utilised through the VCCs. The population of markhors in the conservancies, as per the latest survey, is 1,349 (in Toshi-Shasha) plus 434 (in Gahirait-Golen conservancy). The number of the wild goats outside the conservancies is 27 (in Arsoon), 28 (in Sheshi Koh valley) and six (in Drosh Gol), bringing the total to 1,844. The national park supports a population of 1,556, raising the grand total for the district to 3,400.

Although no trophy hunting is carried out in the Chitral Gol National Park, the VCCs there are strengthened financially using the savings accrued from the Endowment Fund granted by World Bank and managed by the federal environment ministry under the head of Fund for Protected Areas. The VCCs of the national park enjoy the same economic attractions as that of the two conservancies.

Kashmir markhor is the main prey for important carnivores, including snow leopard, black bear and the Himalayan wolf, and its conservation means the safe population of the latter species.

The number of trophies to be granted is determined by the regime of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which has allowed four trophies a year for markhors, out of which three are given to Chitral every year. The people of Chitral have repeatedly called for an increase in the number of trophies.

The president of the Al-Burhan Conservation Society of the Toshi-Shasha Conservancy, Shahzada Sikandarul Mulk, said the VCC model of conservation had proved to be highly successful and that it could be strengthened further if the number of trophies was increased for which the federal government should approach the CITES. An American hunter had hunted a 40-inch-long markhor in his conservancy for which he had obtained a permit fee of Rs13.5m.

Published in Dawn, December 28th, 2020

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