WITH abundant water in its channel and varied alpine and subalpine trees on both sides, a drive through an artery along the icy Neelum River zigzagging through the picturesque Neelum valley is a real feast in the times when the downstream areas are witnessing hot and humid weather.
But for the conservationists, the valley’s real hidden attraction is its rich flora and fauna as well as multiple threats to their survival such as poaching, an electric fence along the Line of Control (LoC), frequent shelling and other ceasefire violations by Indian forces.
Famous for its cherries and the gateway to Jhaag Sharif shrine, Dawarian village, 106km from the Azad Jammu and Kashmir’s (AJK) capital, has of late gained popularity for being home to two ‘orphaned’ black bear cubs. For the past one year, both animals have been kept here at a trout fish hatchery, manned by AJK wildlife and fisheries department.
The cubs were brought from the highest of the peaks in the closest proximity of the heavily militarised LoC on April 30 last year after being spotted by some nomads in their flock, recalls Mohammad Ashraf Raza, an assistant game warden, while pointing to the mountains across the Neelum River that is overlooked by his office.
According to the IUCN Red Book, Asiatic black bear falls in the category of ‘threatened species’ as poachers kill it for its fat, gallbladder, bile, genital organs and hide.
As the mother bear never leaves its cubs alone even for a short while, sighting of the newborns without mother along the LoC means the she-bear had fallen prey to some landmine or shelling across the divide, marked by a 12-foot-high electric fence, the game warden explains.
“We started to raise them like family members and one of our senior officers named the duo as Sharda (female) and Narda (male) after two famous peaks of the area,” Raza adds.
Arif Kazmi, a wildlife guard, with whom the cubs love to frolic, says “keeping [in view] the wildlife department’s meagre resources”, the cubs these days are provided two dozen rotis and some other items, much less than what an Islamabad Wildlife Management Board team had suggested during their recent visit.
AJK wildlife and fisheries director Naeem Iftikhar Dar believes that relocation of the nearly 14-month-old duo to their natural habitat in the forests or in some protected area has become necessary now, as at times they become aggressive. For the time being they should be shifted to some big enclosure in a protected area with no human contact, before facilitating their return to the wilderness, according to him.
The orphaned cubs depict the plight of the wildlife that remains overlooked amid the deep-rooted Kashmir conflict, which mostly brings human sufferings to light.
“We can relocate the affected human populations, but we cannot evacuate our wildlife whenever there is exchange of shelling across the LoC,” says Sardar Javed Ayub, the administrative secretary of the wildlife department.
“Our flora and fauna have also terribly suffered due to the tensions at the LoC and particularly because of the electric fence, which was built by India in 2004,” he complains.
Ayub says Kashmir stag was sighted from Dawarian to upstream Haanthi Nullah before the construction of the fence, but its prevalence is no more now.
In winters when snow falls as high as 15-20 feet in areas where the fence runs through, some animals move to the opposite side in search of food or sanctum and when the snow melts beneath the fence they do not find a way back to their original habitat, he says.
While a black bear cub, namely Dabbu, was rescued last month from Lahore after allegedly having been transported from the Neelum valley, both Ayub and Dar deny this assertion outright.
“There is no official or unofficial confirmation of it. There are many organised groups in Pakistan [involved in illicit animal trade] and they have used the name of our area to divert attention from the actual source,” Ayub says, admitting that his department faces shortage of trained staff and financial resources to man 11 entry-exit points between AJK and Pakistan and take care of all the 21 protected areas, including seven national parks, in the 13,297sq-kms territory.
He agrees that poaching poses a more serious threat to the wildlife than hunting but regrets that international wildlife conservation organisations unlike the past are not extending considerable cooperation to his department.
Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2021