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In search of the snow leopard

February 22, 2009


l put on the Discovery channel this week and finally caught a glimpse of the documentary, “Snow Leopard's Life - Beyond the Icon” made by my friend Nisar Malik, who grew up in Mansehra but now lives between France and Pakistan. The BBC asked Nisar to become the presenter on this production after he collaborated with them on the BBC's amazing Planet Earth series. This was an eleven part series that was shot in 120 countries of the world over five years. It was broadcast by the BBC in 2006 and was then shown on Discovery worldwide.

 Nisar worked with them on the snow leopard segment of the series which was filmed in Chitral as a part of their 'mountains' section. For the first time in history, the elusive snow leopard was filmed hunting a Markhor on the near vertical cliffs of Chitral. Nisar Malik's company, Walkabout Films, provided field support to the BBC and he is acknowledged in the credits. Some of you might remember Nisar from the documentary he made a few years ago about windsurfing on Lake Karumbar, one of the highest lakes in the world. This documentary was also shown on the Discovery channel.

“Due to the situation in Afghanistan, which is only around 40 km from Chitral, they almost didn't include the snow leopard segment in the series,” explained Nisar. “We were not even sure whether we would be able to find a snow leopard, let alone film it.” Nisar accompanied a small team to Chitral for the filming and served as coordinator/field assistant and security advisor. Nisar actually ended up convincing the BBC's Planet Earth series producer Vanessa Berlowitz into sending their team in the winter of 2004, although their Japanese partners dropped out, citing security concerns.

Initially, the idea had been to do aerial filming of the Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountain ranges to include in the 'mountains' section of the series. The producers decided to include the filming of the Markhors and other species like the Golden eagle and Griffin vultures. “No one was really sure about the snow leopard,” pointed out Nisar, although it had taken the team one year to complete the research which included scouting trips to Chitral.

Eventually, Nisar along with the BBC camera man, Mark Smith and the BBC's field producer and researcher Jeff Wilson, arrived in Chitral armed with high definition digital cameras (hence the amazing quality of the footage). “With the help of the Chief Conservator of the NWFP, Malik Mumtaz, we were able to set up a camp and get started on the filming,” recalls Nisar. The team stayed at the forest rest house inside the Chitral Gol National Park and basically waited for the animals to come down as they do in winter once the snow starts.

“We really still didn't believe we'd find a snow leopard, so we got on with filming the Markhors and golden eagles... and then we got reports from the wildlife department of a snow leopard sighting in Toshi. It took us a day to get there and sure enough - there she was! A female snow leopard outside a cave, around 400 metres from the road.” The snow leopard did not feel threatened by the approaching team since a river separated her from the road and hence the cameraman was in a unique position to film her without disturbing her. “For weeks, we had all these dreams of filming a snow leopard hunting, caring for her cub, and can you believe it, it all came true... we were so lucky”.

The female snow leopard did indeed have a cub with her in her cave, who she was teaching to hunt and for one week the team filmed her. Then, on the last day, as luck would have it, their flight back to Islamabad was cancelled due to bad weather, and they came back to the location for one more day of filming. It was then that they captured the now famous scene of the snow leopard chasing a Markhor on the cliffs of Chitral.

In the final cut, the segment on Pakistan turned out to be twelve minutes long - and over 8.5 million viewers saw it on its first showing. “The response the BBC got over the footage of the snow leopard was just overwhelming... It really makes me proud that I was a member of the team and that that something from Pakistan was portrayed in such a positive manner,” added Nisar.

After the successful snow leopard filming, the team then went on to Skardu to complete the aerial shots of the mountain ranges with a special camera fitted outside the helicopter. But the team did not forget about the snow leopard - in fact, they had so much footage on the animal that they decided to produce an additional one hour documentary. They went back to Chitral for more filming along with Mark Smith. Luckily, the female snow leopard was still there, in the same cave. “In the new production we covered all the other issues like deforestation, trophy hunting, lack of awareness amongst the local population etc.,” explained Nisar.

'Snow Leopard's Life - Beyond the Icon' was premiered at a film festival in Montana in 2007 and was given an award as the best film of the festival. It was then broadcast by BBC 2 and it is now doing the rounds of all the big wildlife channels, including Discovery. Recently, Discovery India bought the rights to broadcast the film after dubbing it in Hindi. Since last year, when it was first shown on TV, the film has been watched by over 200 million viewers worldwide. In 2008, Nisar was given the President's Pride of Performance medal for his contribution towards promoting Pakistan.

Although Nisar spends much of his time in France (where his family is now settled), he comes back to Pakistan regularly for work - he is now keen to promote the message of conservation. He would like to continue making documentaries which show a side of Pakistan that the outside world knows little about.