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The monarchs of Kashmir's mountains

Print edition : Apr 08, 2022 T+T-

Kaleej Pheasant5-1


Orange Bullfinch12.


Western Tragopan-3.

While one side of the Kajinag National Park is home to the markhor, the elusive wild goat with spiralling horns, the other side boasts a variety of birds, including the flamboyant Khalij pheasant, the national bird of Jammu and Kashmir.

“Winter is harsh these days, but can the spring of hope be far behind?” With these words, Mudassir Mansoor, a young wildlife guide, tried to revive the morale of a group of nature lovers who waited patiently along with him in Kajinag (Kazinag) National Park for a glimpse of the markhor, the elusive mountain goat of Kashmir. The markhor features in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) red list of threatened species. While in India, its habitat is restricted to the Hindu Kush-Himalayan mountain range in Kashmir, the global population of the markhor is spread across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Mansoor had already cautioned us that spotting the markhor would not be an easy affair. He had also said that the trek was hard and nerve-wracking, full of meandering paths that would be slippery with melt water. He added: “Do not talk even in whispers here, because the goat is very alert. It has an acute sense of hearing. It is shy and will swiftly disappear into the wilderness.”

The markhor has a brown coat, which is smooth in summer and turns thick in winter. Its horns are called flared horns. It is a sure-footed animal of incredible speed and can scale the mountains up to a height of 12,000 feet (around 4,000 metres) in summer.

Winter, when the markhor descends to lower and mid elevations, is the ideal time to sight it and photograph it. Markhor tourism has gained momentum in Kajinag National Park during winter. However, there is no guarantee of sighting the markhor even in winter. Many nature lovers have had to return empty-handed. The trek itself is arduous, making one sweat despite the cold. And even if the goat is not sighted, one can still enjoy the scenic beauty of the surroundings draped in veils of mist. The snow is prone to melting, so one has to be cautious as one may skid over the rocky terrain.

The markhor’s habitat is on one side of the snowy expanse of the Kajinag National Park. Other animals in the park include musk deer, Himalayan Goral, Himalayan black and brown bear and yellow-throated marten. But the markhor remains the most sought-after animal. Although conservation activities are well planned, the markhor population in the entire Jammu and Kashmir region is only around 450, while its global population, including in Pakistan and neighbouring countries, is about 2,500.

On the other side of the Kajinag National Park are birds, including migratory species and the flamboyant pheasants. There are five varieties of pheasants: the Khalij pheasant (the national bird of Jammu and Kashmir), the western tragopan (“Searching for the elusive western tragopan in the Great Himalayan National Park”, Frontline , January 29, 2021), the Himalayan monal, the koklass pheasant and the cheer pheasant. Jammu and Kashmir is home to as many as 400 species of birds.

Dr Jainy Maria Kuriakose, a well-known birder with two decades of birding experience all over India and the world, chose to focus her camera on the markhor for the first time. She said: “I have a passion for birding. Even when I was in South America, I was not interested in the jaguar. In Ladakh, I did not go in search of the snow leopard. But I was so inspired by Mudassir Mansoor’s dramatic description of the markhor, I thought I shouldn’t miss this mighty animal. So I set aside my birding in the Kajinag National Park and followed in the guide’s footsteps for a week. He told me that going after the markhor would be a different experience; that, in fact, I would be on a different footing. The impact of his words and the description of wildlife biologist Dr George B. Schaller, who studied the ecology and behaviour of the markhor in the Himalaya in the 1970s, helped me make up my mind.”

Dr Schaller’s celebrated work, The Deer and the Tiger , was the first scientific study of the Kanha National Park in India and still influences generations of wildlife biologists. He had famously stated: “The markhors are incredible giant wild goats. They have enormous and astounding corkscrew horns. They are sure-footed and skilled when climbing the peaks touching the starry sky.”

Jainy Maria Kuriakose undertook a birding and markhor trek in the Kajinag National Park in the winter of 2021. Of the seven days she spent trekking, she had a glimpse of the markhor only on two days. She could view the animal from a distance of 20 feet thanks to the correct judgment of the guide.

She said: “I was mesmerised when the animal approached slowly. The guide and I were crouching near a rock. I took many shots. However, the animal scented us. It peeped through the grass blades and slowly withdrew. Then it looked up at us, alert, and started running.”

Jainy Maria Kuriakose was happy because she could get several shots of the mighty animal. The guide had regaled them with several folk tales. The markhor has a flowing beard that makes it look like a character in Tales from the Arabian Nights .

In Kajinag, when the markhor emerged after a long wait of six hours, Jainy’s joy knew no bounds. She said she got just three minutes to photograph the goat during the tough trek. She had previously undertaken such a hazardous trek only in Papua New Guinea, where she had gone four years ago in search of the birds of paradise. In Kajinag, too, she had to cross several huge rocks and boulders and trudge through partially frozen streams and melting snow along a small trail that villagers use to fetch dry grass for their cattle.

The park itself is quite picturesque. The terrace farms of Himalayan villages are a visual treat. A small stream named Kajinag, which originates in the Kajinag glacier, criss-crosses the village until it meanders to join the Jhelum. The high mountains support a rich variety of wildlife.

Samyak Kaninde, a prominent wildlife photographer based in Pune, recalled his Kajinag experience. He said: “Some male markhors are so imposing and sport such huge horns that they leave you in a hypnotic trance.” Usually females move in groups with the younger ones, while the adult males are solitary and keep away from the groups.

Kashmir Markhor Recovery Project

The markhor, an endangered species, is protected by the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Protection Act, 1978. The Wildlife Department of Jammu and Kashmir has been carrying out a Kashmir Markhor Recovery Project in collaboration with the New Delhi-based Wildlife Trust of India, focussing on Kajinag and Pir Panjal. The surrounding areas have human settlements, so conservation activities are undertaken with the help of the local people, thus creating public awareness as well. The markhor has already suffered competition from migratory livestock over grazing. The objective is to raise the conservation status of the markhor equivalent to that of the Hangul stag.

Dr Riyas Ahamed, Project Coordinator of the Markhor Recovery Project, told this writer: “Earlier, the people were not aware of the ecological importance of the markhor and its conservation. They had many apprehensions at first, but now, thanks to constant interaction and the awareness programme, their mindset has changed and they fully support the project. The Wildlife Trust has engaged sociologists to work to interact with the community and migratory herders who have been using markhor habitats for livestock grazing.”

L aunched in 2010, the project is well under way, although it may take a few more years for a significant breakthrough, as markhor sites and protected areas lack the necessary infrastructure. Intesar Suhail, the Divisional Forest Officer, Shopian, who has undertaken considerable fieldwork towards markhor protection, told this writer: “Markhor habitats in Jammu and Kashmir are largely free from encroachments. The Kajinag National Park and other three wildlife sanctuaries, Limber, Lachipora and Hirpora have better markhor population.”

In 2000, Suhail and his colleague Maqbool Baba conducted an important markhor survey which estimated the population of markhors in the then State. A regular monitoring of the markhor population is done every year. He says the threats have reduced greatly when compared with previous years. The Forest Department strictly implements anti-poaching measures.

Under fire

While wild animals in many parts of India have been poached or hunted, the markhors have been caught in the military crossfire at the India-Pakistan border. The border disputes and exchanges of fire have caused serious setbacks to the animal’s grazing range. Both militants and the military have done considerable harm.

As Dr Yash Veer Bhatnagar, senior wildlife biologist who specialises in high altitude ecology and who is Co-Chair of IUCN’s Caprinae Group, said: “Since 1948, the border disputes between India and Pakistan witnessed frequent exchanges of fire between the militaries of both countries. With the eruption of insurgency in 1989, military presence increased on both sides. The fate of the markhor was under fire. The distribution of the markhor lies within the volatile region. With insurgency, the protection of wildlife was a low priority and even the collection of information on its status was bleak. Even the protected areas did not get any consideration.”

In 2004-2005, the Wildlife Trust of India and the National Conservation Foundation, supported by the Department of Wildlife and the Indian Army, organised a survey headed by Dr Bhatnagar.

Precarious status

The survey revealed that the markhor’s range had shrunk from 300 square kilometres in the 1940s to 120 square kilometres in 2004. The survey also confirmed that large parts of Kajinag had the potential for long-term survival of markhors if immediate conservation measures were implemented.

The survey team obtained information about the markhor from the 1947 Survey of India map of Shakar, which shows the distribution of several species including the markhor. Six important areas were earmarked. Dr Bhatnagar said: “Our survey was timely and brought to light the precarious status of the species. The erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir prioritised markhor conservation along with that of the Hangul stag. People in the area are mostly agro-pastoralists who farm and cultivate cash crops. They interacted with the people of different levels, including tribes and hunters.

“The survey found that insurgency-related effects, poaching, large-scale developmental activities like building of roads, establishing electric lines and overgrazing by the cattle have been the key threats to markhor conservation. Since Independence, the region has witnessed two wars. The infiltration of militants forced the government to cordon off the area with barbed wire. This created problems for the markhor too. Both the militants and the military have also poached the animal. Apart from that, it is alleged that the poachers colluded with the military for poaching.”

Fascinated by the wild goats and sheep of Central Asia, Dr George B. Schaller conducted the first scientific study in India of the ecology and behaviour of both animals in the 1970s. Dr Schaller reached Kashmir and moved along the trajectory of the markhor. He trekked with the tribals and other local people through the deep snow. He crossed valleys and ridges and slept in tents in the harshest of winters.

Dr Schaller’s pioneering study

Dr Schaller left behind a monumental work, Mountain Monarchs , that influenced generations. It is the most authentic scientific study of the ecology and behaviour of goats and sheep. He writes: “The Kashmir markhor has moderately flared horns, large heads having 2-3 twists to the spiral while others may have different flares.” He observed that these horns were also seen in the markhors of North-West Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan.

He adds: “The markhor is essentially a cliff dweller with a wide tolerance for altitude and to a lesser extent of habitat. Some live under treeless hills and others in wooded areas. The Spanish goats are so. But the Nubian (Eastern Sahara) ibex occupy rather barren crags and arid areas, where human interference had been the maximum.”

Dr Schaller conducted deep studies on the taxonomy, habitat and morphology of both goats and sheep. In Pakistan, Dr Schaller undertook markhor studies in the Chitral mountains accompanied by Dr Zahid Baig Mirza. Dr Mirza told this writer in a WhatsApp conversation on February 21, 2022: “Both of us went on extensive treks in Chitral. I was then just a beginner. Dr Schaller influenced me from the very first day. He had immense knowledge about the behaviour and ecology of the mountain ungulates and he spoke with high clarity and precision. Both of us went up to 8,000 feet and stayed in tents. Dr Schaller’s living style was so simple.”

Dr Mirza, then working in Punjab University, Lahore, had written a scientific paper about wildlife ecology in an international journal. Interested by this paper, Dr Schaller visited Dr Mirza in the University office in 1970 and wanted him to accompany him to Chitral for a study. Dr Mirza said: “My association with Dr Schaller spans over half a century. We met the next year as well.”

Dr Mirza remembers vividly two occasions when he met Dr Salim Ali in Mumbai and later in Sri Lanka. Dr Salim Ali enquired about the bird population in Pakistan and asked Dr Mirza about the most endangered flora and fauna there. Now 87, Dr Mirza is one of the foremost wildlife biologists in Pakistan and a doyen of the Islamabad Wildlife Board.

Birds of Kashmir

Jainy Maria Kuriakose, who has been birding in Kashmir for the last five years, says that the rich avian diversity in Kashmir still remains unexplored. Some of the important spots she has visited are Dachigam National Park, Budgam, Wular Lake, Dal Lake, Hokersar, Sonamarg and Pahalgam. She says that Kajinag is one of the most beautiful spots for birding in Kashmir. This time, she focussed on the five pheasants of Kajinag and said that it was easy to spot these birds in winter.

The Khalij pheasant is a mid-sized dark pheasant with a long, thin, recumbent crest, striking red facial skin and arched rooster-like tail. It has a glaring bluish-black head and mantle wings. When it perches on a rock, it is one of the most beautiful sights. It is resident in the Himalayas, from north-east Pakistan to Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. It has a high-pitched squeal, strained purring notes and harsh clucks and chuckles. Although the western tragopan is mostly seen in the greater Himalaya National Park, it has also been spotted in Kajinag. The metallic blue Himalayan monal is another attraction for visitors. It has a fine dark crest and blue eye patches. Even a slight disturbance is enough to alert it, making it take off. The koklass pheasant and the cheer pheasant are also commonly spotted. Apart from the pheasants, the other avian attractions of Kajinag include nuthatches, orange bull finch, tawny owl and the Tibetan black bird.

G. Shaheed is former Chief of Legal and Environment News Bureau of Mathrubhumi , Kochi.

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