Earthly matters: Celebrating our wildlife
Nisar Malik is today known for his leading role in the spectacular documentary, Snow Leopard’s Life — Beyond the Icon, that came out a few years ago. The BBC had asked Nisar to become the presenter on this production after he collaborated with them on BBC’s amazing ‘Planet Earth’ series, which was shown worldwide in 2006 on various TV channels. 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’s company, Walkabout Films, provided field support to the BBC.
For some strange reason, this well received film on the snow leopard was not officially screened in Pakistan until recently, when the US Ambassador to Pakistan organised a Wildlife Conservation Day 2012 that was celebrated in Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
“We were not even sure whether we would be able to find a snow leopard, let alone film one,” recalled Nisar before the film was to be screened for a select audience of students, academics and wildlife experts. “So we got on with filming the Markhors… 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. The result was stunning footage of the female snow leopard and her cub, who she was teaching to hunt.
Nisar told the audience later during the panel discussion, “It really makes me proud that I was a member of the team and that something from Pakistan was portrayed in such a positive manner”. Snow Leopard’s Life — Beyond the Icon premiered at a film festival in Montana in 2007. In 2008, Nisar was given the President’s Pride of Performance medal for his contribution towards promoting Pakistan. He is currently working on another documentary on the common leopards found living in the galiat region of Pakistan.
The panel discussion that followed the film was led by wildlife experts like Sardar Naseer (of the Society of Torghar Environmental Protection) and Dr Anis ur Rahman (of the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation) and Uzma Noreen from WWF-Pakistan. There was also Ahsan Ahmed, a representative from the government’s Punjab Wildlife and Parks Department, and Muhammad Ali Nawaz from the Snow Leopard Trust who spoke at length about radio collaring snow leopards to learn about their habits as the population of the rarely seen big cat has likely fallen to fewer than 450 in the country.
The new American Ambassador to Pakistan, Richard G. Olsen spoke about animal trafficking and how his boss, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has called for “a stepped up fight against poaching”. Hillary has stated that over the past few years, wildlife trafficking has become “more organised, more lucrative, more widespread, and more dangerous than ever before”.
Dr Anis ur Rahman also came across animal traffickers in the Deosai Plateau. The Himalayan Wildlife Foundation has, of course, saved the Deosai Plateau’s unique brown bears by having it declared a national park in 1993. The number of bears in Deosai has grown from just 19 to over 40 now. When their work first started, there was open poaching of bears going on for bear parts.
These are used for medicinal purposes across the border in China. One bear would be worth about Rs100,000. Over the years, the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation formed a surveillance network that keeps them and the government informed about the bear trade, thereby helping them to control it.
Deosai is also a prime hunting ground for falcons as well, an activity that is forbidden in a national park by its very definition. While migrating from Central Asia, falcons land in Deosai to rest and feed. Dr Anis ur Rahman discovered a falcon mafia, which illegally captured and sold these birds to the Middle East that would arrive in expensive jeeps every summer. So when they came across this mafia, they would hand them over to the police. However, he recalled, “The hunters would bribe their way out and go straight back into business”. The falcon poachers can make as much as Rs1 million per bird.
Although trophy hunting has become a controversial topic in the media these days, Sardar Naseer has proven that it can be a very effective form of conservation in Pakistan given dedicated leadership at the grass-roots level. Sardar Naseer raised awareness amongst the local tribesmen to help save the Sulaiman Markhor, a straight horned Markhor. From barely 100 Sulaiman Markhor in 1985, when the Torghar Conservation Project first started, there are now thousands of Markhor in the area. Sardar Naseer stated that perhaps there was not enough awareness at the federal level about the positive aspects of trophy hunting and hinted that some influential poachers might not want this programme to become widespread since they would be the first to go out of business!