In overcast conditions, Jaffar Ali and the local guides scramble over loose rocks on the steep mountainside. With no time to stop, they have to move quickly yet silently. They are in the open and must make it to the hiding place before the Markhor gets a glimpse of them. The mountain tales are full of warnings and the group is mindful that one wrong step will send them spiralling down the slopes. They move with extra care.
It is noon and the snow-clad mountains of the Hindu Kush in the northern areas of Pakistan fall silent when a loud gunshot rings out. Following a slight pause, the celebratory cheers reverberate around the peaks in the Jutail conservancy, a natural amphitheater for one of the most ancient of human dramas — the hunt.
The hunter is the star today; the majestic Astore Markhor the victim. This was the second Markhor hunted in the region within a span of 10 days. The first was hunted down in a community controlled conservation area of Bunji in Gilgit on 13th January 2019.
Native to mountain ranges of Gilgit Baltistan, Hunza-Nagar Valley, northern and central Pakistan, these wild goats are hardy climbers and are startled easily at the sight of humans. For six months of a year, they are safe from human harm but from November to April, during the trophy hunting season, a handful of licenses are doled out at extravagant prices to hunt Markhor, alongside Blue Sheep and Ibex, in the rugged mountains of Gilgit Baltistan. This year a total of 4 Markhor trophy licenses have been issued in the Gilgit Baltistan region at $0.1 million apiece.
Just before the village of Jutial, one can find several granite boulders with carvings of mostly Ibexes on them. These scattered boulders that date back to bygone ages provide a partial peek into a time when activities like hunting predominated. Similar carvings are found in Thalpan, Chilas and Haldeikish, of standing Ibexes with horns so long that they touch their tails. Since one of the great necessity of primitive man was his success in hunting animals, these carved figures express a mature artistic tradition of people who relied on the keenness of their eyes, both in painting their surroundings on stones and in finding food and clothing while they hunted.
Who knew back then that one day camo-clad hunters will descend upon these barren mountains, willing to pay hefty amounts of money to hunt rare and majestic species simply to obtain a head or hide to decorate their homes, or to brag about it with friends. Or is there more to it than this?
Paradoxical though it might seem, today, both hunters and conservationists do much more hunting for conservation than they do for sport. “I perhaps will be the last person who will allow any hunter to hunt my country’s wildlife but if a strictly controlled hunting season is a solution to our conservation woes than I am the most vocal advocate for it,” says Ashiq Ahmad Khan, the person who pioneered and introduced the concept of Community Based Trophy Hunting Programme (CBTH) in Pakistan.
Khan recalls that in early 1990s he was approached by conservation organisations and the government of Gilgit Baltistan to come up with a strategy that would help conservationists nationwide to make headway on a vexing question: how to achieve conservation goals without ruining the livelihoods of local people?
Working as a Wildlife Specialist at the Pakistan Forest Institute, Peshawar, Khan left for Bar Valley, District Nagar in Gilgit Baltistan, to conduct an initial survey in this regard. His initial findings showed that the once abundant population of Ibex was on a decline due to unsustainable hunting practices of the locals who consumed Ibex meat to see them through the harsh winter of the valley.
Khan later joined World Wide Fund for Nature, Pakistan (WWF-Pakistan) and successfully launched the CBTH programme in Bar Valley in collaboration with the Gilgit Baltistan government. Khan made sure that a stringent mechanism of carrying out baseline surveys twice a year was put in place to assess the population of animals present in the area.
Later, interest picked up in the programme and other organisations and communities joined in. The initiative emerged as an effective conservation tool not only in Gilgit Baltistan but also in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
The conservation organisations advocate trophy hunting, but in the absence of regular and objective monitoring data which is essential to ensure that wild populations are not adversely impacted, adherence of the programme to environmental standards, and the various benefits felt by local communities, the conservationists have started to question the mechanism associated with the CBTH programme. However, Mujeeb Sardar, Divisional Forest Officer at the Chief Conservator Office in Gilgit terms these arguments, at best, as ill-informed and, at worst, a distraction to divert attention from the success of the programme.
A senior official from a leading conservation organisation seconds Mujeeb Sardar’s views. “Few topics stir up as much emotion as the debate around trophy hunting, making it almost impossible to have a practical conversation on the topic. It is quite challenging,” and continues that the idea is simple, “if it pays it stays.”
He says he can quote many conservation successes to describe how incentives (money) have changed the mindset of locals regarding the value of big trophies. “By diverting attention from more pressing issues of wildlife decline by questioning the legality or morality of trophy hunting, many might think that they’ve done their part for conservation. I can only wish conservation needed such easy fixes, but sadly that is not the case,” he says on condition of anonymity.
The argument goes that if these animals bring money, the local community will work to conserve and protect them as assets.
But Ashiq Ahmad Khan is “doubtful” — because the programme he designed two decades ago is “not being implemented in its true spirit”. He is able to see major flaws in the implementation of the programme, “one of which is the improper method of survey which is conducted to determine the population of the species being hunted. Also, the conservation aspect which was essential to the whole programme and was to be developed by all Community Control Hunt Areas (CCHA) for the utilisation of 80 percent of the total revenue generated from hunting is an eyewash in the absence of a proper audit,” he adds.
Such revelations most certainly expose the egregiousness of trophy hunting. Maybe that is why the Gilgit Baltistan government has announced an audit of the programme for the first time since it started.
As for Jaffar Ali from Jutial and many others like him across the 42 CCHA, who facilitated many trophy hunters on their hunting trips, its business as usual. Being at the bottom of the hierarchy they can only hope that their share of the hunt is used properly for the socio-economic development of their community. Government officials say a lot has been achieved in this regard. Cheques are given to all communities after the hunting season is over.
The Karakoram, Himalayas and Hindu Kush ranges of Pakistan are likely to continue hosting trophy hunters until alternatives for wildlife conservation are practically viable. Until that time the hunt continues.