Although Pakistan aims to protect the endangered markhor through trophy hunting, some experts from the Indian side are also making their own, separate efforts to increase the population of the species.
Every year, Pakistan puts up four trophy licenses for hunting its national animal, the markhor. Hunters bid around $100,000 for the mountain goat’s distinct, corkscrew shaped horns.
Fascination with the markhor’s horn has pushed the species to the brink of extinction and back since the 1800s, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and other sources.
Now, the IUCN estimates there are 5,754 adult individuals left. They are found in the Himalayas and Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. But along the India-Pakistan border, the survival of the markhor is especially difficult.
“When you’re along the border you might’ve heard there is a lot of cross-border shelling. And there might be mines in these areas,” says Riyaz Ahmad, from the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), who is based in India-administered Kashmir. “So these are all the things that simply kill the animal.”
Caught in conflict
In the highly militarised zones, conservationists on both sides of the border have worked for decades to save the markhor species, which are found in the 700-kilometre strip of the most militarised border of the world.
“Borders are for [humans]. These are not borders for any species who move along the border. These are all boundaries created by us,” says Samir Kumar Sinha, from WTI.
For more than 72 years, India and Pakistan have fought three wars over the control of Kashmir, starting in 1947, when Pakistan and India split. An estimated 100,000 people have been killed in the last two decades as India launched a crackdown in 1989 to crush an armed uprising in Kashmir. Recently, a suicide bomb blast linked to a terrorist group with connections to Pakistan killed over 40 Indian soldiers in the disputed region.
The regular violence and subsequent military operations means conservationists in India and Pakistan, though working to achieve the same goals, haven’t been able to work together. Instead, they’ve had to rely on support from their respective armies.
“Most of the times security might [ask] you, ‘why are you contacting these people [in Pakistan]?’” says Ahmad, who has worked on the Indian side of Kashmir for a decade. The Indian army supports his efforts to survey the markhor, but he continues to be cautious about his movements. “Initially, the situation there [in Jammu and Kashmir] was so bad that I was sort of afraid to contact people from Pakistan,” he explains.
Trophy hunting vs raising awareness
By the end of the 19th Century, the intense and unregulated hunting of markhors led to their extinction locally in the Pir Panjal mountain range in Kashmir. Some hunters were shooting more than 30 trophies in a season as there were no hunting laws in place, according to research by Shafqat Hussain, published in the journal Conservation and Society.
In the 1990s, Pakistan started a controversial trophy hunting programme to raise funds meant to protect the markhor. In India, however, this would be illegal.
“We do have [the Wildlife Protection Act] which doesn’t allow [trophy hunting],” says Sinha.
Ashiq Ahmad Khan introduced trophy hunting in the Gilgit Baltistan region of Pakistan in the 1990s, which shares a border with India-administered Jammu and Kashmir. He says trophy hunting was necessary because the markhors in Gilgit Baltistan were under threat from being overhunted by communities looking for food in the winter. Money made through trophy hunting is supposed to replace their need to hunt in winter.
“Trophy hunting was used as a management tool or a conservation tool to protect the rest of the population,” adds Khan. For Khan, if the trophy hunting programme hadn’t started, communities would have no incentive to protect the markhor.
Many conservationists around the world shun trophy hunting. In 2015, the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe was met with outrage by activists, who say hunting an animal that is endangered is counterintuitive to its protection.
But conservationists and the Pakistan government maintain the strategy is effective in Pakistan.
Every year, four hunting trophy licences are issued by the wildlife department. Out of the money collected from each licence, 80 percent is distributed among the local community which they use for food and their basic needs. The remaining 20 percent goes to the wildlife department.
“Earlier the number of markhor was approximately 600 and now, due to the conservation activities [like trophy hunting], the number has increased to 2,000,” says Kabir Zehri who heads up the Wildlife Community Controlled Hunting Area (CCHA) in Balochistan.
The project does face challenges though, says Khan.
“According to the scheme which I developed long ago, out of the 80 percent of the money which the community gets as part of the revenue from trophy hunting, they have to spend 50 percent only on conservation of the species,” he says. “I doubt that they’re adhering to that kind of commitment. They spend all the money on the development of the roads and the bridges but not conservation. I’m not happy with that.”
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which usually opposes trophy hunting that doesn’t demonstrate both conservation and community benefits, says the markhor trophy hunting programme is effective.
Without relying on trophy hunting, India is also seeing improvements in population size. But it’s been a long and difficult process in areas under heavy military cover.
“It was initially very difficult to access these areas and to motivate security forces that I am doing something which is very important and I am doing something they should also support,” says Ahmad. “They will say that it’s a very risky job and ‘if you get killed, we won’t be responsible. You have to be responsible for yourself.’”
In the last 10 years, Ahmad has made efforts to explain his work to Indian army personnel. He says he gives a presentation to incoming regiments about the importance of saving the markhor, since regiments change roughly every three years. With the help of the army, Ahmad is allowed to survey the markhor throughout the region and even be right up close to the creature.
“It’s a magnificent animal. When I saw it closely I saw its face and eyes, it was so gentle and loving,” he says. “The horns are so huge… it’s unbelievable that an animal with such huge and heavy horns is jumping around.”
Ahmad says he’s seen a change in the way the Indian army thinks about protecting the markhor since he started working in Kashmir.
“I once mentioned to a colonel that we have markhor here and it is endangered,” he says. “So he got surprised and asked ‘Are you sure? We have an endangered animal here?’ Then he said ‘I’ll not allow poachers to get into this area because local poachers will first have to come to the army to get their permission.’”
Still, Ahmad says he faces situations where he’s questioned by the army for where he camps. Many areas he’d like to survey are completely closed off by the army. Ahmad knows when he’s in a heavily militarised area, he has to be careful about how much he covers his face so they can recognise him — even during the freezing winter.
Will they ever team up?
Despite the conflict, experts on both side of the border say they do want to work together.
“Irrespective of the relationship, whether they are in good relationship or bad relationship, [India and Pakistan] must come together for the protection of natural areas along the borders,” says Khan. “The Indian side or Pakistani side they weren’t very safe 20 years ago. But now I feel that they’re really safe because of awareness and because of the agenda of the military forces who are along that area. They want to protect the forest and protect the animals.”
On the Indian side, WTI’s Sinha believes the markhor could become the ambassador of a joint collaborative effort between the two countries.
“We do have good transboundary cooperation with Nepal and Bhutan in the northern side where we do have lots of wildlife,” he says. “But unfortunately the international relations between India and Pakistan is not that favourable for conservation.
“Whenever bilateral talks happen [between the two countries], we talk of the issues affecting people in both the countries but we fail to, or we don’t recognise, the role of transborder boundary issues or conservation of those species who keep on moving between both the countries.”