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Majestic Snow Leopards in Pakistan

Text & Photography – Tahir Imran Khan

Somewhere in 2005, we were descending down from Khunjerab Pass after a memorable trip with some foreigner friends, Siddique told me that there is a Snow Leopard’s cub with the security staff at the post of Dhee ( Deih ).

Snow Leopard has been a legendary and sort of mysterious animal, mostly we heard of it, in tales and watched in movies and to see it with naked eyes was an exciting thing. Our friends were also extremely thrilled and we jumped out of the comfortable vehicle to watch the animals.

The beautiful cub was a darling sweetheart and was looking as innocent as a Persian cat would be. Margaret immediately took it and cuddled in her lap without any fear or terror as the impression of an adult beast would be, especially in its natural habitat.

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We were told that the scientific name of Snow Leopard is Panthera Uncia and higher classification is Uncia. It’s a carnivorous animal and an adult’s weight is 27 to 55 kgs in average and at maximum 75 kgs in males. The length of a snow leopard from head to the base of the tail is 30 to 50 inches with a remarkably long tail from 31 to 39 inches.

Snow leopards’ tails are long and flexible, helping them to maintain their balance, which is important in the rocky terrain they inhabit. Their tails are also very thick due for storage of fat and are very thickly covered with fur which allows them to be used like a blanket to protect their faces when asleep.

Being large cats, their eyes are pale green or grey while they have long, thick fur which varies from smoky grey to yellowish tan, with whitish under parts. They have dark grey to black open rosettes on their bodies, with small spots of the same color on their heads and larger spots on their legs and tails.

Their ears are small and rounded, all of which help to minimize heat loss. Their paws are wide, which distributes their weight better for walking on snow, and have fur on their undersides to increase their grip on steep and unstable surfaces; it also helps to minimize heat loss.

Louly - KKH (1).JPG

It is estimated that around 3,500 to 7,000 wild snow leopards remain in the mountainous regions of central Asia, including the high mountain ranges of Pakistan. In addition, there are between 600 and 700 snow leopards in zoos around the world. Its being near to extinct and at present included in endangered species of animals, native of the mountain of Central & South Asia with few sightings is Pakistan. Attempting to import a snow leopard hide into the USA is punishable by a fine of up to a $25,000. In Nepal such trade could mean a 5-15 year jail sentence.

None of us was well attentively listening to such technical details as the beauty of the lovely cub was extremely mesmerizing and everyone was longing to take it in lap and make a memorable photograph with it. This first encounter with this charming animal was outstanding and developed my interest in Snow Leopards.

The books and internet information told that it’s a shy animal and its range is quite wide and an animal sighted in one country may appear in another season in some other country. As it lives in cold areas only, therefore in summers it may live in areas from 2700 to 6000 meters above sea level while in winters, the animals come down in search of food & fodder, hence may descend to an altitude of 2000 meters.

sundar - lalazar (2)

Later on, while preparing tourism development plan for Norther Areas ( present GB ), Yasir Hussain, a young and dynamic officer told that a snow leopard was found and caught near Khunjerab and sent to USA to raise in better environment and would be returned to Pakistan after proper care and when it would be able to live independently.

The animal was named as LEO and sent to the Bronx Zoo in America with an agreement that proper facilities would be developed at Naltar and LEO would be back in its original country land. It was interesting to know that this was the same animal which we saw during our trip and as now LEO is a celebrity animal with its international fame, an association with such a figure was exciting to boast in friend’s circles and while talking on wildlife.

After this wonderful friendly sighting of the young LEO ( named afterwards ), my second sighting of another snow leopard was depressing and disappointing.
We were on a trip to hike the Mukshpuri Peak above Dunga Gali, a lovely tiny village in Galliat region near Murree. Usman Hanif, one of our friends is a highly reputed wildlife photographer. He suggested us to start hike from Nathiagali to visit Lalazar Wildlife Park en route to climb Mukshpuri. He told that Lalazar Wildlife Park is the only place in Pakistan with a Snow Leopard in captivity. There was a pair of beautiful local common leopards in a large captivity and that was a lovely sight as the leopards were in quite a good area and in natural environment.

We were thrilled and looking forward to see the Snow Leopard but it was extremely surprising and unacceptable to see a beautiful and adult Snow Leopard in an iron cage which was not bigger than a bird’s cage, which we usually have at home.

The story of this leopard is also surprising as we were told that WWF got information that some political figure has kept a Snow Leopard at his house in Dunga Gali. They asked the owner to handover the leopard to WWF so it was shifted to the park but without any proper planning or arrangements. Therefore, the animal which was well kept and well fed, though illegally, was shifted to concerned authorities but now the majestic animal was in worst condition as there is hardly any place for it to comfortably roam around.

Sundar is an Urdu or Hindi word for beauty so the animal is named very rightly as Sundar but its care and feeding seems miserable and if the conditions remained similar, it may not survive very long. Its impressive tail, which has a great role in Snow Leopard’s life, is only used to sway flies and the poor animal looks sad and
weak to pose for common visitors, who used to throw stones or yell at the animal to get its attention while making photographs.

In October 2015, Noman, Adnan and Amjad came from Karachi with a plan to visit Hunza Valley which is matchless in autumn season. We drove via Babusar and had a great time en route. New tunnel at Atabad and the quality of the newly constructed road from Raikot Bridge to Khunjerab Pass is marvellous.

The memory of 2005 trip of sighting a captured snow leopard cub was in mind and I told the story to friends, who considered me a lucky person to touch a snow leopard in real.

We reached at a post between Sost and Dhee and to my extreme surprise; the local staff told about the new activity and showed us another animal which was an orphan baby captured three years ago.

The animal is put in a cage and the post staff takes care of beast. Now it’s a good sized animal, the cage of whom is lying cruelly on the road side. It was unbelievable as a lot of NGOs work in the region and then there are organizations including WWF and IUCN and it has not been noticed by anyone.

hertiage title - issue 28- majestic snow leopard - 0hertiage title - issue 28- majestic snow leopard - 1

The Snow Leopard at Dunga Gali, called as Sundar was a disappointing sight but atleast the surroundings and environment was comparatively better while this unfortunate poor soul is in most ugly and unfavoring condition. Again, the only activity here is a photograph to show friend’s as one of the tour’s highlights, which further make the animal disturbed and uncomfortable. This magnificent animal is named as Louly ( Lolly or Lovely ? ) and can be seen at Belie post on Karakoram Highway while driving from Passu to Sost.

Reports say that government is trying to bring back LEO to Pakistan but after my awful experience of watching snow leopards in cage at Dunga Gali and Gojal, I firmly believe that we should not bring LEO back till we have the proper captivity with appropriate facilities for the lovely animals.

Mr. Nisar Malik of Walkabout Films is really a creative and novel person to launch multiple ideas and to promote Pakistan as a unique and unparalleled destination. His documentary on Snow Leopard is worth watching so the following words by an expert like him would be considered with great concern and respect.

“ Any habitat we create for the snow leopard cannot, of course, replicate the stunning terrain of their mountainous homes……Those steep cliffs and high rocky outcrops can never be recreated, but at least we can give the snow leopard a decent enclosure and provide it with proper care and dignity to live out the rest of its life in captivity “.

( This article was published earlier in magazine our Heritage. Now, one leopard has been shifted to a good captivity in Naltar and the other is reported dead ).

 

THE VALE OF SOON – a bird watcher’s paradise

Text – Tahir Imran Khan

Photo Credits – Zahoor Salmi – Farah Mahmood – Tahir Imran Khan

Salt Range is quite a vast area comprising of low hills and valleys with Soon Valley, commonly known as Soon Sakesar, spreading between Kallar Kahar to Khushab, precisely from a small village of Padhrar to Sakesar. Sakesar with its highest point at 1530 meters above sea level is a picturesque region and has been serving as summer headquarter of three districts in past. At present Sakesar top is serving as an important point of air force as a Radar station was setup there. PTV has also taken the advantage of high hills and put their booster atop the hill. The area is also part of Dhanni, known for its cattle, especially Bulls. According to one school of thought, Haider Ali, father of Tipu Sultan was a trader of horses and used to supply top quality horses and bulls from Dhanni region to the Rajas and Nawabs of various states of India.

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Soon valley covering an area of 780 square kilometers has been settled since ages and has a rich historical background. When Babar, the Chughtai Mughal from Central Asia attacked on the sub-continent, Janjuas were inhibited in Soon Valley while Awan, a famous local tribe is another chief and earliest settler of the region and still mainly dominates in the ownership and political setup of the region.

The region is also considered as a geological wonderland and there found traces and fossils of pre historic era. A local noble person, Ghulam Sarwar Awan collected various items and made a private small museum at his home in Nowshera, which was a great work to know about the area. At present those artefacts are on display in Lok Virsa Museum in Islamabad and one pavilion is dedicated against his name.

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Soon Valley is also famous for its landscape and natural beauty and its deep gorges at places; give the impression of Grand Canyon however the whole region needs lot of attention and promotion as it could prove as one of the main places for tourism with variety of attractions and activities.

There are few lakes known as Khabeki, Jhalar and Uchali, which are of saline water being in Salt Range. These lakes attract winter migratory birds from Siberia and other cold parts of North.

In winters, several species of birds fly towards southern warm places from chilly cold frozen areas of Siberia and other Northern places. They take different routes and Pakistan is located on one of the important passages called as Indus Flyway No. 4. This route starts from Siberia and ends at Bharatpur in India. The route is also called as Green Route.

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According to official figures, almost 700,000 birds of different species reach Pakistan to spend winters in different wetlands and deserts between lofty mountains to the coastal mangroves. By the end of winter season, they start returning to colder region and don’t settle permanently thus called as migratory birds.

These migratory birds have distinctive qualities and usually fly around 4500 kilometers during their migratory period. During their journey, their stopovers are lakes and water

basins in various parts of the country, while the lakes of Soon valley are among the main places of their landing.

The three lakes of Soon Valley, Uchali, Khabeki and Jhalar, jointly called as Uchali Complex. Uchali Lake is part of the conserved wet lands under the Ramser Convention.

These lakes are home to a number of migratory birds with most important, White-headed Duck (Oxyura Leucocephala) which is a threatened bird’s specie, which may extinct in near future. Similarly, these lakes also house Imperial Eagle (Aquila Heliaca) and Sociable Plover. Some of the other important birds are Marbled Teal (Marmaronetta Angustirostris), Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea Leucorodia), Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus Crispus), Pallas’s Fish-Eagle (Haliaeetus Leucoryphus), White-Rumped Vulture (Gyps Bengalensis) and Common Coot (Fulica Atra).

In common words, these migratory birds consist of Waterfowls, Cranes, Geese, Ducks, Swans and Waders while some of the magnificent species such as Demoiselle Cranes and Eurasian Cranes also found in good numbers. However the number at the time of return to their native places minimizes and thousands of birds are being hunt at places, resulting in extinction of some unique species. The Wildlife department has a set of rules of hunting and takes various measures to contain hunting of migratory birds but still there is a lot of hunting and capturing of various kinds of birds.

Internationally, rules were made in 1970 for protection of migratory birds. Later a convention was held in Iran called as Ramser Convention and another in Germany, known as Bonn Convention, where laws to protect migratory birds were properly enacted. Although hunting of birds is a popular activity but needs to be played following the rules and regulations for which the concerned departments announces annual schedule and précised seasons and places for hunting.

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In the life cycle of birds, migration is quite important and vital feature of their life. Many of the birds may not raise their birds without shifting their place for various reasons. The most important and main reason would be the availability of food to get adequate energy for survival of their own and young’s.

Not all birds migrate but mostly those who live in cold areas and due to their forced change of place to warm areas; they are called as migratory birds. It can be said that more than 50% of the world’s birds, migration is mandatory for their survival. However, it would be interesting to imagine that when and how they decide to migrate and then plan accordingly. How they select their destination and how they decide to take the route.

Initially the birds feel the changing of the seasons from the amount of light and by change in temperatures. On finding this change, they start their journey however few minor factors may change the plan but not significantly. For example, by the fall of autumn and start of winter, food supplies may reduce as the crops and plants starts drying up. Poor weather, low atmospheric pressure may result in rains and storms and then temperature starts falling down and snow may start falling, resulting in temperatures below zero. Such factors may affect migration by a day or two but most bird species follow their regular schedule of migration.

Once the plan is scheduled, the most interesting and amazing would be setting the route plan or itinerary. This is one of the greatest mysteries of migration is exactly how birds find their way from one location to the next. However, research works and studies discovered different techniques used by birds.

Some interesting finding say that many birds have special chemicals or compounds in their brains, eyes or bills that help them sense the Earth’s magnetic field, which helps them orient themselves for long journeys. Further, as birds follow the same migration routes from year to year, their keen eye sight allows them to map their journey by different landforms and geographic features such as rivers, coastlines and mountain ranges. This is also observed or assumed that birds follow the position of stars and constellations for necessary navigation directions. During the day, birds also use the sun to navigate. Moreover, they may also use other clues like strong scent, clue for different, ambient sounds along their routes or even taking clues from other species with similar needs.

Migratory birds have also physical adaptations that guide them to migrate to distant places, safely. The change in daylight duration and temperature may change hormone level of a bird signaling that time to move. On getting such signals, they start building habit of storing fats for extra energy required for long journeys. For example Aruby throated humming bird can nearly double its body fat just a week or two before migration.

Before the time of migration birds molt to a new plumage which helps them stay light as old ragged feathers create more wind drag and air resistance, needing more energy in flight. Many birds molt just prior to migration to take advantage of more aerodynamic feathers that make flight easier.

As a natural requirement and in search of better environment, availability of food and warm temperature, birds migrate from one place to another which would be thousands miles away however on the other hand they take a great risk of their lives as its dangerous to fly that long and to face several threats during their journey. As per a safe estimate, only 60 percent of birds return after the migration while rest of 40% may not due to various reasons for example, inadequate food resulting in starvation, colliding with natural or metal items, stopover habitat loss from ongoing development or pollution, being victim to predators including wild animals, poor weather and storms that cause injury or disorientation, light pollution in cities that disorients birds navigating by stars and above all hunting, both legal regulated hunting as well as poaching etc.

Besides hunting, Bird Watching is also a popular activity throughout the world and now getting popularity in Pakistan as well. For this purpose, the authorities have made proper places or hives, where the watchers sit and watch birds busy in their activities.

Bird watching could be at various places but watching migratory birds at wetlands is one of the most interesting as one can enjoy the nature and life together. The lakes of Soon valley are famous for bird watching.

tahirimrankhan@hotmail.com

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