SCI Foundation partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society on the Pakistan Markhor Project in 2016. The following is a progress update showing significant results from the last year.
The markhor (Capra falconeri) is one of the largest and most spectacular members of the Caprinae or wild goat family. Markhor have huge, curling horns and despite their massive size are one of the most agile of Asia’s “mountain monarchs,” easily capable of scaling the steepest cliffs and even renowned for climbing into and feeding from the crowns of oak trees. Markhor are extremely important in the mountain landscape of southern Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan, both as the main wild ungulate in this region and only large wild prey item for iconic and threatened carnivores such as the snow leopard, and as a cultural icon to the people of Pakistan as the country’s “National Mammal.”
The markhor was first listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List in 1994. The species was declining precipitously from intense poaching pressure, direct and indirect effects of conflict, deforestation, and increasing competition, disturbance, and disease transmission from domestic goats and sheep. Despite international and countrywide protection, markhor populations dropped by 50% during the last half of the 20th century. Surviving populations were small, highly fragmented, and isolated from one another.
Populations of Pakistan’s other spectacular wildlife have declined in recent years, including snow leopard, Ladakh urial, Asiatic black bear, musk deer, woolly flying squirrel, and various pheasants. There has been an urgent need to address these declines through community-based agreements on regulations and biodiversity monitoring, as well as the design and implementation of a sustainable hunting program.
In response to this environmental crisis, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) developed a long-term conservation program to help protect the markhor and its habitat and restore this magnificent mountain monarch to its proper place of pride in the mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan. The program has helped to create 65 resource committees, nearly double the total from a few years ago. Community ranger numbers have also grown dramatically over the same period, increasing to over 100 individuals. WCS markhor conservation work now encompasses more than 80% of markhor habitat and population in Gilgit-Baltistan, along with over 80% of natural forests in the Province. Community ranger surveys have shown that populations of flare-horned markhor are making a remarkable comeback, with numbers estimated at having experienced over a 70% increase from a little over a decade ago. Efforts to protect markhor are also having a demonstrable effect on conservation of other wildlife species in the landscape.
Perhaps the most impressive global indication of this success has been the recent 2015 IUCN Red List down-listing of markhor from ‘Endangered’ status past the next level (“Vulnerable”) to “Near Threatened.” This almost unprecedented two-step down-listing shows the extent with which this form of community based conservation can succeed, as local people have taken responsibility for successfully protecting markhor as their iconic emblem of these mountains.
During the last year’s grant period from SCI Foundation, the project has focused on building true sustainability into hunting capacity of these community conservation organizations. While most of them are now government-approved entities with officially endorsed roles in wildlife and forest management, they still lack the knowledge, skills, and overall capacity to implement conservation initiatives without the technical and mentoring support from WCS. There is also a need to build more strategic planning for collaborative co-management between the government and communities.
Last year, 85 community wildlife rangers were trained and deployed through the registered community resource organizations. The field-based trainings were given during winter wildlife surveys and community coordination sessions. Rangers were trained on identification of wildlife species and signs of occurrence, proper survey methodology, recording and reporting, wildlife monitoring, anti-poaching and facilitation of outfitters and international hunters. Rangers were also provided field gear including basic equipment to monitor markhor and habitat. Field supplies for the rangers included boots, jackets, sleeping bags and binoculars.
During this project period, winter wildlife surveys and habitat assessments were conducted in five conservancies of 14 community institutions by joint survey teams comprising of community wildlife rangers, representatives of the Government Wildlife and Parks Department, and WCS. These surveys are critical to assess the population of markhor and to evaluate trends in population, implement adaptive management, and ensure that conservation efforts are succeeding.
WCS is working with the government and communities to analyze the results, which will also help in the development of each conservancy’s Conservation and Development Plan, which are a required part of the government endorsement process for these community institutions. Initial survey results suggest an estimate of 1,700 markhor in the program area, which is a 70% increase from the total estimated in the year 2000 and a significant increase just over the past two years.
As a result of these surveys, Kargah – one of the community-managed markhor conservancies established by WCS and local Government – managed the first successful hunt of the year and earned around US$ 65,500. This is the second successful hunt of markhor in the Kargah Conservancy. Through the legally mandated 80% community share of the hunting funds, the communities are strengthening their anti-poaching system for conservation of wildlife and habitat and improving their socio-economic situation under the guidelines of the Conservancy’s plans and agreements. A hunt of markhor also occurred in Sakwar valley of Jutial Conservancy. However, the international hunter did not succeed in the hunt, although sighting of a number of quality-sized animals. The hunter acknowledged the hospitability and conservation efforts of the conservancy and donated US$ 5,000 to help strengthen their anti-poaching system.
The Gilgit-Baltistan Wildlife and Parks Department requested WCS, other NGOs and outfitters for a joint survey on blue sheep in several districts. During a week-long survey in the area, over 3,500 blue sheep were sighted and recommendations were provided to authorities for conservation and enhancement of the population.
On a special request from the provincial government wildlife authorities, another survey was conducted to assess the population of Ladakh urial in Nanga Parbat Conservancy of Diamer during the winter. The main objective of this survey was to provide recommendations for long-term conservation to help recover one of the last remaining populations of this threatened subspecies in the country. Approximately 33 animals were sighted in an area that covered 20% of the conservancy.
WCS continues to facilitate coordinator meetings, consultative sessions and follow up visits to districts and resource committees to build further capacity for conservation activities through awareness raising, training on conservation techniques, and the importance of wildlife monitoring and habitat assessment.
Six new resource committees were recently formed and two new Conservation and Development Plans were recently developed. The Misgar plan was approved by the provincial government and received 15 licenses for Himalayan ibex and managed to hold six successful hunts of ibex.
The project interventions also influenced and motivated neighboring communities where WCS is not yet involved. Four communities approached WCS to start similar conservation activities in their valleys during the project period.
With critical support from SCI Foundation, the WCS Pakistan program has made significant progress in just the past six months in helping to protect and return markhor to their proper place of pride in the mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan.