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Deep in the tribal territories of northern Pakistan, a group of village elders meets with bearded foreigners carrying rifles. They discuss recent conflicts in the region while looking at topographic maps, plotting access into some of the world’s most remote mountain passes. No, this isn’t a Navy SEALs movie; it’s a hunting story. The foreigners are on a shikar for Pakistan’s national mammal, the iconic mountain monarch, supporting a community-based conservation program. The agile goats, with curling horns and shaggy coat that matches the rugged landscape, test one’s endurance across the isolated mountain ranges. The hunters are accompanied by local wildlife rangers, who are employed in part by this dream hunting trip for markhor.
The conflict in this sometimes unstable and semi-autonomous region stems from poaching. Pakistan’s wildlife was largely in decline during the 1990s, when markhor were first categorized as Endangered by the IUCN. But conservation-minded hunters are flipping the script and providing the financial incentive to conserve wildlife in these remote areas.
Markhor are an important species in this ecosystem; as the only wild ungulate and large prey for snow leopards. The markhor is also a cultural icon to the people of Pakistan. These large mountain goats are exotic animals for hunter-tourists, and the unique hunting experience brings in plenty of international travelers, including SCI members. This year, SCI Foundation has begun a partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to continue the successful recovery of markhor in Pakistan.
WCS is the only U.S. based organization operating in Pakistan’s Diamer District working full time on markhor conservation within the larger Gilgit-Baltistan tribal area. Working in the region for 17 years, they have developed trusting relationships with local communities. By empowering these people to protect their land and wildlife, the markhor population has rebounded from the brink of extinction, increasing 50% over the last decade.
The community-based approach is clearly working well in Pakistan and is taking hold elsewhere in central Asia. Local tribesmen are giving up poaching in return for employment as game guards, financed by hunting revenue. Other hunting income goes toward community development projects or reducing grazing competition with livestock.
In 2015, IUCN classified markhor as Near Threatened on the Red List Assessment, marking one of the few occasions where a species has recovered and its status has improved. In a briefing paper IUCN stated that “stable and increasing populations [of markhor] are limited to areas with sustainable hunting.”
WCS has a broad institutional capacity in Pakistan, including 65 community conservation organizations, 21 multi-community markhor conservancies and over 100 wildlife rangers monitoring populations and enforcing anti-poaching laws. The WCS project reaches 400,000 villagers and encompasses 80% of markhor habitat in the Gilgit-Baltistan province.
Still, there is a lot of work to be done to ensure long-term success. Markhor populations continue to face threats from poaching, conflict, deforestation, and increasing competition and disease transmission from domestic livestock.
The community-based organizations that have been created are government approved entities officially endorsed as wildlife authorities. But these groups lack fundamental skills in monitoring methods, data analysis and overall project management. Building capacity for communities to operate independently across large isolated areas remains a challenge.
WCS is working to improve these skills and transfer management to local communities. In the next year, the project will continue to train and deploy local wildlife rangers, establish co-managed monitoring programs to assess markhor population trends, and improve capacity for community-based management with minimum external and technical assistance.
Monitoring provides the government with the science-based population estimates that are legally required to assign hunting permits. Eighty percent of hunting revenues are returned to local communities. WCS has enabled communities to benefit from this revenue source, which is far more lucrative than any other earning potential in the region. This revenue retention scheme has supplied an enormous increase in overall income to local people and provided a powerful incentive for conservation.
Pakistan is a leader in the successful application of community-based conservation. Similar approaches in Tajikistan and elsewhere in central Asia are benefiting both wildlife and human livelihoods. The WCS program area in Pakistan is now believed to host more than 1,700 markhor. Thanks to community-based hunting programs, other wildlife like Ladakh urial, snow leopards, Asiatic black bears, and musk deer are returning too.
Back on the wind-swept mountain, the hunter takes careful aim at the markhor monarch. After the day’s shikar, the village elders, game guards and biologists join in the tribe’s celebration.
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