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Where Have the Snow Leopards Gone?

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Sometimes we know a journey will be a grand adventure. The three-week expedition this winter with my botanist friends who were to carry out some fieldwork to enchanted northern Pakistan was surprising. My friends were to work in the dispersal areas surrounding the Nagar Valley and I was content with stumbling onto a wonderful experience of seeing a new valley I had only read about.

People from Baltistan who arrived over the mountains by crossing the Biafo and Hispar Glaciers might have been first to settle in Nagar, the former kingdom across the river from Hunza. A man called Borosh is said to have founded the first village in the Valley and married a Balti girl he found there. The legend has it that the girl and her grandmother were the sole survivors of a landslide that killed all the earlier Balti settlers in Nagar area.

Just beyond the Ganesh Bridge across the Hunza River, the jeep track leaves the Karakorum Highway to enter Nagar. The first few kilometers of this pathway are dry and barren, and then the path bifurcates: a branch crosses the Hispar River on a bridge and climbs up into the fertile villages of central Nagar. Trees that one sees here owe their existence to the human hands and the careful construction of irrigation channels by natives.

A trail to the Nagar valley winds around the mountain with splendid and ever-changing Himalayan views and arrives at a little village with apricot trees in bloom next to a huge glacier. Botanists say the original genus of apricot, the ur-apricot (also walnut and rose), comes from this area or the nearby Pamirs. The climate is certainly ideal for them.

Located about 65 kilometres north of Gilgit, the capital of the Northern Areas, the Nagar Valley is a cluster of small hamlets. The Valley expands northward from these villages, adding in their summer meadows, gorges, and snow capped mountain ridges.

Nasirabad is the largest village in the area with about 400 households. It has grown since the opening of Karakorum Highway, which passes through Nasirabad. The other villages of the area are smaller, dotted amongst the tapestries of fruit trees, small fields, and painstakingly structured fields.

The people, forests, plants, and wild animals have all adapted to find a niche within this unique environment. Nasirabad has one such spring which is famous for having excellent mineral water. The white marble mines in Nasirabad are known to be the second best in the world. Minerals like zumurrad and ruby are also found in and around the Valley and are on sale in shops for travelers mostly.

There is a cultural craft centre in Nasirabad where local women have been trained to produce local handicrafts. This is an important area of development, supporting local people. You can be sure the purchases there are 100 per cent natural, meticulously hand made and directly benefiting the communities. Local handicrafts include woolen handbags and small purses, sharma (carpet), traditional mats, rugs, and bedspreads, caps, and pattu (cloth prepared from sheep wool used to make jackets called waist coats).

The only facilities on the route to the Valley are informal camping grounds and occasional huts of shepherds. Informed backpackers taking this route go fully equipped with tents and sleeping bags and other necessary accessories so they can enjoy these unfrequented destinations or they have to rely on local help that is found easily. You may find friendly locals with horses (and other offers) following at some distance, waiting for the call that you will make when tired.

You are sure to make a call on Mayoon bar trail, the name given to one of the summer pastures above the village of Mayoon, leading up to Mayoon nullah. The hike passes through steep undulating areas along the valley side. In summers, pastures come to life and a whole variety of plants transform the area into a green carpet dotted with colours. Shepherds live in their huts, keeping a watchful eye on their stock.

Easy access to get quality water from the torrents makes Mayoon Bar (and Rooi Bar) a wonderful camping location. Look out on the way for the birds of this area including chukar, jungle crow, yellow-billed chough, and magpie. Keep alert and you may be rewarded with a view of the Himalayan ibex or the snow leopard.

It is cold in the winter with temperatures below freezing. Snows are not only confined to the peaks and ridges but also decorating the trees of the Valley bottom. The area takes on a new and stunning beauty, making it worth braving the cold. The area used to be the domain of snow leopards, now on the verge of extinction.

Winter visitors stand much better chances of seeing the prized wildlife of the area as they venture much love down the slopes in search of food. Given its remarkably elusive nature, there is a good chance of actually seeing one of these great creatures in the wild, but the sighting of snow leopards depends almost totally on luck, and luck most commonly favours at dawn or dusk during winters.

It is also pleasing to see areas covered with thick flocks of birds and large herds of four-legged creatures roam free. If you have any capacity for wonder, you will experience wonder. I had no difficulty satisfying my addiction during my zigzagging in Nagar.

Few animals match the rare beauty and quiet mystery of the snow leopard. Seldom do people see these animals in the wild. They live in remote pockets of Asia. The big cats differ in appearance, body types and functions, live in different habitats, and prey on different animals.

Scientists believe the last ice age, which ended about 10,000 years ago, wiped out but a few species of big cats. The exact number of snow leopards is difficult to estimate. They live in rugged terrain and researchers mostly rely on indications of the animals rather than direct sightings. Snow leopards are superb jumpers and leapers. They can spring and pounce on prey up to 45 feet away. Some of them can still be found in the Nagar area.

A strategic plan for the conservation of snow leopards in Pakistan was presented on April 20, 2001 by an international NGO (non-governmental organization) in collaboration with the International Snow Leopard Trust in Gilgit. The presentation was attended by a large number of potential partners and stakeholders.

It was revealed that the total remaining population of snow leopard (Panthera uncia) – a globally endangered species – is estimated around 7,000-10,000, out of which approximately 300 are found in Pakistan. Some of the critical habitats of the snow leopard have been identified by the NGO and it is being planned to extend scope of activities by focusing on identifying critical habitats in NWFP, AJK, and Northern Areas.

The plan also identified various threats to the survival of snow leopards. Based on these findings, various strategies were proposed which could be implemented by both government agencies and the NGOs who are interested in big cat conservation. Only last winter, a young snow leopard was caught in Nagar Valley. Work of international NGOs to save different species of big cats' family in Iran's Kavir Desert and Nakuru area in Kenya is a good example to follow.

The most dominant geological feature of the area is Rakaposhi, first climbed in 1958 and ranked among the world's 50 highest peaks. The people of Nagar claim they have the best view of their peak. And it is true, stunning views of both Rakaposhi and its sister peak, Diran, can be seen from the Valley. And downwards, towards the Hunza River and the tall thin poplars way below, reminds one of the scales of the Karakorum Mountains.

"Tourism is like fire; you can cook your dinner on it but if you are not careful it will burn your house down," an old Asian adage reads. Tourism is the largest and fastest growing industry in the world. It has significant environmental, cultural, social, and economic impacts both positive and negative.

If undertaken responsibly, tourism can be a positive force for sustainable development, conservation, and environmental protection. Conversely, unplanned tourism can be socially, culturally, and economically disruptive and have devastating effects on fragile environments.

Northern Areas, to a large extent, rely on the existence of attractive, uncrowned, and clean destinations. These are often in environmentally fragile areas that are biologically significant and rich in wild life. In addition, these mountain areas have now become the object of desire of a number of competing interests: resort hotels, polo tournaments, adventure tourism, and big game hunting. What the public as well private tourism sectors in Pakistan are aiming at is a common goal: the long-term preservation of the natural environments.

Go to Nagar and you may still get to see the big cat sometimes called “snow queen.”

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About Shirazi

  • This is a very good article. I wish that I could see such a sight and that the world was safe enough to freely do so. You are fortunate to have experienced this. Mathiessen’s book is a classic. It influenced a lot of my observation of nature and my writing.

  • brianna

    man snow leopards are so pretty