Like armies they move at twilight, making tactical advance when least likely to be spotted. Only when light becomes shadows and the world loses substance that markhors move down from mountaintops to drink from the River Chitral.
Hayatuddin’s binoculars zoom in on a family of wild goats on Shahre Sham. The telescopic close-up turns the mountain’s rock face into a lunar surface. Up close, the Shahre Sham — Twilight City in Persian — is just jagged brown rocks.
A quick movement, then nothing. The distance and the gathering gloom make the markhor hard to spot with the naked eye. Then, of all places, you see one atop a tree eating leaves. Versatile goats, they can climb trees.
They are not called markhor [snake-eater] for nothing. Hayatuddin swears he has seen one eat a snake. “First it crushes it under hooves. Then it eats it,” he recounts. It seems unlikely for a herbivore to gorge on a fleshy treat but Hayatuddin should know. He is a watcher of markhors and a passionate one too.
Hayatuddin is from Seen Lasht, one of the villages on this road at Garam Chashma in Chitral where the hot springs are. He has 30 colleagues working during a shift. The department of wildlife has organised Village Conservation Committees (VCC) here to protect the markhors found in northern Pakistan. Well until 2015, it had been declared an endangered species by the IUCN due to local poaching. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species now puts it at ‘near threatened’ thanks to conservation efforts from the VCCs through a “hunters turning guards” policy, where habitats become game reserves. In Chitral, these protectorates are mainly owned by the royal family. Hunting is done through licence from the wildlife department and part of the proceeds from hunting go to the VCC or tanzeem to encourage preservation.
The visitors here pose with Shahre Sham in the background, hoping to catch a markhor in selfies. But the goats keep their distance. These men aren’t hunters but the markhors take no chance. Humans, they know from experience, are head-hunters.
To the uninitiated, it makes little difference if the horns of a goat spiral upwards or curve round like the corkscrew of a snail’s shell. Nor does it matter if they measure two inches or 20. But to a big-game hunter, the bigger the horns on a markhor or an ibex, the bigger the trophy — the head of that poor goat, mounted on a wall.
No more than three hunts are allowed every year in the game reserves of Chitral. This year there have been only two in the hunting season that falls between December and March. The licence to hunt costs about Rs 10 million and that doesn’t include much more than is spent on the logistics of the hunt: travel, stay, camping in the wild and engaging guides etc.
Are there any ibex here, the wild goat with long curving horns? “No, only markhors,” says Hayatuddin, dismissive of a goat of lesser pedigree. “The difference between an ibex and a markhor is like eating beef and mutton. You can hunt an ibex for thousands. To hunt a markhor costs crores.”
But to each his own and here in Khyber, Sher Afzal is proud of what his valley in upper Hunza has done for preservation of the Himalayan ibex. “Up until 1990, people here hunted them freely,” says Afzal. “Back then, we didn’t know you could benefit both from hunting and preserving.”
In 1995, the IUCN brought the ibex and markhor population under a sustainable-use wildlife management program, in collaboration with the local communities in Gojal, Astore and Baltistan in Gilgit Baltistan, Chitral in Kyber Pakhtunkhwa and Tor Ghar in Balochistan. The program provided legal protection for the species by establishing a hunting regime.
The communities in Khyber dedicated land to grow alfalfa that now serves as fodder for livestock and the ibex population. Afzal says you can spot them sometimes coming down to eat in the fields. “When we were kids, we hardly ever saw one,” says Afzal.
In 2017, the wildlife department in Gilgit-Baltistan auctioned licences for the trophy hunting of 113 rare species. The endangered Astore markhor fetched a neat $100,000, which is what makes conservation, both as a community incentive and a wildlife preservation effort, desirable. When poached by a local, a mountain goat only brings 30kg of meat. Through legal trophy hunting, it brings much more for the entire community.
It makes sense that being a watcher of markhors would make Hayatuddin a good guide for hunters, a job he is often pulled into. He knows where they are. Does it hurt him to see an animal he kept alive killed under his very guidance?
“This is not the right law,” says Hayatuddin, looking away. He says there are lynx in the mountains that hunt the baby markhors. “It is not fair that the lynx kill them on one hand and hunters on the other.”
But trophy hunts are what keep him and other watchers in the game. For a region that hasn’t many employment opportunities, that amounts to something for mountain communities associated with the conservation effort.