Endangered Himalayan ibex population on the rise
In the rugged mountains of the Karakoram, humans are the last creatures you will find. The landscape is for the wild and everything that thrives on it.
But Imtiaz Ahmed, a resident of Gilgit-Baltistan, doesn’t care about that. With his backpack filled with a tent and canned food, and a camera in hand, he is on a mission to film the majestic animals that populate the mountains.
After 15 years of expeditions and projects, he finally witnessed a miracle: at least 50 endangered Himalayan Ibex with their offspring.
Earlier this week, WWF-Pakistan released footage of the animals thriving in the Passu mountains near the Hunza Valley.
Himalayan Ibex are found at an altitude of about 3,660 to 5,000 metres but usually come down to 2,135 meters in the winter to find food. The animal is highly endangered because of multiple threats its faces such as illegal hunting, poaching, climate change, and deforestation.
According to WWF environmentalist Haider Raza, back in 1985, the population of ibex was in the 10s and 20s. “The statistics of 2020 show that throughout Gilgit-Baltistan, the population of the species has risen to between 15,000 and 20,000.”
For him, this is a miracle.
Ahmed works as a freelance photographer for the WWF and was the brains behind filming the ibex. He hails from Karimabad village in Hunza and has a deep passion for animals, especially the wild ones.
“Ever since I was a child, we heard about these animals and wondered what they looked like,” he recalled. “My bedtime stories consisted of tales where the characters were snow leopards, markhors and ibex.”
Ahmed told SAMAA Digital that the day he saw the ibex and photographed them was one of the best of his life. “The happiness I felt is unexplainable.”
But filming wild animals such as ibex is not an easy task. “A good camera, lenses and other equipment are just secondary when you go into the wild. The primary requirement is patience.”
The photographer said he waited days in excruciating cold to see, let alone film the animals and has camped in some of the most unimaginable places. “It is because we had patience that we were lucky enough to film this rare sight,” he said,
Talking about the technical aspects of the project, Ahmed revealed that he uses a Canon 6D Mark II camera along with 800mm and 600mm lenses and a GoPro Mavic Air 2. This is, however, just the basic technical equipment, there’s a lot more needed when you’re out in the wild, he said.
Conservation of ibex first started in the province in the 1990s in a pioneer project led by WWF-Pakistan, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Aga Khan Rural Support Development Programmes.
The organisations initially initiated a research-based programme in the region, particularly Bar Valley and Nagar District. During this, multiple valleys and villages in the region were highlighted where conservation was required.
“Back then, residents were not aware and used to hunt ibex for their livelihoods,” Muhammad Shefa, a resident of Hunza’s Sost Valley told SAMAA Digital. After the research, an awareness programme was initiated by the organisations with local communities.
“Gilgit-Baltistan owes its wildlife conservation to the local communities here,” Shefa said. “You can tell someone that smoking is bad for their health but can’t force them to stop. Their health will only improve when the person wants to and makes an effort,” he explained.
Today, there are over 68 conservation areas across the region.
“The people here stopped hunting animals, stopped cutting down trees and controlled the use of dynamite for blasting rocks when animals came down near the villages,” Shefa said.
Most of the residents moved to irrigation and other occupations for their livelihood, all to protect the wildlife. “All these years of efforts are finally paying off today and there are numerous success stories in each district.”
Areas such as Khyber, Passu, Gulmit, Hushe and Astore have grown dramatically. People have built schools for their children and have developed their own hydro-electric stations.
According to Shefa, the biggest benefit witnessed by locals is the rise in tourism. “Imagine, you’re in a car heading towards one of the valleys and a group of markhors or ibex pass in front of you. It’s magical.”
Due to the rise in the wildlife population, a number of national parks have been developed across the region for the protection of animals.
“In all these years, we have worked so hard for these animals and today when we are finally witnessing the results, I want to show it to the world,” photographer Ahmed said. “I want to show that these animals are not just found in textbooks but in real life as well.”
But it’s not just the people who have benefitted from this conservation. The entire eco-system is thriving.
“Nature is inter-connected and the eco-system across the country is integrated,” environmentalist Raza said. “Even small plants such as herbs play a vital role in conservation.”
It’s simple. There a food chain circle here. When deforestation is stopped, herbivores such as sheep, markhor and ibex have more food to eat and their population increases. When these animals increase, carnivores in the region, primarily snow leopards that are on the verge of disappearing from the region, have more food to eat, increasing their lifespan.
“Deforestation is very important here. The forests of the region are a habitat for these animals and cutting down trees mean destroying their homes and exposing them to danger,” Raza explained.
When animals are safe in their homes, they won’t invade human habitats. When they have enough food to eat, they won’t make their way to populated areas in search of food.
“Balance and stability in the food chain are vital for a healthy eco-system not only in the region but the country.”
The environmentalist revealed that according to statistics for 2020, the snow leopard population in Gilgit-Baltistan has increased to 200. The number of black and brown bears has risen to 110 and 120 respectively. On the other hand, over 300 markhors have been reported in the region.
“It is key that these organisations and people keep working together on conservation so that our future generations can witness this miracle in person,” he added.