They reside in the rugged terrains of Gilgit-Baltistan
Eleven years ago, on a chilly night, Imtiaz Ahmed, woke up from a deep sleep. He could hear faint cries from the backyard of his house in Sost’s Nazimabad village, Gilgit-Baltistan.
It was the time of year when the winter was easing off and the weather had started hinting at spring. When Ahmed stepped out, wrapped in a shawl, he was scarcely aware how the next five hours would change his life forever.
In the livestock pen, a snow leopard was slaughtering and eating a dozen of his sheep. Ahmed was able to capture 15 seconds of the majestic animal with his camera – one of the first pieces of digital evidence of the existence of snow leopards in the remote north of Pakistan.
Snow leopards are residents of high-altitude areas, regions with a climate so volatile that it is unfathomable to the human mind. The animals play the role of key predators in these landscapes and keep the ecosystem healthy.
In recent years, however, snow leopards have been declared vulnerable to extinction.
Today, the world is celebrating the slow but steady conservation of these wild cats.“I have been trying to film snow leopards since 2006. You can either call it a love or obsession,” Ahmed told SAMAA Digital.
“It is very difficult to survey or film these animals because of their habitat – it is high up in the mountains.”
Since 2010, the freelance wildlife photographer has had between nine and 11 snow leopard sightings.
Ahmed has filmed the endangered animals from a distance of 300 meters, 1,000 meters, and even 15 feet. “Researching snow leopards is like studying at an untold university where you have to find out everything yourself. You’re the student and you’re the teacher.”
On International Snow Leopard Day, celebrated on October 23, the World Wildlife Fund released footage of two snow leopard cubs found thriving in Dhee Nala, in the buffer zone of Khunjerab National Park.
Locals of Gilgit-Baltistan call snow leopards the ghost of the mountains. Legend has it that every night, fairy goddesses visit the mountains in the region with their pet, the markhor. They are protected by the ghost: snow leopards.
But Ajlal Hussain, a conservator at the Gilgit-Baltistan Parks and Wildlife Department, has another reason to call these animals ghosts. “Snow leopards have an air of mystery around them. They are incredibly fast, shy and their fur coat makes it difficult to spot them in their snowy habitat,” he said.
This coat, smoky grey with dark rosettes and spots, perfectly blends with the rocky and rugged slopes.
According to a survey conducted by the GB government, the population of snow leopards ranges from 150 to 200. The animals are predominantly spread across the province but can also be found in Chitral, Swat, and Kashmir.
Their love for altitudes takes them to glaciers such as Hisper La and Barpu. Hussain told SAMAA Digital that because they are lonesome animals, snow leopards live high up in the mountains. They usually come down to hunt and here’s where the conflict begins.
Last year, the people of Swat’s Matta gunned down a snow leopard after it entered the village. Witnesses said the animal attacked two men during the conflict.
Officials of the KP Wildlife Department said that the leopards entered the village due to heavy snowfall in the mountains. According to Ahmed, this is routine in the northern areas. “Every year, around 10 to 15 snow leopards are killed by communities. The animals are considered an enemy because they are a potential threat to their livestock.”
Snow leopards can leap as far as 15 meters and can take down prey three times their own weight which makes them a big threat to locals.
Snow Leopard Foundation’s Deputy Director Jalaluddin told SAMAA Digital that the increasing human dependency on natural resources is intrusive for the habitat of the already endangered animals. “If you will enter their home, they will enter yours,” Imtiaz Ahmed said.
But the government is working on introducing local communities to the conservation of the animals. Conservator Hussain said that trophy hunting programmes, first introduced by the government in 1990, have helped keep the ghosts alive.
Under these projects, hunting permits of aged grazing animals such as the markhor and ibex are provided to both international and local hunters in exchange for at least $65,000, which roughly transfers to Rs11 million.
Almost 80% of this amount is given to the villagers. “This way, the community gets involved in the conservation project and even helps prevent poaching and illegal hunting,” Hussain added.
The health of an ecosystem is always determined by the presence of the top predator in the food chain, environmentalist Haider Raza explained. Nature is interconnected and even a small ant plays an important role to keep the ecosystem thriving.
Carnivores such as snow leopards in the area will only increase when the population of herbivores increases because they have more food to eat. The same goes for the markhors and ibex, their numbers will only increase when they have grass to eat.
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, Raza added.
“Jab shikar barhe ga tab hi shikari barhe ga,” Hussain concluded.