the-south-asian.com January 2004
Page 7 of 7
A Farewell to Mammals, Men & Mountains
: Ecological Nightmares
As we reach for the stars we neglect the flowers at our feet. But the
great age of mammals in the Himalayas need not be over unless we permit it
to be. For epochs to come the peaks will still pierce the lonely vistas, but
when the last Snow Leopard has stalked among the crags and the last Markhor
has stood on a promontory, his ruff waving in the breeze, a spark of life
will have gone, turning the mountains into stones of silence."
of Silence, George B. Schaller]
& Military Bases:
in the 1980s, the term ecotourism means responsible travel to natural areas
that conserve the environment and sustain the well-being of local people.
The current ecological scenario at the base camps of K2 and the trek along
the Baltoro Glacier to Concordia have resulted in an ecological disaster.
This stems mainly from the average of 4 porters per person required to haul
food supplies for each trekker. The massive human
waste/ litter problem has triggered a building of porter toilet cabins. The
wife of the Pakistan Ambassador to India, Mrs. Shahid Khan and Greg
Mortenson [Central Asian Institute, Skardu] are two well known persons
involved in these efforts.
than 700 climbers have reached the summit of Everest itself, and it has
turned into a sport of the wealthy. Permit fees average about $10,000 per
person; expeditions have base budgets beginning at $300,000. There is a
record of exploitation of the largely Sherpa porters which involves generally
no helicopter rescues for the porters. This is the so- called "moral
squalor". The many cut-price trekking companies pay cut-throat rates
and fail to equip these workers well. On the other hand, porters are
integral to the local economy. In the Karakorams in 1994, 27 out of 50
climbing expeditions went to the Baltoro, and 93 out of 128 organized treks
also headed up the glacier to the spot known as Concordia and the K2 Base
National Parks /Game Reserves.
George Schaller’s survey of Pakistan’s wildlife in 1974 resulted in
alarm bells. The low numbers of various species were instrumental in the
establishment of protected areas to preserve them (Schaller 1979). To
protect the Markhor in Chitral Gol, and Marco Polo sheep (Ovis ammon poli)
in Khunjerab, Chitral Gol was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1971 and
later declared a National Park in 1984.
Khunjerab became a national park in 1975. Central Karakoram was not
named a national park because of its low numbers of wildlife. Further in
1993, Deosai Plains [3,500 square kilometers bordering India] east of Skardu
was also declared a National Park. The Central Karakoram National Park
comprising the Baltoro, Biafo, Hispar, and the Concordia and K2 Base Camps
are now National Parks. However monitoring and implementing policies for
waste collection is not well established. Shandur in Chitral with its famous
Polo matches in the summer attracts about 50,000 people, has also been
declared a National Park. People
attending have to clear up the mess. The military bases in Siachen also
leave their human waste - litter and ammunition shells in the glaciers but
there are no ecological controls over the Pakistan or Indian military. They
are the problem.
combined area of Karakorams is home to the Himalayan brown bear, Markhor and
Ibex wild sheep and the snow leopards [about 300 left], all of which are
declining in numbers, with the trophy hunters being the invisible khaki
uniformed men. According to George Schaller, the authority on these rare
…The snow leopard’s whole life is devoted to remaining cryptic –
hiding from people, hiding from its prey, until the final rush when it can
catch something. To my knowledge snow leopards have never become man-eaters
like the regular leopard or tiger or lion. In fact, they are so
un-aggressive and so timid that I have heard of a number of cases where a
snow leopard gets into a corral with the livestock and the herdsmen simply
goes in with a club and beats it to death…"
snow leopard [ uncia uncia ] does not roar like the big cats of Africa and India. It has a
sort of a chuffing /sneezing sound that it emits to attract attention during
its mating. A good book to get more details is The Snow Leopard (Penguin Nature Classics) by
in which accompanied by George Schaller , Peter Matthiessen goes in search
of the Zen of snow leopards. Marmots,
which reside in good numbers on the Deosai plains are a staple of snow
leopard diet during the summer. However Marmots get hunted heavily by locals
for pelts, meat, and oil. [Marmots constitute a "buffer prey" for
[Capra falconeri cashmiriensis], its
Latin name betrays its Kashmiri origin,
is another unique and endangered high altitude species of sheep with its
typical corkscrew horns. For an excellent account of wildlife conservation
in Pakistan see:
For articles on Markhor, the Brown
bears and the Mountain Pheasant see: Ch.2
Getting to the Bear Facts- by Vaqar Zakaria and Anis Ur Rehman, Ch.3 In
Search of the Elusive Pheasant – by Rob Whale.
is a Persian word meaning 'Mar=snake , khor = eater . However Markhor are
mountain animals and live off grasses, tree shoots [they can climb trees]
and nuts /acorns on the forest floor and off the mountain ranges from the
Karakorams, Kashmir and Afghanistan to Baluchistan. They are extremely agile
on the rock faces. There are several varieties of Markhor inhabiting
different mountainous countries/areas. The horns are extremely varied - one
variety having the horns in the form of a tight screw - and another extreme
having horns of a very open spiral. Between
these extremes there is a variety of twisted horns.
The Himalayan pheasants are one of the most beautiful but shy species of birds in the world. Coveted for their brightly colored plumage, they are now endangered. In Pakistan, these birds are found mostly in the remote northern areas, which boasts of five different species of pheasants. Out of the 49 species of pheasants world wide, six are found in Pakistan. These are Blue Peafowl, Kalij, Koklass, Cheer, Western Tragopan and Monal. Forty kilometres from Abbottabad, towards Shinkiari, is the small village of Dhodial, which is the headquarters of the Dhodial Pheasantry, the largest of its kind in Asia. In this facility, pheasants are kept and bred over an area of four acres by the Department of Wildlife, NWFP. Among these, the Western Tragopan, with its brilliant red neck and black and white speckled plumage, is one of the most magnificent pheasants in the world.
The Pheasants are an indicator species and a fall in their population mirrors an adverse change in the mature forest habitat. Rob Whale, a Welsh ecologist, worked in India on the endangered Indian Tragopan. His work in India attracted the attention of the World Pheasant Association in Pakistan who eventually got him over to work in Pakistan, in Abottabad and Palas, a remote valley in Kohistan in North West Frontier Province NWFP.
proposed Gurez Dam on the Kishenganga River, Kashmir is threatening the
ancient remains of the Dard culture by the forced displacement of 25,000
Dard-Shina inhabitants. It will also stop the flow of this river into the
Jhelum river in the Neelam valley in Pakistan .It is funded [$500million –
300 megawatt] up to 85% by “Skanska”, the Swedish construction company.
Such is the relentless march of modern development [see http://www.kewa.org/project.html
].The other controversial dam in this area on the Pakistan side of the Line
of Control is the proposed Bhasha (Diamar) Dam (4,500 MW) near Chilas -
again a Shina speaking area. Opposed by the people of Chilas, it could bring
a large portion of Karakoram Highway under water and destroy the natural
habitat of some species. Already the Mangla and Tarbela Dams have reduced
the supply of water to ecosystems such as the Indus Delta and caused damage
to the mangroves there. More dams are proposed - one near Naltar- about 20
miles from Gilgit and another near Skardu. Other sites in the Karakorams are
Dasu (5500 MW), Indus river at Bunji (2900 MW), Thakot (2400 MW) and Rakhiot
The following Karakoram areas have been identified as potential sites for hydroelectric dams.
Region - River Kharmang and its
Region - River Shyok and its
Region - River Braldu, Bashu,
Shighar, Indus and their tributaries
- : River Indus and regional tributaries of Indus river
Region - : River Gilgit, Naltar, and their tributaries
Region - : Rivers Boladas, Hunza, and their tributaries
and Rivers Ishkuman and Ghizar,
and Ghizer Regions their tributaries
Region - Rivers Khunjerab, Kilik and their tributaries
Region -: Rivers Indus and its tributaries
Region - : Rivers Astore and its tributaries
a notorious seismic record of an earthquake every three minutes especially
around the Southern areas near Nanga Parbat i.e. Chilas, Bunji, Rakhiot, it
is hoped that the powers that be will have factored such constraints
/parameters in their “development” plans.
Survival of the fittest?
Tenzing said after having to sleep in different tents in 1953 -- Well,
other peoples other customs. Nothing more to say about it…” To
paraphrase Tenzing’s wisdom for this essay: other readers, other values,
and conclusion. Unless one wants to turn these mountains into “stones of
silence” as Schaller puts it. The Italians who climbed K2 first in 1954 [Achille
Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli] both paid the price [cost?] to K2. Their
chilblained fingers had to be amputated. Messner had the toes of his feet
amputated due to frostbite and Wielicki pushed on despite his almost fatal
injuries. Alison Hargreaves the diminutive Scottish woman was lost in a
deadly embrace by the murderous winds on K2. The bar in the game of
mountaineering continues to be set higher. The game is no longer about how
many hours one can shave off a new route to K2.
game, nearby in Siachen’s glaciers, is about poor Indian and Pakistani
soldiers dying in a war- a war fueled by cynical power hungry corrupt
politicians, colonial style army generals[with colonial style batmen
polishing their shoes, uniforms, and houses] and western arms manufacturers,
all bent on posturing / self-aggrandizement. It is about conserving nature;
the bombing in Afghanistan by USA has completely stopped migrating winter
birds from Russia into Pakistan via their stop-over routes in Afghanistan.
To quote Messner again:
“If the world's leaders could spend a
few days climbing a mountain together, then things would go better.”
Hamlet, who lost faith in himself and God, Death the grim reaper does not
care if humans or cockroaches or snow leopards climb the mountains. The
killer winds of K2 will still blow off any creature. If Markhor sheep and
pheasants are becoming extinct, and global warming is melting the polar ice
shelves and glaciers at a furious pace, nature will be as happy with a
planet full of rats or the rapturous symphony of its biological diversity.
Nature’s sole reason to exist is the preservation of its gene pool.
next war will not be about Kashmir, but a civil war on the issue of water in
the cities of South Asia. Barely 70 years ago [a human beings lifetime],
tigers were being hunted as trophies by the British and the Maharajas. It
appears that the human species has become a viral species, devouring
everything including itself, its offsprings. Nothing in life is free; not
mountaineering, neither the game of civilization / progress; war has a cost;
namely collateral damage/ legalized murder. Peace also has an associated
price/ cost; as Europe starts to find out and South Asian countries begin to
grow up and explore peace seriously and not just posture]. Does peace with
nature have a price tag? You bet, as the Americans say.
problems are not economic but about morality. About a terrible moral squalor
and greed that put Tenzing in a separate tent, the Sherpa without a
helicopter rescue, Balti porters without any family security, or the dead
poor in wars as “collateral damage”. Someone said that these days, in
order to live like a human being, one has to become a saint. Because the
alternative is to indulge in Orwellian media. Gunter Grass said that capitalism was
bent upon a suicidal course- nothing is sacred to its appetite- to the logic
of Capital – to reproduce itself. The Hindus believe that these are the
dark ages –“Kalyug” as the Vedic writings claim. The bells are tolling
for all of us, not just the snow leopards. There is a price for everything.
John Berger writing in “Pig Earth” about the disappearance of peasantry
as the Great Survivors offered a few words to ponder & reflect over.
Without a comprehensive approach to all these issues, discussing any
mountaineering achievement is hollow and selfish. For they are built on the
heap of dead Sherpa bones and Balti porter families and the most horrible
extinction of mother nature’s creatures.
" ... The earth shows up those of value and those who are good for nothing" - a peasant judgment quoted by Jean Pierre Vernant, Myth et Pensee Chez le Grecs, Vol. 2 Paris 1971
"Others have labored and ye are entered into their labors" - (St. John 4 - 38) - John Berger
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