Punjab Urial (Salt Range)

This is a report of Punjab Urial, which lives in the hills of the Salt Range, Punjab.

The Urial is a mammal of the genus Ovis of the order Artiodactyla. This is a wild sheep species where the male’s horns are thick and curve back in large arcs over their head, and a long tuft of hair under the neck. In South to Central Asia, they inhabit mountainous areas. In the past, they were considered the same species as the Ladakh Urial, but in the 2016 issue of “Bovids of the World,” the Punjab Urial of Pakistan became an independent species.

This is an endemic species to Pakistan and inhabits only the Salt Range and Kala Chitta Range, between the Jhelum and Indus Rivers in Punjab.

The Punjab Urial habitat includes gentle rocky slopes and thick with shrubs.

This was our visit to the Potohar Community Reserve. Currently, Punjab state has 5 CBO (Community Based Organizations), and this was the smallest one. Established in 2017, the hunting of Urial was banned on the Reserve so since then, the small population has been steadily increased.

CBO’s are private Reserves which offer an auction (mainly focused on foreign hunters), to allow hunting rights to the older male Urial with large horns. The proceeds are said to be divided in the community and used for conservation management. The so-called “Trophy Size” Urial are males that have horns between 28 – 31 inches (71-79 cm). According to the ranger who was with our group, this system has helped improve the situation over all for Urial. These older males are 12 to 13 years old and will die at around 14, even if they are left alone, so the hunting auction is helpful to the community and will support the conservation of the other Urials.

As a side note, in 2020, 3 hunter permits where assigned to each CBO, with a total of 15 annual hunting permits issued throughout Punjab. The price at the auction goes up to $15,000 to $16,000 USD per head. Certainly, this income for the community is a significant amount. At Pothar CBO, 16 rangers were working to crack down on the poaching activities and the Urial are being protected.

A heard of Punjab Urial. It was not that large of a group, it seems only 6-8 Urial are usually in each heard.

These are the female Urial. Their horns are small and straight.

This is a young male Punjab Urial.

This male watching us from behind the shrubs is a “trophy size” male. Unlike the females and young males, these large-horned males are much more fearful of people. Like they know that they are sought after.

For a brief moment, the “trophy sized” horned male allowed us to see him.

He was such a magnificent example of the Punjab Urial, with the large, curved horns and long tufts of hair on his neck.

And in no time, it was gone. This encounter helped us realize the effects of high hunting pressure that had been taking place as a result of the poaching that was taking place until very recently. Things might change, as we have seen with the Markhor and the Ibex in these northern mountainous regions of Pakistan, as the Urial populations grow and the limited, controlled hunting takes place.

The Punjab Urial populations were reduced by livestock that were overgrazing the habitat and by the highway dividing up the wild Urial herds. But now that the auction system was introduced, the protection has improved for the Urial.

The ranger who was with us, told me that I was the first foreigner who was not a hunter, to come to this Reserve.

 

Photo & text: Mariko SAWADA
Observation: Dec 2020, Potohar CBO, Punjab
Reference: Bovids of the World (Princeton Field Guides)

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Horned Lark (Deosai Plateau)

In July, when the Deosai Plateau is carpeted with wildflowers its known as the “Flower garden in the sky” and if the weather is nice, you can see the Himalayan Nanga Parbat from here.

This is my report about the Horned lark that I encountered on the Deosai Plateau.

The Horned lark is a wild bird that typically breeds in the northern part of Eurasia and North America in the summer and winters to the south. However in the northern part of Pakistan, it can be observed all year around. It can be seen in high-altitude open areas near Chitral, the Deosai Plateau and the Khunjerab Pass between 3,300 to 5,000 meters altitude.

The Deosai Plateau (Also known as Deosai National Park) is a high-altitude plateau with an average of 4,200 meters, near the boarder of India and the northwest of Pakistan. There are countless small streams that spread out across the plateau to form a wildflower haven sometimes called the “Flower garden in the sky.”

This open area is where the Horned larks breed in nests sheltered by the rocks and small indentations in the ground.

Wildflowers are in full bloom in early July.

This is the male Horned lark. As the name indicates, there are two horn-like crests on the top of its head. In some areas, there are Horned larks that have a more yellow coloring on their face throat, but in Pakistan they are white to a creamy color.

The male seen from the front.

The male Horned lark from behind. The created feathers that form the horns are incredibly cute.

This is a juvenile Horned lark. It was about the same size as the adult birds.

The Horned lark pecking at the grass seeds.

Is this a little bread crumb left by some tourists? They are feeding them to their chicks. The area around the campsite is the easiest place to observe them because of the food leftovers, and the Pakistani tourists are also enjoying bird watching as well.

These chicks have to grow up quickly and prepare for the winter. In the coldest part of winter, they will come down to the foot of the Plateau’s fields and valleys.

The Deosai Plateau was described as a “Flower garden in the sky,” but unfortunately, that situation is changing. In the summer, a large number of tourists visit and without much thought will leave their garbage behind and will go off-road driving into the grasslands.

I wish more people would realize that there are wild animals and birds that rely on these important breeding grounds, during the short summers of the Deosai Plateau.

 

Photo & text: Mariko SAWADA
Observation: July 2016, Deosai National Park, Gilgit-Baltistan

Category : ◆ Gilgit-Baltistan > ◇ Birds of Pakistan > - Deosai National Park
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Citrine Wagtail (Deosai Plateau)

This is the Citrine wagtail observed in the summer of the Deosai Plateau. The breeding plumage of the male makes his bright yellow head, beautifully contrast with the black wings. Even amongst a carpet of blooming wildflowers, the birds stand out on the plateau.

Pakistan’s Citrine wagtail spends the summer breeding season along rivers and lakes in the northern highlands and overwinters in the open plains along the southern Indus River.

This photo was taken near the Barapani on the Deosai Plateau (elevation around 4,000 m). I was observing the Citrine wagtail that was in the riverbank near the campsite.

This wagtail appeared on the riverbank with its head all wet.

Breeding males have the bright yellow heads, while females have a light yellow-gray color.

This is young Citrine wagtail.

This one has caught a worm.

A Citrine wagtail on the flowering Deosai Plateau.

The Barapani campsite at night. Clear crisp air at an altitude of 4,000 m.

There was some frost in the morning. Even in July, we need to be prepared with sufficient protection against the cold.

Full moon in the morning.

From the clear skies over Deosai Plateau, appeared the 9th highest peak in the world, Nanga Parbat, at 8,125 m. The massive and dynamic Himalayan mountain range is so overwhelming to take in.

 

Photo & text: Mariko SAWADA
Observation: July 2016, Deosai National Park, Gilgit-Baltistan

Category : ◆ Gilgit-Baltistan > ◇ Birds of Pakistan > - Deosai National Park
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Long-Tailed Marmot in the Summer (Deosai National Park)

The Long-tailed Marmot observed on the Deosai National Plateau in the summertime. The Plateau, designated a National Park in 1993, has an average altitude of 4,100 m (about 14,450 ft high) near the boarder of India and northern Pakistan.

In the last few years, the number of Pakistani domestic tourists visiting the Park increased drastically, and despite being a National Park, the tourists having bad manners, became difficult to manage. There is a great concern about the impacts the tourism has on the natural environment.
At the campsite, there are parties and lots of tourists making noise, so for those who came to seek nature, its well known that the camping areas are a tough place to be. Besides that, there are the native wild animals who are trying to make the most of the short season of “Summer on the Deosai Plateau” as well.

When you camp at the Deosai Plateau, you will get to see this marmot around. These are the same marmots that can be found on the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia, called the Long-tailed Marmot or Golden Marmot.

The marmots often check for danger, as they stand up on their back legs near their burrows and carefully monitor the situation; when needed they sound an alarm call “Kii-Kii!” Of course, they will make calls for people who venture too close, but they are mainly on the lookout for the foxes and birds of prey above who often target the marmots.
Ranging from altitudes of 3,200m to up to 5,000m, the marmots live in very large colonies, digging burrows into the alpine plain grasses and among the rocks. Being monogamous, it is said that the marmots are highly social animals with a complex society.

They often stand next to the opening, always ready to duck into their protective cavity. This burrow is used for hibernation.

I stood watching the colony near the road for a very long time. Eventually, the marmot families relaxed a little and the babies began to come out.

A mother and her pup came out of the burrow. The pups will spend the first 6 weeks of their life in the burrow and then start to venture out.

They are so, so cute.

The pup plays with the momma.

One more pup came out. Long-tailed Marmots will give birth to about 4 pups at a time, but only about half of them can survive the first summer, and many are lost during the first hibernation. While observing them, I could see the little heads of many pups in this colony.

The snows begin in October on the Deosai Plateau. In previous visits to Deosai, I saw the marmots were still active in the first week of October. They will probably enter hibernation around November, and I hope these little guys make it through the winter!

 

Photo & Text : Mariko SAWADA

Observation : Jul 2017, Deosai National Park, Gilgit -Baltistan

Special Thanks  : The late Mr.Zahoor Salmi,  Deosai National Park

Category : ◆ Gilgit-Baltistan > - Marmot > ◇ Wildlife of Pakistan > - Deosai National Park
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Himalayan Brown Bear in Summer – Deosai National Park

The Deosai Plateau – Land of the Giants – on the border with India is known as a habitat for the Himalayan brown bears.

However, it is not something you can see easily if you go to the Deosai Plateau. In addition, It has been a target of hunting for many years. They are very timid and run away quickly.
Furthermore, there are too many tourists in summer, and Himalayan brown bears go deep in the valley. So you have to walk a lot to meet them.

From a camp at altitude of about 4,000m, we went up to a valley where the altitude rises a little and countless creeks flow.

 

Suddenly the accompanying ranger shouted with surprise, “Bear!”

I quickly took out tripod and snapped the picture with the best possible zoom.
Two bears! A Mother bear and its cub. Wait… The mother bear is observing something.

 

It was a male Himalayan brown bear that the mother bear was looking at.
Mother bear and cub walked towards us in the grass along the creek avoiding this male.

Luckily, we were downwind and were able to come to a relatively closer position for observation of the Himalayan brown bear without being noticed by the bear.

 

Oh, bear cub found us, looking at us how cute!

 

Mother bear also found us, standing upright and staring at us.

 

Finally both of them looking at us. A dreamy camera angle. After this, unfortunately the two headed away.

 

Afterwards, Mommy bear and cub appeared a little away. They were moving while searching various things in the grassland.

 

When a cub was doing strange actions on the rock, they were observing another female Himalayan brown bear.
The other female bear completely ignored them and passed across them.

 

After that, the cub bear had a little sleep and played in the pastures.

 

At last, the mommy bear and cub went over the hill. It was really a beautiful, unforgettable sight.

 

Photo & Text : Mariko SAWADA
Observation : Jul 2017, Deosai National Park, Gilgit-Baltistan
Reference : Mr. Ghulman Raza – Deosai National Park, Mr. Zahoor Salmi (late)

Category : - Himalayan Brown Bear > ◆ Gilgit-Baltistan > - Deosai National Park
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Balkasar Bear Sanctuary, Protect Bears in Pakistan!

This is the story of Balkasar Bear Sanctuary.
An acquaintance working in the hunting tourism sector invited me to visit the Balkasar Bear Sanctuary. At first, I didn’t know the main idea behind this place until I went there and saw the reality.

 

The bears were safeguarded and brought here from the entertainment show businesses like, “Bear Fighting” and “Dancing Bear”.

Most of the bears were owned by landlords in the southern part of Pakistan (South Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan), and their teeth and claws were taken out and sold.

Some individuals even had no limbs. They were cut out by their avaricious owners as a punishment for not obeying.
Seeing a bear with no limbs in front of me, I could not believe how cruel humans are.

 

Himalayan black bear under the training.

An acquaintance brought me here, who is a hunting tour operator involved in the bear conservation project and is responsible for the operations of returning to the wild. For him, knowing real wild animals, abuse of wild bear was not acceptable.

As I mentioned in the previous blog, Pakistan’s hunting situation is somehow contributing to the conservation of wild animals. The officials decide every year quota for each animal and returning profits to the local area. In this way, illegal hunting has halted and simultaneously protecting wild animals. Though it works only for animals which are labeled as “Trophy Hunting” animals, not for all the animals.

 

Time for the evening meal.

Balkasar Bear Sanctuary has 54 bears. The vast majority of them are black bears.

According to the experts, the current population of wild bears in Pakistan is assessed to be between 600 and 650 Himalayan black bears, 200 to 250 Himalayan brown bears. Though there is no official survey.
This means that approximately 6-7% of Pakistani bears are saved and protected in Balkasar Bear Sanctuary.

 

As my curiosity escalated, I asked how these bears are sold in the city.

In many cases, shepherd and locals search for hibernating mother bear and cub, killing the mother bear and bringing cub for sale.

I could not believe all these stories but it is a hard reality.

These bears were dealt badly in show business. When they were rescued and brought to the sanctuary their condition was utterly horrendous. Even the staff had difficulty confronting the truth of what befell these bears.
Pakistani and foreign veterinarians who cooperate with this Bear Sanctuary have helped save many bear’s life.

Unfortunately, these bears can’t go back to the wild anymore. The teeth and claws were taken out by some remorseless and selfish humans.

The purpose of this facility is to provide these bears to spend their remaining lives in a natural condition with other bears.

 

Moreover, this facility is working hard daily to return the bears to the wild who  are able to survive in the wild.
In the early summer 2016, they released three Himalayan black bears, and that success encouraged them to adopt this practice regular.
In the early summer of 2017, they released two Himalayan brown bears (2 and a half years old) who were trained to return to the wild.

As of October 2019, when we visited this sanctuary, two of them have survived in the wild. A microchip was embedded and its movement was monitored.

Some Himalayan black bear cubs are expected to return to the wild in 2020. The cubs will be trained regarding how to catch a fish at the facility in Nathia Gali.
Lobbying to the government has also been made at the same time.

 

It is also surprising that Balkasar Bear Sanctuary is not operating with aid funds such as the government’s or donations, but is working with income from their vegetable garden.

Negotiating with owners of bears such as powerful landlords, saving the bear from them, and returning the cubs to the wild is not an easy task by any means.

Wild animals such as Ibex and other goats’ families are protected under the trophy hunting resume and no doubt the number is increased, but bears are not protected at all and are in danger condition.

I would like to express my sincere respect and gratitude to the people of Balkasar Bear Sanctuary who fight against the cruel humans for the sake of wildlife, bears of Pakistan.

 

Photo & Text : Mariko SAWADA
Visit : Oct 2019, Balkasar, Punjab, Pakistan

Category : - Himalayan Brown Bear > ◆ Punjab > ◇ Wildlife of Pakistan > ◇ Conservation of Wildlife, Nature
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