Living On The Edge In The Land Of Markhor

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 44 No. 2, February 2024

By Madhumay Mallik

Eyes glued to his binoculars, a faint smile suddenly forms on Shabir Ahmad’s rather stoic face. He has hardly moved an inch for more than an hour now. The binoculars have become an extension of his being as he scans the rocky ridges of the Dragan area of the Kazinag National Park (NP) in Kashmir. The prize of the effort is a sighting of a markhor Capra falconeri and as always, I was travelling with a hopeful lot.

We had started our trek before the sun rose above the beautiful valley of the Limber Wildlife Sanctuary, located within Kazinag. Packing bare necessities, but not without nunchai (salted Kashmiri tea) and some Kandur roti (Kashmiri flat bread), we headed towards the 10 km.-long trail to Dragan. Accompanying me were Shabir Ahmad, Tanveer Ahmad War, Rameez Rasool, and Mohammed Muzaffar. The former two work as field assistants at the Wildlife Trust of India, helping the field team conduct high-altitude surveys. Muzaffar, a local of the area, is a ‘markhor watcher’, who climbs the hills like a walk in the park; he could well have been a markhor himself! Rameez is a community interventions intern in WTI’s Markhor Recovery Project. With a permanent smile on his face, he can speak all day about life in these mountains. This is a team that loves living on the edge. A tough life has made these people ready for all kinds of adversities. Additionally, Tanveer knew the name of every bird species we saw, Shabir knows where exactly markhor would be according to the time of the year and the hour of the day, Rameez looks for solutions to give hope to the community, and Muzaffar ensured that this tough climb was a fun experience for me. It was the perfect team to search for this mountain goat.

A trio of male markhor Capra falconeri play in the snow of the Kazinag National Park, Jammu and Kashmir. Photo: Shivang Mehta.

A camera strapped to my sides, I tread carefully on the narrow trail cut over time, over the ridges of the rugged mountains. I was using a wooden walking staff to check my footing, and every step forward added to my confidence. Muzaffar and Rameez led the ascent and Shabir was always right behind, to grab on to me in case I lost footing. Tanveer walked at the front, checking for animal tracks. Pausing regularly for breathers, we made steady progress. We had to cross the rocky plateau, overlooking the Mithwani waterfall, before sunlight fell on the Dragan trail ridge across the mountains. Markhor would come out in the open from the dense undergrowth to bask in the morning sun.

With just 10 minutes to sunshine, we were set! Shabir and Muzaffar had glued themselves to their binoculars, scanning the long expanse of the rocky outcrops and the open patches of grass across the valley in front, easily a kilometre away, but the closest we would get today. I too had set up my camera in anticipation, waiting for my cue. For the next 30 minutes, everything was silent. And then, the wrinkles on Shabir’s face started getting deeper. A smile was taking over.

Shabir told us in a whisper that he had spotted a female markhor at the top of the rocky ridge. They were here! I immediately shifted my gaze to the eyepiece of my camera. There was some movement. A streak of brown against the darker rocks. She stood there for a moment, possibly glancing down into the valley before vanishing. There she was, my first markhor sighting. We waited for another hour, hoping the animals would give us a second chance. But the sun had rapidly ascended and every passing minute reduced the chance of another opportunity.

Where Are All The Markhor?

The largest wild goat in the world, markhors are shy and reclusive animals. The Pir Panjal Markhor, one of the three subspecies of the animal, calls the high mountains of Kashmir its home. Despite being listed as Near-threatened in the IUCN Red List of Species and provided the highest degree of protection under Schedule I of India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, they struggle for space and food.

Thought to be nearly extinct in India, a survey by WTI and the Indian Army in 2004 established the presence of surviving markhor populations in the Kazinag and Pir Panjal ranges. A series of extensive surveys put their numbers at 250 individuals. The surveys also highlighted the threats that the species was facing, which ranged from the loss of habitats owing to encroachment to illegal grazing inside Protected Areas (PAs), linear infrastructure development, anthropogenic pressures, lack of awareness, lack of manpower for protection, hunting for bush meat, and lack of stringent enforcement of the law. Over the years, markhor have shared their habitat with livestock belonging to migratory herders. In search of greener pastures in a land of scarcity, livestock herders have been competing with the markhor for more than a century now.

On our trek back, we crossed paths with a herder family, and the problem became evident to me. More than 200 domestic goats were being led over the ridge to the very grazing patches that the markhor relied on. And all the way, they left their scent and marks. Domestic goats have been pushing the markhor further away, which is why we could manage just a glimpse of the largest wild goat that day. Without these herders around, Shabir said, we would have had a chance of seeing the markhor from as close as 200 m. These wild goats travel on steep ridges on the edge of mountains and look for caves to shelter themselves from predators and the elements – these spaces have now been taken over by herders and their livestock. For weeks on end, herders settle into markhor caves close to the pastures, before moving on to the next. The markhor will only return when snow has engulfed the high mountains and the valley down below is their only hope for food.

The author’s first markhor sighting was on the rocky ridges of the Dragan Trail in the Kazinag National Park. Photo: Jainy Maria/Sanctuary Photolibrary.

Changing Livelihoods

Migratory herding is not new to the landscape, and has been a way of survival for the locals here. Identified by two primary tribes – the Gujjars and the Bakkarwals, these people, for generations now, have travelled the expanse of the Himalayan mountains with their livestock and families. Consequently, these nomadic tribes know more about the mountains and the animals they host than any of us would ever be capable of. But life for them has always been about being on the edge.

Mohammed Azam, a migratory herder, recounts an incident from 2001, when he lost his brother to a fall. That was the year when their migration to the valley was delayed because of an illness in the family. The youngest in the family had caught fever and they wanted to wait before baring themselves to the elements. Consequently, they were left behind and were the last group to leave their doks (shelter houses constructed by stacking rocks) for the winters. “Travelling along the rocky ridges might be easy for a goat, but even hardy people like us need safer footing,” says Azam. Akbar, the eldest brother and the lead of the travelling team, slipped on one of the loose rocks and the valley engulfed him in a matter of seconds.

Migratory herders also regularly lose their horses and livestock to the elements. “If anyone gets sick, we rely on the traditional herbs that we collect from across the mountains and carry with us. There is no hospital that you can reach in time,” exclaims Azam. Life certainly isn’t easy for them. Even a decade ago, they didn’t know of any other opportunities. But things have been changing for the better. Herding families now have alternate livelihood opportunities, which are both sustainable and safer.

Mohammed Azam, at 83, looks forward to a future where his granddaughters can take up regular jobs in the nearest town of Shopian. Thanks to the mobile schools that have come up along the migratory routes of these herders, the kids finally have a decent shot at education. Thanks to the increased awareness, these families, that for generations have known just a single trade, are willing to adapt to change. Some have even managed to find jobs abroad, settling in countries such as Qatar and the UAE.

Domestic goats are grazing on the same lands the markhor rely on, leaving their droppings and scent behind. These goats are pushing the markhor away, creating a conservation conundrum. Photo: Madhumay Mallik/WTI.

Is It Markhor Versus Migratory Herders?

Life in this part of the world has evolved according to the resources available at such extremes. Both animals and humans have adapted over centuries to be a part of the ecosystem, and each has a role to play. Grazing livestock is crucial for maintaining the heterogeneity and thus the biodiversity of the rangelands. Migrating livestock don’t just disperse seeds over large distances but also fertilise the soil with manure on their way. Trampling of the soil and low vegetation assists in the nutrition cycle of the landscape. The best conservation areas across the globe are community-managed. Pastoral ecosystems were thriving far before national parks were an idea. For landscapes such as Kazinag and Hirpora, the Bakkarwals and the Gujjars are as important as the markhor.

Every year, Bakkarwals migrate from the forest plains of Jammu to the highlands of Kashmir during the summer and return by October, when snow starts covering the alpine lands. Traditional herding families, like that of Mohammed Azam, have been doing this for several generations. They are registered as bona fide herders, with a permission letter from the Forest Department, J&K to take their cattle to the high pastures. “Despite the risks of the trade, there’s decent money in livestock rearing,” says Azam. This has led to the non-traditional herders adding their livestock to the migratory flock. “The problem arises only when the balance is disturbed. Over the past decade, the number of livestock grazing the high mountains has increased. The same pasture lands are not enough anymore and herders have to seek higher grounds – grounds that the markhor rely upon,” adds Azam. Some traditional herders with legitimate permissions have also been renting out their pastures to unauthorised herders in exchange for money. These are primarily herders, who have been practicing transhumance (moving livestock from lowlands in the winter to highlands in summer) for generations, but have stopped using their traditional pasture lands once they found employment elsewhere. However, to keep ownership, they rent out their pastures to unauthorised herders, who more often than not bring in more livestock than are allowed.

We urgently need to seek a solution for this overcrowding of high-altitude pastures. Markhor have drastically declined in the past two decades, especially in the areas that experience tremendous livestock grazing pressure. While there are several other equally important contributing factors, returning to the old ways of nomadic herding would benefit the biodiversity of the Kashmir highlands and the residents it hosts, including the markhor.

As I bid farewell to the team, I look forward to revisiting and hopefully getting a closer glimpse of the markhor. Until then, I am sure, WTI’s ‘Team Markhor’ will continue their efforts toward making the highlands of Kashmir a safe haven for the world’s largest goat.

Madhumay Mallik A photographer, graphic designer and storyteller, he is currently working with the communications team at the Wildlife Trust of India. He believes that good stories can change the world for the better.


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