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Thursday, May 31, 2012

The tunnel of hope

TODAY'S PAPER » NATIONAL » NEW DELHI May 11, 2012 The tunnel of hope JAVED NAQI SHARE · PRINT · T+ Cut off from the world for six long winter months, Kargil residents are eagerly waiting for the Zojila tunnel to bring in development Snowbound:Zojila would be more accessible post the tunnel's construction. Inhabitants of a remotely located high altitude district of our country are forced to be “imprisoned” in snow-covered valley for almost six months every year as the only link — the Zojila Pass that connects the district to the outer world becomes inaccessible during winters due to extreme weather conditions, thereby beginning a period of isolation and great suffering for the people of Kargil. Kargil, a small district spread over 14000 sq. km, in Jammu and Kashmir was carved out from the Ladakh district in 1979. Till the Kargil War, this land was a forgotten tale surviving in the vast Himalayan plateau unknown to the rest of the country, leave alone the world. Though Kargil attracted much attention as a battlefield, the problems and issues of the indigenous population were overlooked; and till date, they haven't received the due recognition. Extreme cold, dryness, high radiation, low humidity, low oxygen, desert landscape and limited water sources — these represent the climatic conditions of this serene place. These, of course, have a detrimental effect on the inhabitants. For example, low fertility, high mortality, mental retardation and alteration in physiology are some of the leading effects impacting the locals. Drass, a small town to the west of Kargil, is renowned as the second coldest inhabited place, with the temperature dipping down below -45 °C. The district is home to a population of a few lakhs and they carry out their day to day life under severe environmental stress. The ethnic groups living here are the Baltis, Purigpas, Dards and Brokpas. The Muslims are the majority whereas the Buddhists form the second largest community. The main occupation of this population is cultivation, horticulture, animal husbandry, while a few are in government service, trade and commerce. The district is poorly developed and ranks at the bottom in infrastructural facilities and overall socio-economic development. This adds to the hardship of the local populace, leaving their survival at the mercy of nature. The isolation during the winters worsens the share of misery of the local inhabitants. It means losses in education, health, rural infrastructure development and, most importantly, sustainability. Tourism contributes greatly to the economy of Kargil's neighbouring district Leh; however, here the tourism industry is dependent on the Srinagar-Leh highway. Despite having a huge potential for winter sports, Kargil suffers due to the six-month inaccessibility. Its greatest asset is at the same time its biggest drawback! During summers, the locals as well as the administration focus their efforts on stocking the basic amenities for the winters — thus other crucial development issues continue to be ignored. It is pertinent to mention that before Partition, Kargil was an important trade centre in the Pan-Asian trade network. With the closure of the famed Silk Route and creation of India and Pakistan, the region has become totally isolated from the rest of the world. Mohammad Ashraf, former Director General, Jammu and Kashmir Tourism, points out, “This border area was never really cut off even during most brutal winters”. He adds, “Kargil-Skardu was an all-weather route of great importance, which connects Gilgit and thence Central Asia”. It is only after the emergence of political borders that the area was totally blocked during winters.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Human-Wildlife Conflict in Kargil: Precipitation of India-Pakistan Rivalry?

It is no denying fact that the vendetta between India and Pakistan has never come to halt since the inception of both countries. Both the countries have had tensions prevailing over period and again. Be it cross border terrorism, territorial dispute or any other issue, the countries have seldom come down to negotiations and the same has further led to so much of collateral damage which many of us are oblivious. One among such damage is the damage to the wild life. We often believe that the war which are fought between nations restrict to only human lives and property but we seldom notice that such war has a huge impact upon the wild life as well. And this impact counts a lot because most of these animals which breed on the borders are already at the verge of extinction. And most of them have even extinct due to the catastrophes of the war. One of such animals which hold a very cardinal role for both the nature as well as the mankind is the Snow Leopard in the border district Kargil. It can be argued that the tension between the two countries has to a great extend resulted in human-wildlife conflict in Kargil and thence threat to wildlife sustainability in the region.

Kargil, a district in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in North India is a remote, arid-cold and high altitude area. The region gained prominence to the outer world after the Kargil War which was fought in 1999. Kargil serve as the suitable habitat for many endangered wildlife species like snow leopard, Tibetan wolf (Canis lupus langier), Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus), Asiatic ibex (Capra ibex), Ladakh urial (Ovis vignei vignei), musk deer (Moschus spp.), pikas, and hares (Maheshwari et al 2010). A joint study by J&K Department of Wildlife Protection and WWF reports 16 direct and indirect evidence of Snow Leopard in Kargil and Drass (Maheshwari et al 2010). Since the district lies on the line of control which demarks the territorial divide between India and Pakistan, the region has witnessed the brutal brunt of the Indo-Pak enmity. The conflict has impacted not only the lives of the people due to militarisation and cross border shelling but it also seems the conflict has not even spared the flora and fauna of the region. And predominantly it had a very bad impact upon the existence of the Snow Leapord which is known as Scion in Balti language in Kargil. Similarly, the other wildlife species are now rarely seen in the region. As Asihwarya Maheshwari of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) points out, “it is here in Kargil that one of world’s most elusive creatures- the snow leopard, roams wild and free,”. Maheshwari adds, “during my research I have learnt about the tremendous decline in wildlife sightings, post-1999 Kargil war, so much so that even the common resident birds had disappeared”.

Uncia uncia, the Snow leopard, world’s most elusive feline, usually occurs in the mountains at elevations of 3,000 to over 5000 m (10,000 – 17,000 feet). They prefer steep, rugged terrain with cliffs, ridges, gullies, and slopes interspersed with rocky outcrops (Jackson and Hunter 1996). The total number left in the world are estimated about 4,500 – 7,500 in 12 countries of Central Asia s, viz., Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekista (Fox 1994; Jackson and Hunter 1996). The Snow leopards are protected in nearly all countries under national and international laws. The species has been listed in Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) of India and is listed as endangered in the 2008 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as globally "Endangered". They are listed in Appendix 1 of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, 1977) to check export and import of their body parts.

This is pertinent to mention here that the line of control passes through the habitat ranges of Snow Leopard and other wildlife. Hence the area is highly armed and full of military activities including military movement, firing practises etc. These activities disturb the ecological balance and thus leading to displacement of the Snow Leopard from its habitat. As a result the animal moves to the inhabited low lands in search of shelter and food for survival. During the struggle for sustainability it damages the food crops and attacks the livestock. Losing the livestock is a big economic loss for a rural family. A study on human-wildlife in Kargil and Drass reports 73 cases of livestock depredation by Snow Leopard and the total livestock loss is estimated around four million. According to the study, domestic livestock comprised 45.5% of the diet of Snow Leopard (Maheshwari et al 2010). This shows the high proportion of livestock depredation and represents the extreme of large carnivore-human conflicts in Kargil and Drass. Ironically the population which actually should protect the animal as the same symbolises the local identity to stand and survive in the harsh conditions see the animal as a threat. This makes the animal more vulnerable to extinction. Thus the India-Pakistan conflict and the aftermath militarisation and related phenomenon threaten the existence of Snow Leopard in addition to creating human-wildlife strife. In such a situation the issue of conservation and all the efforts put in by both the countries being the signatory to conventions on wildlife conservation in the region becomes a futile exercise.

Taking into account all the issues it is high time for India and Pakistan to demilitarise the line of control and make a trans-border peace park in order to save the Snow Leopard from complete extinction. The countries could learn lessons from various other precedents by places like The Åland Islands, Morokulien Peace Park, the Euro city of Haparanda-Tornio and Oulanka-Paanajärvi transboundary national park. These Nordic examples provide valuable lessons for cross-border cooperation as their experiences of the softening of borders through practical approaches, all of which could be utilized in areas along line of control, the most visible site of confrontation and hostility between India and Pakistan. In particular, it provides useful ideas to create a peace park on areas across the line of control, which is a heaven for wildlife harbouring endangered species. By doing so, it will begin a process of joint cooperation between the countries and will further ensure peace, prosperity and stability for generations to come. This will lead to the co-existence between humans and nature, promoting regional peace and stability, conserving biodiversity and stimulating socio-economic development of the region. Last to quote Dr Nelson Mandela on this cause, He says “I know of no political movement, no philosophy, and no ideology that does not agree with the peace parks concept as we see it going into fruition today. It is a concept that can be embraced by all”.

Photo credit: Aishwarya Maheshwari, WWF-India.
(The author, a native of Kargil, is Assistant Professor in Higher Education and can be mailed at