Amongst the lesser known casualties of the conflict between India and Pakistan is wildlife. In times of war, we hear of the loss of human life and property but seldom notice the huge impact on wildlife. Animals found in the vicinity of the disputed India-Pakistan border in Jammu and Kashmir are on the verge of extinction. One such is the snow leopard in the border district Kargil.
Kargil, a district in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in North India is a remote, arid, cold and high altitude area that gained international prominence after the Kargil War of 1999. Because of its suitable habitat Kargil is home for many endangered wildlife species, like the Snow Leopard (Uncia uncia), 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 instances that give evidence of the Snow Leopard’s existence in Kargil and Drass (Maheshwari et al 2010).
Since the district lies on the ceasefire line, the Line of Control, that marks the territorial divide between India and Pakistan, the region has witnessed the brunt of Indo-Pak enmity. The conflict has impacted not only the lives of the people due to militarisation and cross-border shelling but also the flora and fauna of the region. The enmity has had a particularly dangerous impact upon the existence of the Snow Leopard, known as Scion in the Balti language spoken in Kargil. Similarly, other wildlife species are now rarely seen in the region. “It is here in Kargil that one of world’s most elusive creatures, the snow leopard, roams wild and free. During my research I have learnt about the tremendous decline in wildlife sightings since the 1999 Kargil war, so much so that even the common resident birds had disappeared,” says Asihwarya Maheshwari of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Known as the world’s most elusive feline, the Snow Leopard lives in the mountains at elevations of 3,000 to over 5000 m (10,000-17,000 feet). It prefers the steep, rugged terrain with cliffs, ridges, gullies, and slopes interspersed with rocky outcrops (Jackson and Hunter 1996). The total number of this endangered species left in the world is estimated at between 4,500-7,500 in 12 countries of Central Asia — Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekista (Fox 1994; Jackson and Hunter 1996). Snow Leopards are protected in most 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.
The Line of Control cuts right through the habitat of the Snow Leopard. The area is full of military activities including military movement and firing practice. These activities disturb the ecological balance and displace the snow leopard from its habitat. The animal is forced to move to the inhabited lowlands in search of shelter and food. In its struggle for survival, it damages food crops and attacks livestock, causing huge economic losses to the affected rural families. A study on humanwildlife conflict, conducted by WWF during April-May 2009 in 12 villages of Kargil and Drass, reported 73 cases of livestock depredation by snow leopards, and a livestock loss estimated at around 10,000 USD. According to the study, domestic livestock comprised nearly half (45.5%) of the diet of the Snow Leopard (Maheshwari et al 2010), which indicates the high proportion of livestock depredation and the extent of carnivore-human conflicts in Kargil and Drass.
For Kargil and Drass, the Snow Leopard is a symbol of the survival of life forms in a region with a harsh climate. Ironically, the population that should be protecting such a symbol sees it as a threat to its own survival, making it even more vulnerable to extinction. In such a situation, wildlife conservation efforts by India and Pakistan, who are both signatories to conventions on wildlife conservation, become futile.
It is time for India and Pakistan to demilitarise the Line of Control and make a trans-border peace park to save the Snow Leopard from extinction. The two countries could learn from various precedents such as the Åland Islands, Morokulien Peace Park, the Euro city of Haparanda- Tornio and the 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 utilised 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 LoC itself, which is a heaven for wildlife harbouring endangered species. This is what Dr Nelson Mandela has to say about the idea: “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.”
Doing so could also be a milestone in joint cooperation between the countries that could help them in the path towards sustainable peace. If men could sort out their differences, it would help prevent man-animal conflict too. Conserving biodiversity is important for stimulating socio-economic development of the region.
(The writer, a native of Kargil, is an Assistant Professor in Higher Education in Srinagar, Kashmir. An earlier version of this article was published in Kafila.org. Email: email@example.com)