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Wildlife conservation is a crucial aspect of managing ecosystems that are threatened by the expansion of detrimental activities. However in the discourse surrounding ‘human-wildlife’ conflict, some significant considerations on conservation vis-a-vis rights of local communities are overlooked. The 20th century wisdom of State controlled ‘scientific’ forest management eventually extended to wildlife conservation. The result was that wildlife conservation became the sole domain of the State thereby alienating local communities who have historically been linked to the wildlife through emotional, spiritual, and economic connections. Conservation regimes, that extinguished the customary rights as well as historical relationships of local communities with the natural environment, have created a tussle between local communities and wildlife. The challenge is to bridge this schism by securing the rights as well livelihoods of local communities, along with the protection of endangered wildlife. 

Another challenge faced by conservationists as well as policymakers around the world has been that of funding conservation, especially in impoverished countries. In places where people can barely make ends meet, funding conservation becomes not just problematic but extremely difficult. How does one overcome this ‘conundrum’? The answer perhaps lies in fundamentally reconsidering the vision through which conservation is approached. In the age of the anthropocene, it would be naive to not include people as one of the most important stakeholders in the conservation process. One may ask how can people, who are themselves threatening wildlife, become their saviours? The answer is simpler than one could think of but it requires us to focus on restructuring incentives in a way that makes it profitable for communities to conserve wildlife. The story of Markhor, the majestic mountain goat which is found in the mountainous regions of South & Central Asia, is worth pondering upon and has important insights on sound policy frameworks. The Markhor’s habitat is scattered across multiple countries including India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. 

Markhor Conservation – The Gilgit-Baltistan Model

In the Gilgit-Baltistan region administered by Pakistan, the numbers of Markhor were dwindling fast owing to indiscriminate poaching, habitat loss, and the competition with livestock for grazing pastures. Moreover, the region of Gilgit Baltistan faced high unemployment ratios and low socio-economic indicators. The challenge for policymakers and conservationists was to create a conservation framework which does not scuttle the economic prospects of the region’s already impoverished communities. In the 1990s, Pakistan officially started regulated trophy hunting in the region and as counter-intuitive as it may sound, the experience in Gilgit-Baltistan has helped not just save the Markhor from possible extinction but also brought in much needed prosperity for the local community. 

As part of the project, two community game reserves were established i.e. Tooshi-Sasha and the Gehrait Golain Markhor Conservancies where Trophy hunting was officially authorised in 1998. A total of around 38 community areas have been identified by the Government as hunting spots. To incentivise the local community to actively participate in the process, the Government decided that 80% of the revenue generated by trophy hunting operations shall go back to the local communities and the remaining 20% to the wildlife department. It is pertinent to mention that one of the threats to Markhor population came from the local impoverished communities who used to hunt it for food during winter. The trophy hunting project changed the relationship between the animal and the local community in a way that the villagers are now at the forefront of conservation efforts due to the benefits it brings to them. 

The trophy hunting season lasts from November to April where a limited number of permits are issued based on the annual population survey of the animal. An open bidding takes place for individual permits and each permit can cost as much as 60,000 USD. In trophy hunting, only old male goats are shot and they are usually identified from its gait, body and the horns. Due to the success of the trophy hunting operations, there has been a substantial increase in the number of Markhor to the extent that it is now considered ‘near threatened’ in the IUCN’s red list, a two level improvement from its earlier status as critically endangered. On the other hand, the communities which receive 80% of the revenue use a share of it to invest in anti-poaching operations as well as paying off the salaries of guards who protect the animals. The Village Conservation Committees ( VCCs) which manage the funds have used the money to fund roads, hospital infrastructure and schools thereby bringing prosperity to the communities. 

Markhor and the Indian Story 

In Jammu & Kashmir, the Markhor has been historically found in the Pir Panjal mountain ranges. According to a survey conducted by the Wildlife Trust of India, some populations have been sighted in Kazinag, Hirapora, Bunyar and Shamsari in the Kashmir valley as well as in places like Poonch outside the Kashmir valley. There has been substantial fragmentation of the habitat, and habitat loss due to poorly planned development projects.  Overgrazing by livestock as well as poaching are also severely affecting the population. Markhor has been included as a protected animal under the Jammu & Kashmir Wildlife Protection Act, 1978. India’s response to this crisis has followed the ‘guns and guards’ approach by cordoning off the habitat of Markhor as ‘protected areas’ and limiting as well as criminalising human activity in these zones. 

The evidence in terms of conservation outcome has been mixed i.e. in some areas the population of Markhor has remained stable while in places such as Hirapora, the numbers have gone down alluding to a failure. While the political volatility in the region and increased militarisation does act as a significant impediment to any conservation activity, it is pertinent to note that the threat of livestock overgrazing by nomadic pastoralists and illegal poaching pretty much remain at the core of the problem. For the nomadic pastoralists such as the Gujjars and Bakharwal community, Markhor is an economic liability competing for grazing pastures with their livestock. The Government has tried to find a middle ground by creating some pasture management schemes. As part of the scheme, no-grazing zones were established in the protected areas with patrolling activity to guard pastures from illegal grazing. However it has shown little success owing to no incentives for the communities to sacrifice their livestock i.e. their only source of income. Community awareness about biodiversity conservation has also not yielded tangible benefits for the Markhor in the region. 

Communities and Conservation – Not a Zero Sum Game 

The Markhor conservation regimes adopted by the Indian and Pakistani Governments highlight two different visions through which wildlife conservation has been approached. The Indian Government’s policies are closely aligned with the wilderness approach which presupposes that the only relationship between human activity and wildlife is that of conflict. Cordoning off wildlife habitats, restricting human activity in protected areas and using guns & guards, are reflective of the Indian approach to the issue of Markhor. The approach has not just failed to protect the Markhor but further alienated the local communities who now have little incentive to protect the Markhor. Infact, it may lead to local communities colluding with poachers to safeguard their pastures from being designated as protected areas. 

In Gilgit Baltistan, the opening up of trophy hunting and community reserves successfully harnessed the active involvement of local communities by making conservation an economically viable venture. It has also shown that there must not necessarily be a zero-sum game between the interests of local communities to that of wildlife. Properly aligning incentives as well as calibrating the force of markets can assist remarkably well in funding conservation which also decreases the burden on the State exchequer. While the ethical dimensions of activities such as trophy hunting are up for debate, it must not stifle the success of ongoing operations unless a viable alternative can be found. And those alternatives must not come at the expense of local communities lest the hard-won success will be lost. 

Read more: Women of Janpath

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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.