Sunday, January 29, 2012

A walk on the wild side

A walk on the wild side

The caravan cautiously passed through the arid landscape of Balochistan. Sand dunes, piles of rock and expanses of tall, dried grass — the last a reminder of the healthy monsoon that had visited earlier — stretched to the horizon. It was dusk and the travellers were wary of the elusive shadows that moved in the grass like phantoms at the edge of their vision. The setting sun itself was an enemy, painting the grass in hues of red, saffron and magenta — perfect camouflage for the stalkers hiding in it.

The men of the caravan held their weapons ready to face an ambush from what could have been a lone attacker or a horde of killers.
This is not the present, but rather a scene from centuries past. The travellers are not an FC convoy or transporters carrying Nato supplies, but nomads searching for pasture, or else traders plying an ancient route. And the predators are not militants, insurgents or bandits but the wolves, cheetahs and lions that once ruled this land.

I won't blame you for thinking that this is the figment of an imagination running wild. But the reality is that the territories which now comprise Pakistan once boasted of wildlife rivalling that of today's African safaris!

Can't outrun extinction
Once a healthy population of Asiatic cheetahs patrolled huge tracts of land from Arabia and Iran to Central Asia and India — and present-day Pakistan was smack in the middle of its territory. So common were cheetahs in the subcontinent that even their name fact comes from the Sanskrit "chitra kayah", meaning speckled or spotted (chitra) and body or form (kayah). The same is true for the Chital — the spotted deer of the Indian subcontinent. Being the fastest land animal, the cheetah could easily catch up with the Chital when these two shared territory. Speed, however, could not save it from near extinction in Asia — less than 100 are believed to be alive today, and almost all are in the Iranian deserts bordering Pakistan. In contrast to the spotted predator, its spotted prey has been able to survive in India's riverine forests as well as new habitats worldwide where it has been introduced.

Due to its relatively less aggressive nature and potential for being trained, the Asiatic cheetah was used for hunting by the nawabs and rajas of India and the Bedouins of Arabia alike. However, no raja could rescue it from other hunters and from human encroachment on its territory.
Given that the cheetah became virtually extinct in Pakistan only within the past 50 years, it's no wonder that anecdotes about a cheetah's speed and agility are still common in folk tales and that it frequently appears in the ad campaigns of clever marketeers. This spotted feline is also immortalised in local street lingo, and being called a 'cheetah' is something to be proud of.

The King is dead, long live the logo!
Next on the Pakistani safari of yore we have, or rather had, the Asiatic lion which once ranged from Europe to the North Eastern regions of India.
With its impressive roar and shaggy mane, the lion has sparked the imagination of painters and poets — and at least one Pakistani political party. While it no longer stalks its ancient habitat, it features in folklore, children's stories, religious mythology, and the flags and coats-of-arms of numerous nations throughout Europe and Asia.

West of Pakistan, the Persian rulers regarded the lion as a symbol of power and various dynasties used the Sher-o-Khurshid insignia, where a lion appears with the sun in the background. Sometimes a sword — "Shamsheer" — is also present, at times in the lion's forepaw. In fact, it wasn't until the 1979 revolution that the lion finally disappeared from the Iranian flag. In ancient India, the Asiatic lion appears on the "Lion Capital of Ashoka", an ancient structure from which the national emblem of India is adapted. Ashoka's lions appear everywhere in India, from currency notes to postage stamps. That is how deeply rooted the Asiatic lion is in the cultures both east and west of Pakistan, which itself was once lion country.
And the lion still lives in Pakistan, albeit as a logo. The Asiatic lion can be observed in regal pose looking down on nine-to-fivers from its perch atop buildings in Pakistan's financial hubs, as modified versions of the Persian "Sher-o-Khurshid" insignia have been incorporated into the logos of Habib Bank Limited, Habib Metropolitan Bank and others.

In Karachi, the British installed a huge marble statue of Queen Victoria in the gardens of Frere Hall. The statue was guarded by graceful Asiatic lions cast in dull metal. Ironically, the lions were first moved to the zoo and then removed from public sight altogether. Decades later, I was pleasantly surprised to find one of them basking in the sun in the backyard of Mohatta Palace. Queen Victoria stood beside it, melancholically covered in dust, and with a broken nose, her 'pride' like those of the lions' — now history. The fate of the real Asiatic lions in Pakistani territories is no less tragic. The last of the species was killed in 1842 near Kot Diji in Sindh.

In the early 1900s the nawab of Junagadh, a princely state that is now part of the Indian state of Gujrat, discovered that only 13 lions remained in his kingdom. He was so concerned that he declared the Gir forest as a protected area for preserving the Asiatic lions. Today, the nawab's estate is gone, but thanks to him, the Gir Forest National Park is the only place on the planet where the lion kings of Asia still rule. According to the latest lion census carried out in 2010, more than 400 lions inhabit the park and its surroundings.

The Persian word sher specifically refers to lions. However, in India it has come to mean both lion and tiger. With the near extinction of the Asiatic lion, even the Hindu deity Durga, often called Maa Sheranwali, is mostly depicted sitting on a tiger and only occasionally riding a lion! Similarly, the Hindi word for tiger — 'wagh' or 'bagh' — is interchangeably used for lions as well. The British who ruled India also fell victim to this confusion. Rudyard Kipling once came across an Afghan prince who had adopted the title of 'Sher Khan'. This title had originally been given to Sher Shah Suri, the original 'lion king', a few centuries earlier, after he had killed a tiger single-handedly. The logic was that only a lion, the king of the jungle, could kill a tiger — hence Sher Khan, The Lion King. However, when Kipling sat down to write The Jungle Book — lo and behold, his 'Sher Khan' turned out to be a Bengal tiger! Unlike people, it seems misunderstandings do not need a visa to cross borders. In fact, the confusion continues within Pakistan as well, and the PML-N's 'Sher' is also sometimes a lion and at others a tiger!

A bull in blues
Next in our safari we have an animal which, like the lions, has to cope with both the threat of extinction and identity crisis. Meet the Nilgai, literally meaning the blue bull.

I grew up listening to stories of my grandfather hunting these creatures. Once his cousin shot a forest officer's prized horse at dusk as it came to have a drink at the watering hole after grazing in the woods. The guilty lad said he thought the horse was a Nilgai!

The shooting had to be followed-up with an extensive cover-up to avoid the wrath of the officer, but the story always left me perplexed. As a child, I imagined a Nilgai to be a fat cow in Smurf blue and hence could not fathom a horse being mistaken for one. Since then, I've had the fortune to observe quite a few Nilgai in Pakistan albeit either in private collections or public zoos. The Nilgai is actually neither a horse nor cattle but an antelope — the largest Asian antelope for that matter and is second in size only to the African eland. In hindsight, it is very much possible to confuse its "hind side" for a horse's in a shady wooded area at twilight. However, I still suspect there was some youthful mischief and the general mood of the Independence-movement that decided the poor horse's fate.

Today, Nilgai survive in small numbers in the wild in Pakistan along the Eastern border with India. Sightings are reported around the Nagarparkar area and near Bahawalpur. When imported lions were released in a protected enclosure in Lal Suhanra National Park, Bahawalpur, some Nilgais were reported to have been enclosed accidentally — their outcome? Let's just say the lions took their share.

The dilemma of a horn
Mistaken identities have had disastrous consequences for some species. For centuries, Western cultures searched for a shy mythical creature with magical powers. The creature was said to be similar to beautiful white horses with silky flowing manes and poetic eyes. Its distinguishing feature was a single horn on the forehead. Enter — the unicorn!

During the dark ages, there was great demand for unicorn horns in Europe which were required to prepare various magical potions and pseudo-medical concoctions. Quacks satiated this demand with the excavated tusks of long-extinct mammoths and those of Narwhal whales killed specifically for the purpose. All this carried on until the famous explorer Marco Polo came across a bulky two tonne creature with dark greyish armoured skin and short stumpy legs. Unfortunately, the Indian rhinoceros seen by Polo had the distinct single horn on its forehead. The West had finally found its unicorn in the Rhinoceros "Unicornis" — the scientific name given to the Indian rhino. Already in demand in Asian cultures for ancient medicines and ornamental reasons, rhino horns now had a new market, and rhinos had a new set of enemies.

No safari, not even a Pakistani one would be complete without rhinos. The Indian rhinos once roamed freely throughout Punjab and the Indus plains, and their importance for the ancient Indus civilisation can be judged from the seals on display at the Moenjodaro museum. Another famous explorer, Ibn-e-Batoota, also wrote about them in travel notes for territories now comprising Pakistan. These four-legged tanks were once even hunted by Emperor Babur near Peshawar. Scenes from these hunts have been preserved in Mughal miniatures and adorn the walls of museums. According to IUCN's Red List, the Indian one horned rhinoceros is 'vulnerable' — a classification just below "endangered' — primarily due to some areas in India in which it is strictly protected.

Hunting rhinos was not the only way the Mughals passed their time. They were fond of beautiful and practical architecture too. All across the Indian subcontinent, forts and walled cities they built have been influenced by one animal more than any other — elephants. Mughal buildings, especially forts, owe much of their enormity to these gentle giants which the emperors used as royal carriage as well as a weapon of war. I much awed by the 'Haathi Gate' of Lahore's Shahi Fort and upon research, it dawned on me that many other forts and palaces across Indo-Pakistan have similarly huge passageways with the same name.

Wild elephants were always more common in the lands east of the Indus. They roamed the rain forests and toiled away as domesticated beasts of burden and as engines of war. Centuries before the Mughals, Europeans had their first glimpse of these creatures as weapons of war during Alexander's face-off with Raja Porus in the Battle of Hydaspes (Jhelum). Today, not a single wild Asiatic elephant remains in Pakistani territory and only a few remain in captivity.

Paradise Lost
The empires of Alexander, the Mughals, the British and others, all reached their zenith and then disintegrated into fragments and faded into
history. The only 'kingdom' to have survived them all is the animal kingdom. But that too, is now engaged in a battle for survival which it seems to be losing. The fragmentation of ranges has already taken place and what were once seamless swathes of undisputable constituencies of majestic animals are now 'developed' or 'agricultural' areas, with animal habitat surviving only on the fringes. In some countries animals are frequently 'flown in' and 'out' of these fragments in order to enrich the gene pools of the systems. Such frivolities are brushed off in Pakistan. After this fragmentation, the next logical step for all the kings and their heirs is a transition from the present into the annals of history. I can assure the reader from personal experience that inheriting trophies and family hunting stories is cool but a chance to see wildlife in its natural grandeur is cooler.

With this we come to the end of our safari. Interestingly, the Swahili word 'safari' meaning 'great journey' came to be used for the long journeys undertaken by Europeans for hunting African wildlife. The Urdu word 'safar', meaning journey, comes from the same root. The next time someone mentions African safaris, you can smile knowing that Pakistani wildlife has more in common with African safaris than you may have imagined.
The illustration of Ibn-e-Batuta is courtesy: © Oxford University Press Pakistan 2012 (Title: A Children's History of Sindh by Hamida Khuhro; Illustrator: Sana Nasir)

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 29th, 2012.

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