The markhor (Capra falconeri) is one of the largest and most magnificent members of the Caprinae or goat family, and it is the official “National Animal of Pakistan.” It has perhaps the most impressive horns of the family, with huge, spiraled, twisting horns that are either straight or flaring in outline depending on the subspecies.
Markhor are incredible climbers, scaling cliffs with ease and even climbing into oak trees to feed on leaves. Threats include intense hunting pressure, increasing competition from domestic goats and sheep, and disease outbreaks from the increased contact with livestock.
Unfortunately the markhor has been under threat of extinction across its range, which is largely within Pakistan’s borders. Markhor are critical to the landscape, both as one of few wild prey items in their range for large carnivores such as the wolf and snow leopard, and as a cultural icon both locally and nationally.
The flare-horned markhor (C. f. falconeri) is the subspecies that is found in Gilgit-Baltistan Province of Pakistan. Despite being the most populous and wide-ranging of the three subspecies of markhor and despite international and country-wide protection, flare-horned markhor populations dropped by half within a 30-year period between 1970 and 2000. Surviving populations were small, highly fragmented, under significant threat from poaching, and rapidly declining.
While the recent historical trajectory for markhor has been a precipitous decline, the WCS community-based conservation program has had dramatic success in protecting markhor and returning them to a place of pride (and ecological and economic importance) in Gilgit-Baltistan. WCS has been working in the center of flare-horned markhor distribution since 1997. Because of this program, illegal hunting and logging have stopped in most of the valleys where WCS trained community rangers are active.
Wildlife monitoring by the rangers has also shown that the markhor population is showing demonstrable increases in numbers: the current estimation is that there are approximately 1,700 markhor in the program landscape, which is a 70% increase in the population over the past 15 years. The WCS Pakistan Program now reaches 65 communities, influencing over 400,000 villagers, and covers an estimated 80% of markhor range in Gilgit-Baltistan. WCS is the only international conservation NGO operating full-time in many of these valleys.
WCS is now instituting a new management structure in their program area – the “community-managed conservancy” focused on markhor as a flagship species. Already, 18 such community-managed conservancies are in operation. The idea behind community-managed conservancies focusing on markhor is that political boundaries and biological boundaries rarely coincide. In this program’s area, steep-sided mountains delineate valley watersheds that also function as local political boundaries between communities. However, markhor are skilled mountain climbers, and do not define their home range by watershed – in fact, they almost always use a minimum of two watersheds (which for a markhor simply constitute both sides of a mountain). Thus even if a markhor herd is protected by one community, the herd can still be under significant threat from a neighboring community.
Community-managed conservancies link different village or valley organizations together for coordinated markhor monitoring and protection. Conservancies are developed through a series of consultations between WCS and key stakeholders (Wildlife and Forest Department, MCDP, communities, religious leaders, media, outfitters, and other NGOs). To formally establish conservancies, WCS develops agreements that are signed between the Forest and Wildlife Department Gilgit-Baltistan, the Chairman of the District Conservation Committees Diamer, Gilgit, Astore, Hunza-Nagar, WCS, the MCDP, and each village/valley resource organization. WCS then works with each conservancy to help them develop coordinated management plans to monitor and protect markhor. Twelve conservancies already have management plans approved by the government.