The Snow Leopard Country

It seemed that winters had set in a bit too early and the mountains far up in the north, richly covered in snow, ebbed onto the Little Pamir Mountain Rage across the Oxus River. The foot track had not yet developed into a jeepable road from Garram Chasma to Gabor in Chitral, which onwards lead to Shah Salim and then into Afghanistan through Durah Pass into Badakshan to Zebak.  Towards the western tip rose  high mountains bordering the Wakhan corridor. The last post of Chitral Scouts at Gabor was more or less a staging section post through which active patrolling up to the borderline was maintained, though climbing well above the snow line even at 18,000 feet was a feat well accomplished by the scouts without breathing aids. An eagle all rich in its splendor  circled high overhead as it searched for its prey in the snow clad gullies and ridges. It all seemed that the it was a lucky day to be greeted by the eagle as dawn turned brighter. Arif – the patrol commander always carried his camera to capture such fascinating landscapes of opportune. All around, the eye catching site was fascinating as each ridge gentle climb brought in new landscape into focus. The turmoil’s had erupted in Afghanistan even earlier to Russian invasion of 1979/ 1980 on the Afghan land. The country was still in its early insurgency when the Afghan Mujahedeen has started crisscrossing the Pakistan – Afghanistan borderline. Therefore, effected people coming across the border into Pakistan were subject to scrutiny, but it soon became a common site as vast borderline could never be picketed whole length. Continuous foot patrols along difficult mountain terrain had become order of the day and so did the vigilance on every step. It was not far ahead from scattered hutments of Shah Salim, when a whistle from the guide brought an alertness in the section patrol strength to take immediate action of dispersion, as to be ready for any eventuality. Exited voices from a few burly mountain men were greeted in peace. The faces of some of them were a bit familiar as they set down a freshly wood cut and roughly assembled fragile cage to the ground. Each man more a 6 footer, their chests heaving and glistening with bullets and bandoliers, with sheep skin wrapped across their foot and forelegs as they had no proper boots. The sight just out of some movie was too fascinating. Snarls and coughs brought the attention to the cage covered by an old cloth to keep the carnivore calm. A flimsy cord tied around the neck reveled a snow leopard cub which had gone snow blind and was left on a ridge by her mother, probably to bring back food for the cub when incidentally the mujahidin party stumbled over it hearing its growls. Though a snow leopard had never been sited in the lower regions but probably due to heavy snow, the mother with its cub had wandered too far down in search of prey that in the process, the cub had gone snow blind. The party excitedly narrated that it was the second day walking in these treacherous mountains that they spied the cub and had even seen its mother jumping some distance onto a rock in pursuit of her cub and a stray burst from a klanshnikof in the air had scarred her off. It was an all out blessing for me to sit beside an actual living and wild snow leopard and that too in the wild with my arm around it and got myself photographed. It was my dream as I envied on the TV screen when countable wild animal conservationists are seen with tigers lapping around them – but a small cub should suffice in such a situation for me. What a luck and pride the early eagle brought us. As the leopard party bade us goodbye to depart for lower reaches of Chitral who gave the leopard to Commandant Chitral Scout who further arranged the cub to be delivered for treatment and the zoo. The beauty lies in their habits and of the way these carnivore hunt, which was evident of my patrolling at a later date on the upper regions of Lasht at the snow line while going to Brogol and Kurambarra Lake, where we just stumbled onto a carcass of an Ibex. It was a kill of a snow leopard. As the huge lions hunt in pairs and even in packs, the leopard hunts alone. Due to their terrain adopted sturdy bodies with pointed and strong canines to embed in the flesh and claws so sharp to hold onto the prey, the way of kill of a leopard was distinctly visible. Their speed and pounce to the neck with the neck vertebrae broken and then dragged to a safe place to be feasted upon. As I looked verily across the jutting rocks to the side and ahead of us, one of my men quipped – perhaps it is the same mother of the blind cub following us. This light joke relieved us of the pressure of walking. There is no doubt that the ibex dwells in the snow leopard country, where the big cat roams in its entire splendor. Silver grey with black spots – this beautiful creature is an endangered species. Locals of the area speak of these big cats seen in numbers, but due to sacristy of food as ibex has been hunted indiscriminately, these cats had come down their original habitat to make shooting and pouching easier. Thanks to the strict laws now enforced by the government for their preservation.

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