Protecting endangered animals through tech solution

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Jun 7, 2013.

Islamabad – Pakistan’s northern mountains are home to several threatened or endangered species of carnivores, but these wild animals are rarely documented.

However, an ongoing project in Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) and district Chitral of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is trying to change the dismal state of carnivore management and conservation in the country by collecting information about the carnivores.

The Carnivore Guild Ecology Project (CGEP) is being conducted jointly by the Animal Sciences department at Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU), the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB) and the Snow Leopard Foundation Pakistan (SLFP), with funding from the research council of Norway.

Using non-invasive methods such as “camera trapping” and genetic sampling in G-B’s national parks, the project is trying to ascertain the basic ecology of the carnivores and to develop methods to study carnivores in other mountainous areas, explained Dr Muhammad Ali Nawaz, an assistant professor at the QAU Department of Animal Sciences, who is involved with the project.

“There is limited information available about wildlife in Pakistan and for carnivores, specifically, the information is almost non-existent,” Nawaz said. “Without information, we cannot decide if some species of carnivores need conservation and what methods must be adopted for their conservation.”

CGEP researchers are trying to figure out the population, spatial distributions and genetic diversity of different species of carnivores found in the northern areas. They are also looking at how the different animal species interact with each other and with humans. The research has not only yielded scientific data about the living patterns and habitats of carnivores but it has also led to hitherto unknown information about other wildlife in Pakistan.

Between September and November 2012, the project team set up 116 “automatic wildlife cameras” in and around the Deosai National Park (DNP) located in the Skardu and Astore districts of G-B.

Nawaz said the “expensive” cameras are equipped with an Infrared motion sensor which takes photos when it detects motion whether it is daytime or night.

The cameras took around 10,000 photos of wildlife in DNP, including over 9000 photos of six different wild carnivore species — Red Fox, Stone Marten, Altai Mountain Weasel, Grey Wolf, Brown Bear and Eurasian Lynx.

Similarly, in 2011 the CGEP team used 121 camera traps in the Khunjerab National Park (KNP), also in G-B, to take 6,500 photos of wildlife over a period of 52 days with a focus on four species of carnivores: Snow Leopard, Red Fox, Siberian Ibex and Cape hare.

The location of the photo captures has provided CGEP researchers the data to evaluate habitat characteristics, spatial distributions and activity patterns of the carnivores, Nawaz said. Population estimates are also possible since some animals such as snow leopards have a unique coat which can be identified from the photos, he said.

The data analysis will published soon in two scientific journal articles, that are currently under review.

Fecal and hair samples of the carnivores collected by CGEP team are being tested at the Joseph Fourier University in France for genetic diversity, with results expected this summer. Lack of genetic diversity could make the animals susceptible to internal diseases, Nawaz said.

Some of the photos have also revealed information that challenges conventional understanding of animal life in Pakistan, Nawaz said.

He said the Kashmir Flying Squirrel, which was earlier believed to be only found in forests, was discovered in the Ghizer district of G-B in a forest-less area with mostly bushes and rocks. The Pallas’s Cat, of which there was no previous record in Pakistan, was also found in Ghizer and Wild Cat, not believed to exist in the north, was seen in the Yarkhon Valley, north of Chitral.

The project is currently in its third and last year, but Nawaz said there are some follow-up research projects that are in the pipeline. He said the cameras are currently in place at the Yarkhon Valley.

Jaffarud Din, who works at the SLFP and is connected with the project, said the CGEP is important because even though Pakistan has ratified conventions and treaties related to biodiversity and endangered species, there is very little wildlife research and conservation work in Pakistan.

Din said wildlife protection is not a priority and there is a lack of expertise in the area of animal conservation.

To overcome lack of expertise, the project has conducted capacity building trainings of park rangers. CGEP has also provided an opportunity for M. Phil. and PhD students of Animal Sciences at QAU to participate in field-work. Nawaz said three PhD students are using the data from CGEP for their dissertations.

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