On a bitterly cold snowy day, in the frigid month of January, a Chitrali huntsman once saw a brightly coloured creature that he had never seen before. As to what this animal was and how it got to where it was sited is the story of today’s tale.
Lot Shikari was a professional hunter in the service of several Mehtars of Chitral and he spent most of his life in the royal shikargah of Chitral Gol, which starts just on the outskirts of Chitral Town and extends up to watersheds with the Lot-Kuh Valley on one side and the famed Kalash Valley of Rumbur on the other. Although gazetted by the central government as the private property of the Mehtar in the 1960s, it was unilaterally declared a National Park in the 1980s and is the subject of an ongoing legal dispute between the author and the government. The markhor population initially went up since then, but two other species have gone extinct from the Gol (nullah or side stream in Khowar) since it was declared a National Park: these are the Shapu or Ladakh urial and the Himalayan black bear. A further two species which would at times enter the Gol from other valleys, the snow leopard and ibex, have also not been seen for over a decade.
Recently, the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of Chitral Gol was under scrutiny as the markhor population was found to have decreased by over a thousand animals under his watch. Chitral Gol is the best example of untouched oak and deodar forest wilderness left in Pakistan, and I, more than anyone, would like to see it remain so and for the bear, urial, snow leopard and ibex to return. But first, the matter of title must be resolved.
Back to Lot Shikari: as mentioned earlier, he was a man who knew when and where every specimen of wildlife was to be encountered in Chitral Gol. He was also a shaman who practiced the ancient and now largely forgotten Kho rituals associated with ensuring a good hunt and pacifying the mountain spirits. Right up to his old age in the 1980s, children would be sent from their homes to get branches of juniper from him, which he collected from the forests to perform these rituals.
The following account was narrated by him to my father who held Lot Shikari in the highest regard and had hunted with him in Chitral Gol from the age of twelve until he decided to ban hunting in the nullah in the early 1970s. Lot Shikari would be based in the small hamlet of Merin in the lower part of the nullah during winter. This area is the location of an old Mehtari hunting lodge and also has a large area composed of fruit orchards and fields where corn is grown in summer.
He insisted that he saw those creatures all the time, but this was something different
This part of the valley has very thick forests of stunted oak trees and it is here that markhor congregate during the coldest part of winter. Predators used to follow the markhor down and prey on the old and young. These predators included wolves and snow leopards.
One day, Lot Shikari had gone out on one of his patrols – it must have been sometime in the 1920s – when he said he saw an animal that he had never seen before walk through the oak forests. There had been less snow that winter, so the ground beneath the trees was barely covered. But that day, the weather had turned and it was snowing heavily. In this picturesque scene of snow falling on the oak trees, he saw what he described as a massive cat-like animal with a bright orange coloration and large stripes running down its sides, walking gracefully. Lot Shikari had never left Chitral and was completely illiterate. He did not know what a tiger was, but when questioned as to whether it was a large snow leopard or even a common leopard (which sometimes do enter Lower Chitral from surrounding areas), he would deny outright. He insisted that he saw those creatures all the time, but this was something different. The only animal it could have been was a tiger.
The High Hindukush is not tiger territory. Historically the Bengal Tiger was never found much farther than the Margalla Hills and the Lower parts of Hazara, but another type of tiger was found in the vicinity of Chitral, the Caspian Tiger. The Caspian was a species of tiger that once had a range stretching from the Caucasus, Iran and Uzbekistan all the way down to Afghanistan. Badakhshan, which borders Chitral to the North, had a population of Caspian Tigers until the 20th century and the last tiger spotted in Afghanistan was in the Darqad reserve in Takhar along the Oxus, quite close to the border with Badakhshan, in 1958.
Even closer to Chitral, there were unconfirmed reports of tigers being spotted in the forested mountains of Nuristan – although these may have been stragglers who found their way into the mountains as their habitat diminished in the lower areas. Chitral Gol can be accessed from both Nuristan and Badakhshan via the Rumbur and Lot-Kuh Valleys respectively. The passes linking the nullah with these valleys, as well as those connecting both Rumbur and Lot-Kuh to Afghanistan, are not particularly high or difficult. They could be traversed by a tiger, especially in the summer months. Recent surveys from Bhutan have found tigers inhabiting areas above 12,000 feet, crossing snowy passes, etc – and this is the Bengal Tiger, an essentially tropical animal. The Caspian was better adapted to the cold and snow.
Now one can also question Lot Shikari’s mental state at the time, and perhaps he may have been under the influence of some substance, as shamans and people who spend time in the wilderness often are! My father, though, was quite certain that he knew what he saw. Perhaps he had witnessed something paranormal, but that would be a story for another day!
Whatever the nature of the sighting was, it was something out of the ordinary and sadly today the Caspian Tiger has gone the way of the dinosaurs: it no longer treads upon the earth.
Although a wandering tiger may or may not have been seen in Chitral Gol in the early 20th century, the snow leopard was found there right up to a decade ago. The fact that it is now as rare in Chitral Gol and Lower Chitral as any tiger is a sad thought. The best custodians of wildlife are the people who live alongside the animals in their habitat, not any Sarkari officials. Moreover, not all people who share the land with animals are destitute and poorly read: some are writers who live comfortable lives too!
For now, let us end this note with the haunting image of a tiger gracefully walking through an oak forest with fresh snow falling upon it!
The author is the ceremonial Mehtar of Chitral and can be contacted on Twitter: @FatehMulk