Asian Mountain Hunters: Past and Present


The ibex was like a gift from above. The country we were hunting, just south of the Khunjerab National Park, near the border with China in Pakistan’s Northern Service Area, was vertical and rugged and had extremely limited access.

Even though we had seen three other ibex billies from the road (the Karakoran Highway, or KKH), I was having a lot of trouble visualizing how a Western hunter, without young legs or young lungs, could ever reach the incredibly rugged ridges and peaks we viewed from the highway.

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The previous day we had outlined a plan to trek up to a spike camp some 3,000 or 4,000 feet higher using porters to pack in camp. My reservation about the plan was that the access route seemed impossibly steep. I knew that a couple of other hunters had recently stalked ibex from the highway, but that sort of luck consistently evades me. Not on this trip. The ibex was gorgeous–long, 44-inch horns, good mass that carried well back and a wide, wide flare–a really nice gift.

Hunting in this area of northern Pakistan is done under the auspices of groups of villagers, who have bonded to conserve their natural resources.

These village groups work with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, also called the World Conservation Union. Headquartered in Gland, Switzerland, the Union has launched the Mountain Areas Conservancy Project. Aided by both the Aga Khan Cultural Services and Aga Khan Foundation, the MACP is designed to conserve rare wildlife species and some of the rarest languages and cultural heritages remaining on the planet. The Khunjerab Village Organization, with which I was hunting, is one of the most successful of these village groups.

Pakistan-2008-246Formed of seven villages that border the southern buffer zone of Khunjerab National Park, the KVO was founded in 1989 and has been registered with local government officials since 1995. The KVO acts as a social forum to guide and motivate other community organizations regarding ecotourism and hunting, as well as education and basic health facilities. It is governed by a 22-member board, three from each village, plus Muhammad Shafa, a representative of the Aga Khan Rural Support Program.

The KVO has been able to collect significant funds in a relatively short period from controlled trophy hunting, primarily of ibex and Himalayan blue sheep. This money is shared with the communities, and the villages use it for developing their economies and addressing social needs. One MACP case study reported that the KVO had established an Agricultural Fertilizer Fund to “. . . provide sufficient chemical fertilizer to the local communities.”

The KVO also has established a dedicated group of Village Wildlife Guards who regularly patrol the park’s buffer zone (called the Community Conservation Area) and conduct ibex and blue sheep counts and surveys twice a year. The group works with the Snow Leopard Conservancy to help with camera trapping techniques, resolve conflicts between the villagers and snow leopards and prevent poaching and retributive killing of snow leopards. Unfortunately, the resources of both the national park system and the SLC are limited, especially compared to the money generated by trophy hunting.

Hunting permits are distributed in fair, open auctions, and the KVO interacts with worldwide booking agents (in my case, Safari Outfitters of Cody, Wyoming) who in turn sell the permits to hunters around the globe. As proven above, the money is put to good use and strongly benefits the local populations. Inherent in this system, though, is the fact that men who were formerly the village hunters are now guides and “wildlife guards” who must derive their hunting enjoyment from helping largely foreign hunters. For this system of conservation to work, the fundamental principle is that the wildlife must have more value to the local community alive that it would have if consumed.

With that background, on February 24, 2008, I was invited to meet with the KVO governing board in Sost (the northernmost of the seven villages) to report on my hunt and to receive the heartfelt thanks of board members. Muhammad Shafa, the president of the local Aga Khan Council, was speaking directly to me in fluent English, even though no one else in the room could understand much. He invited me to spread the message to the American hunting community that, despite recent political events, Pakistan is a safe nation and welcomes American hunters. He spoke about the importance of word of mouth and personal recommendations in spreading that message. As he talked, my mind drifted to the words of Elgin Gates and his description of his experiences in this very town almost 50 years earlier.

Pakistan-2008-294In the fall of 1959 I was eight years old, just beginning to follow my dad around the Arizona desert and mountains on some of my first hunts. Herb Klein and John Gates had just made their well-publicized expedition to Pakistan. Gates reported on that hunt in the closing chapters of his book, Trophy Hunter in Asia. I have read those chapters many times, and felt that his poem (later titled “The Ramos of Shangri-La”) was one of the best descriptions of world sheep hunting adventure I’ve ever read.

Gates was a prolific hunter, winner of the Weatherby Trophy, and a talented shooter, as well. In 1971, he broke 600 straight clays and twice won the International Clay Target Championship. A few years later, he helped develop the .357 SuperMag and became known as the “father of IHMSA” (International Handgun Metallic Silhouette Association). But his success was not without controversy. Some felt he may have abused rules of fair chase in his quest for world records. Jack O’Connor himself is reported to have had misgivings about Gates’ records. Nonetheless, this doesn’t lessen the impact of Gates’s writings on me as a fledging sheep hunter.

Pakistan-2008-177But in many ways, it is reading not only about the adventures of Gates and Klein, but also the writings of many other sheep hunting pioneers, both old and young (most notably Robert M. Anderson’s book, Wind, Dust and Snow) that has had a profound personal effect on me. I killed my first sheep, an Arizona desert bighorn, when I was just 15. By the time I was 20, I considered myself (perhaps somewhat prematurely) a sheep hunter, albeit a naïve one. I was in my early thirties before I was finally able to scrape together enough money each year to continue my sheep hunting fixation. I was fortunate to develop some great friendships with people in the Dall sheep hunting fraternity, and for several years I was content to alternate hunts between Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories chasing white sheep.

But Anderson’s words created a stir, something of a discontent. I realized that if I continued spending every spare cent I had on white sheep, there was a huge and exciting part of the hunting world that I would never see. I started saving money for a Marco Polo hunt in Tajikistan. But unlike most of the hunters who flew to Osk and traveled to eastern Tajikistan, I insisted on entering through Dushenbe so I could travel the way the pioneers had done it because Anderson said so in his book. Thus, many of my personal hunting decisions and choices have indeed been affected by the (written) word-of-mouth messages of these authors.

On that cold February day, 19 of us huddled around the small coal-burning stove. As the guest of honor I was seated nearest the stove, and my chill had burned off enough that I was using my down coat as a floor cushion and was leaning against a wooden support pillar. I never could sit either as straight or for as long as these Hunzakat, who have spent much of their lives sitting squatted on their heels. So my joints were stiff by the time I arose to speak.

As I stood, I felt moved to respond to Shafa’s words. Through an interpreter, I explained to the entire group how the words of Gates in Trophy Hunter in Asia had such a profound effect on me. As I spoke, I could tell that my words had an unexpected effect of excitement on several members of the audience, in particular a man later introduced as Jalal Ud Din. Ud Din, besides being one of the Sost representatives to the KVO, is the managing director of the North Hunting & Tourism Company, so he has multiple areas of interest in the success of the hunts. After the brief closing ceremony, he told my interpreter that he would come by the next day to discuss something with me.

Pakistan-2008-318First thing next morning, Ud Din and his son, Ahmad Ullah, showed up at the guest house/camp where I was staying. They meticulously unwrapped some papers carefully preserved in plastic sleeves. Inside there was a photocopy of page 224 of the book Trophy Hunter in Asia with a photo showing Gates flanked on either side by his shikari (guides). The guides’ faces were circled on the photograph and their names handwritten below. The shikar on Gates’s right was Ahmad Waheed and the one on his left, Aman Shah. Ud Din excitedly explained that he was the brother of Aman Shah and the brother-in-law of Ahmad Waheed. The men also had a laminated original handwritten paper penned by Elgin Gates. It was dated November 3, 1959, and written on the pages of a day planner; presumably Gates’s own diary, since paper was probably hard to come by. The words represent a written referral or notice of appreciation Gates had written for his shikari, probably to be used as a recommendation to future hunters. It is now obviously an important family heirloom.

After devouring these papers and discussing over and over their implications, Ud Din insisted that I meet the extended families of these two great guides. Crossing the bridge between Khudaabad and Sost, we briefly entered the KKH and traveled south for a short distance before pulling off at the home of Ud Din. As always, my hosts displayed their incredible hospitality by sharing tea and light refreshments. More cousins and aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews were brought in and introduced. Photos of each family group were taken, and the relations of those present to Aman Shah and Ahmad Waheed carefully explained.

One page 31 of Wind, Dust and Snow, Anderson makes a most interesting statement. “Gates and no doubt every one of the eleven Hunzakut shikaris and porters who accompanied him to the frozen end of the earth are now gone forever.”

Yet here I was, meeting a significant part of a village filled with relatives and descendants. Ud Din was a boy tending the goat herds during that famous hunt of 1959, while his older brother Aman Shah was off with the Gates caravan. It became increasingly obvious that these men have scoured the rugged mountains of northern Pakistan for ages. The Hunza of this upper valley are ethnic Wakhi, and as such Ismali Muslim, and are descendants of the Tajik, who had crossed to this area originally from Central Asia (Mongolia) with their herds. Related groups are also found in the Wakan Corridor of Afghanistan and adjacent areas of China. Thus, the related groups of Wakhi guide modern hunters in Tajikistan for Marco Polo and Asian ibex, as well as in Pakistan for Himalayan ibex and blue sheep. Collectively, they have hunted mountain species of ibex, sheep and markhors for hundreds of years and now, under the umbrella of the KVO, these men have exchanged their guns for trekking poles.

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One of the most notable effects of such organizations is that the most dedicated and most proficient hunters in each village have to give up their avocations. Most of these men then become guides for foreign hunters. It is easy for me to appreciate their sacrifice and wonder if I would be willing to reciprocate if the tables were turned. My primary local guides were completely dedicated to the hunt. They spent much of their time prescouting. They knew every path to access the difficult mountains, and were excellent in every way.

I wonder how Gates would feel knowing that the descendants of his shikari continue the hunting traditions of their forefathers. I am sure he could not envision a paved highway through the center of his hunting grounds, opening up what was then a remote corner of the Earth. Yet, perhaps he would find himself feeling as I do: grateful for a long and rich tradition that is shared by these great hunters of Asia with modern Western hunters, for many years in the past and, hopefully, for many more years to come.—Lorin Peterson

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