A unique safari through Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan

Dawn.com: Monday 21st February 2011

ISLAMABAD: Tourists can now see snow leopards in their natural habitat on the sky-high mountainous terrains of Gilgit-Baltistan.

An adventure safari provides an opportunity for tourists to visit the mighty mountains in the country’s extreme north and capture fantastic scenes where these wild animals, also known as “big cats” by the locals, are found playing, hunting and relaxing.

This ambitious plan, carved out by Himalayan Holidays, an Islamabad-based tour operator, will help explore snow leopards, which are found in the dense forests at an altitude of 1,200 to 2,000 metres (3900 to 6600 feet).

“By organising this event we can entertain the visitors with not just wildlife, but also include tours of the serene valleys where tourists can witness diverse cultures, snow-clad mountainous peaks and gushing streams and rivers,” said Najib Ahmed Khan, owner of Himalayan Holidays.

Khan is determined that the spectacular event, besides attracting visitors from around the country, would help enthrall the tourists from across the world, boosting Pakistan’s tourism industry.

“It is a unique move towards tapping into the country’s endangered wildlife species and using our fascinating flora and fauna to promote tourism,” Najib said.

He, however, said focus would be on snow leopards as the wildlife sector had so far not figured in country’s tourism activities.

The tour will take wildlife lovers from Islamabad to Gilgit, where the journey begins by a road trek to Ramghat via Partabpul and Bunji. A bar-b-que dinner at sunset on the Nanga Parbat will conclude day one.

Day two starts with a hike to Neelidar, going as high as about 600 metres in five hours to discover the big cats, roaming freely in their habitats.

Third day’s hiking leads to Akalotamo where the local guides brief the visitors about places for filming of fantastic scenes of big cats. On day four, the group will be taken to the enchanting destination of Misikhandgah.

An individual snow leopard lives within a well-defined home range, but does not defend its territory aggressively when encroached upon by other big cats.

Like other cats, snow leopards use scent marks, scent to indicate their territory and common travel routes. Being most active at dawn and dusk they are known for their extreme secretive and well camouflaged nature.

The diet of the snow leopard also varies across its range and with the time of year, depending on prey availability. In the western Himalayas it preys mostly Himalayan blue sheep, Markhor, ibex and smaller prey consists of marmots, woolly hares and birds such as the snow cock and chukar. However, it is not averse to taking domestic livestock which brings it into direct conflict with humans.

Snow leopards have not been reported to attack humans, and appear to be among the least aggressive of all the big cats.

As a result, they are easily driven away from livestock, they readily abandon their kills when threatened and may not even defend themselves when attacked.

Snow leopards prefer to ambush prey from above, using broken terrain to conceal their approach, and can leap as far as 14 metres. They actively pursue prey down steep mountainsides, using the momentum of their initial leap to chase animals for up to 300 meters.

Estimated population of snow leopards in Pakistan is 420 to 500 with their habitat stretching over 80,000 square miles in Skardu, Astore Bunji (Nanga Parbat region), Khunjran Borogil and Chitral. – APP


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