Sardar Naseer Tareen: The Markhor hero of Balochistan
Considered the father of trophy hunting in Pakistan, Sardar Naseer Tareen passed away on June 24th in Quetta at the age of 81. I first got to know him years ago when I travelled with him to the Toba Kakar Range on the border of Afghanistan to take a look at the Suleiman Markhor (straight horned species of wild goat). On the long jeep ride from Quetta to Kila Saifullah and then onwards to the border, Sardar Naseer joked with me that we would be staying at the local “Holiday Inn” only to arrive at a cluster of mud huts he had built for guests on a small ridge with no flushing toilets!
Sardar Naseer called himself an “accidental environmentalist” because by training he was a filmmaker.
“I was not a conservationist… my interest lay in filmmaking. I was pushed into the pool in a manner of speaking,” he recalled in his slightly American accented English as we relaxed outside the “Holiday Inn” sipping hot tea after the arduous jeep ride from Kila Saifullah.
At the time I met him, he was already in his late 60s. He had all the sophistication of a globetrotter who was equally at home in both the east and the west. He remained a bachelor to the end, often saying “this is why I have all the time in the world for my work!”
He told me that he had attended Lahore’s Government College from 1953-58 before leaving for the USA saying,
“I was going to study International Relations… but instead I switched to communication and got admitted to the California Institute of Arts”.
While Sardar Naseer thoroughly enjoyed his studies in filmmaking, back in Balochistan his conservative family got upset over their son’s unconventional decision to pursue the arts. He nevertheless completed his training and decided to stay on in the USA. At the time his father was the Sardar (or chieftain) of the Tareen tribe. Their ancestral home is an old fort located about 30 km north of Pishin near Quetta.
“I never really had intentions of settling in the USA – I was always running back and forth and one day I said ‘let’s go home’”, he recalled.
Sardar Naseer came back to Pakistan after 24 years of living in the USA determined to reconnect to his tribal roots. In 1983, upon his return to Pakistan, he thought of making a feature length film on Balochistan’s culture. The government asked him to first make a short film on the wildlife of Balochistan. He soon discovered that the animals they had listed only existed in the files of the provincial government’s wildlife department.
Sardar Naseer concentrated his filming efforts around the area known as Torghar in the tribal areas of north-eastern Balochistan. Called the “Black Mountain”, Torghar consists of a series of dark coloured upturned ridges where the altitude varies between 2,500-3,300 m. These ridges are home to one of the last pockets of Afghan Urial and Suleiman Markhor in the world. Very few Markhor are found outside Pakistan – the Suleiman Markhor is the straight-horned species that exists only in Balochistan and Khyber Pukhtunkwa.
Sardar Naseer realised that the wildlife of Torghar would soon disappear if no measures were taken right away. Aside from indiscriminate hunting, massive deforestation was making survival difficult for the wildlife of the area. In the town of Qila Saifullah, Sardar Naseer discussed the issue with the late Nawab Taimur Shah Jogezai, who was then chief of the Kakar tribe. Sardar Naseer Tareen is related to the Jogezais through several marriages between the two families. They both agreed that something must be done before it was too late and in 1984 Sardar Naseer initiated a conservation programme in Torghar.
I still remember chatting with him outside the mud huts, the moon rising up from behind the mountains and lighting up the lunar-like landscape. Somewhere along these ridges were the Markhor. “You’ll find out what it is like tomorrow morning… it’s not that easy to spot a Markhor”, he told me. I remembered those words later when I found myself struggling up a precipitous mountain ridge, with the loose rocks rolling beneath my feet and my hands grasping for the shrubs that grow high up on these cliffs. At the top, we hid behind some rocks and finally spotted a female Markhor feeding on shrubs on a distant ridge. A tele-spotter was set up for me to have a look. While the Markhor prefer cliffs, the Urial prefer the plateaus above the cliffs and the terrain along their bases.
Thanks to Sardar Naseer the Suleiman Markhor and the Afghan Urial have a safe future in Torghar. In 1984 he contacted the United States Fish and Wildlife Service for technical assistance and they sent some of their experts to Quetta. Their discussions with Sardar Naseer led to the development of a “game guard” programme at Torghar under the title of the “Torghar Conservation Project”. Surveys were conducted and when animal populations had recovered sufficiently, a limited number of permits were sold to trophy hunters – primarily foreign hunters. The project was launched in 1985 with seven game guards who were former hunters who agreed to put down their weapons.
The project continued to advance slowly as the years passed. Systematic trophy hunting took place every year from 1986 onwards and the proceeds were used to hire more game guards and provide some financial aid to the local community. Older animals were carefully selected for culling so that the herds’ breeding rates were not affected. Additional game guards were hired every year. At present, there are around 150 game guards protecting approximately 1,800 square km of Torghar. Today, the Suleiman Markhor’s trophy fetches up to $60,000 and is one of the rarest in the world while the Afghan Urial trophy fetches $16,000. Around 20% of the trophy fee goes to the government and the rest to the community. Sardar Naseer’s pioneering efforts of using trophy hunting as a conservation tool is now being replicated in the Gilgit Baltistan region. The Torghar project is now recognised as one of the biggest success stories in conservation in Pakistan.
Torghar is now home to the largest population of these unique animals in the world: from barely 100 Suleiman Markhor in 1985 (when the project first started), there are now over 3,500 Markhor in the area. Sardar Naseer’s efforts to save the Markhor have won him international acclaim – the Dutch have awarded him a knighthood in the Order of the Golden Ark and the French have awarded him their L’Ordere National du Merite. In recent years due to his failing health he had started spending most of his time in Quetta. However, the project that he founded is flourishing. In April 1994, the Torghar Conservation Project was converted into an NGO called the Society for Torghar Environmental Protection. Largely self-sufficient since its inception, the project is the largest employer in the area. The carefully managed trophy hunting has ensured the project’s long-term survival.
Unfortunately, despite saving two important wildlife species of Pakistan, Sardar Naseer was never awarded by his own country. He might have passed on but there is still time to recognise our national Markhor hero.
(All photos courtesy of the author)