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Shrouded in mystery

By Naveed Ahmad 
A rare woolly flying squirrel found in the custody of a villager in Gilgit has boggled many 
conservationists.

Mystery surrounds the fate of a woolly flying squirrel, an endangered mammal, which was discovered to be in the custody of a villager in Gich, District Ghizer of Gilgit. The IUCN places the mammal, biological name eupetaurus cinereous, in the threatened animals category.

Farzand Khan, a shepherd, caught the woolly flying squirrel, or flying fox as it is locally known, in the Gich mountains. He was initially ready to free the animal, but later changed his mind and claimed that black market dealers were offering him a hefty price of Rs 0.7 million for it.

The latest reports from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the sub-divisional district forest officer (SDFO) suggest that Farzand has released the flying squirrel after being pressurised by the local government officials and police.

WWF official Atif Khurshid told The News on Sunday, "We have no idea what Farzand did with the species. But his claim satisfies the government officials. We are an environment conservation body. Our duty is to inform the government agencies and sensitize the public and media about environmental issues." The rest, according to him, is the government's responsibility.

As a standard operating procedure, the government organises the release of such endangered animals from individual captivity. This is done in the presence of conservationists and members of the local community.

The WWF had first learnt about the squirrel's capture from a man who lived in the same village as did Farzand. The Fund's officer Rehmat Ali along with his colleagues visited the home of Farzand Khan and saw the animal that had been with him since 1994. For further confirmation the WWF contacted Mayoor Khan an expert from Belour Advisory and Social Development Organization (BASDO).

Once the identity of the mammal had been established, the WWF team tried to convince the villager to release the animal. He was told that it was an endangered species and hence keeping it was a crime.

Farzand Khan initially agreed to free the animal in the presence of the local community, district government, forest and WWF officials, but later changed his mind. Instead, he said he had an offer from black market dealers.

Many wildlife experts doubted Farzand's claim that he had been offered a hefty amount for a mammal that has no market value. According to Waqar Zakriya, head of environment consultancy Haigler Bailey, it was most unlikely that the squirrel can attract such a high price. Some environmentalists in Gilgit held that the villager was using this as a tactic to strike a bargain with the government.

Until recently scientific knowledge of this rare species was limited to a few skins collected in the late 19th century. In the summer of 1994, the rare mammal was re-discovered by Peter Zehler, an American zoologist working in the Sai valley. The species live in steep cliff mountains and pine forests. It is large with unusually thick and long fur, blue-grey in colour, and elastic flying membrane attached to flanks.

Professor Z B Mirza, renowned biologist and author of several books on wildlife such as 'Mammals of West Pakistan', and 'Illustrated Handbook of Animal Biodiversity of Pakistan', first collected a specimen of this type in 1963 from Sai Valley some 30 kilometres from Gilgit in a mountain spur of Hindukush range, between Gilgit River and Indus River.

The woolly flying squirrel (eupetaurus cinereous) is of great zoological interest. Its tail is cylindrical, and its claws are blunt. The length of this grey-coloured species from its nose to tail is about three feet, and its tail is about 1.6 feet long. It weighs between 1.5 to 2 kilogramme. The body and tail is covered with thick woolly fur. The hair is straight and silky.

It is hard to guess that this mammal can glide because its flying membrane is hidden between its flanks. Its long tail and sharp nails help it to climb steep cliffs and walls. The mammal feeds on fruits, grains, leaves, needles, flowers and birds. Farzand fed the animal while it was in his captivity. He also mentioned that the woolly flying squirrel could be frequently spotted in the valley until a few years ago.

The animal comes out at night and glides to nearby juniper and blue pine trees in search of food. It usually falls prey to foxes and stone martens when it searches for water. Great horned owl is another natural enemy of this species. This mammal's habitat is vanishing rapidly due to large-scale deforestation.

 

Credits:

 

  • The News on Sunday, The News International (www.jang.com.pk)

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