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Western Himalaya:In Search of the

 Elusive Pheasants

Faiza Hasan meets Rob Whale, the Welshman whose love for wildlife led him to the lush Himalayan mountain ranges of Pakistan and a new life as Rab Nawaz

The Western Himalayan mountain ranges are known for their moist, lush forests and valleys. Think of Kaghan, Palas, Ayubia and images of silver fir, pine, cedar and oak are conjured up by the imagination. The elevated and craggy terrain of this region is also home to the Himalayan pheasants – one of the most beautiful but shy species of birds in the world. Coveted for their brightly coloured plumage, they have started to disappear. In Pakistan, these birds are found mostly in the remote northern areas, which boasts of five different species of pheasants: the Koklass, Monal, Western Tragopan, Khalij and the Cheer pheasant. Of these five species, the Western Tragopan with its brilliant red neck and black and white speckled plumage, is one of the most magnificent pheasants in the world.

But the pheasants are more than just beautiful birds, for they also have scientific value for environmentalists and ecologists. Years of research have shown that Himalayan pheasants are mostly found in moist, temperate forests where there is a thriving community of oak trees. Oaks are important in ecological terms because they grow only in forests that are mature with plenty of healthy undergrowth in the form of vibrant grasses and bushes and a wide array of specialized tree species. Since pheasants are ground dwelling birds, they are particularly vulnerable to human disturbance to the forest. After establishing the close link between oak trees and pheasants, ecologists have reached the conclusion that a fall in pheasant population mirrors an adverse change in the mature forest habitat. So in scientific terms the pheasants are called “indicator species.”

In northern Pakistan, a growing timber demand for a burgeoning population is rapidly reducing the precious temperate forests so important for the country’s replenishment of water and soil resources. One way to scientifically judge the locus of forest decline is to keep a finger on the pulse of the ecosystem’s “indicator species”. As this area also has a variety of valuable medicinal herbs and mushrooms, local village women and children comb the forest floor in the spring and summer – in the process they trample over precious pheasant nests, damaging eggs and warding off the parenting birds. The situation became so serious that the Cheer pheasant is now feared to be near extinction, though efforts are underway to reintroduce captive-bred birds back into the wild. Most of the other pheasant species are in the same dire straits, for according to one estimate the population of the Western Tragopan has fallen to 5000 or even lower.

This declining pheasant population attracted the attention of the World Pheasant Association (WPA), an international conservation organisation, which had set up office in Pakistan in 1975. Led by a group of bird enthusiasts, and presided over y Brigadier Mukhtar Choudhry, WPA had started off by breeding pheasants in captivity and by carrying out occasional population surveys. WPA soon realised that it needed more detailed and precise information on the status of birds in the wild. They contacted Rob Whale, a young Welsh ecologist, who was already helping the organisation breed captive pheasants in Dhodial, near Abbottabad.

Before coming to Pakistan in 1994, Rob Whale had been working on an estate owned by the President of the WPA International, where he was rearing pheasants. Hailing from the lush and beautiful Wales, Whale’s love of wildlife and particularly wild birds was an inheritance from his naturalist grandfather, with whom he used to spend his holidays as a boy. Roaming all over coastal Wales the two would go bird watching, so that it was no wonder that all Whale ever wanted to do was become a gamekeeper, working closely with nature.

At 16 years of age, he did a game-keeping course and was hired on an estate whose owner, to Whale’s dismay, used to keep live birds as captive ornaments. “But all in all it was a wonderful experience and I stayed on there for the next three years,” remembers Whale. It was during his college years in Hampshire that he came into contact with Keith Howman of the WPA (World Pheasant Association) who offered him a job on his estate. Here he was able to meet wildlife experts from all over the world, a learning experience for the aspiring conservationist.

After spending a couple of years on the estate and completing his studies, Whale thought it was time he tested his wings and decided to work in India on the endangered Indian Tragopans. His work and zeal so impressed the WPA that they asked him to come to work in Pakistan. Looking for a job and attracted by the challenge posed by WPA’s work in Dhodial, Whale decided to move to northern Pakistan. After working with captive wild pheasants, Whale and the WPA realized that the best way to start saving pheasants in the wild was to observe and record changes in pheasant numbers and habitat in the northern region and pinpoint the factors responsible for their decline. This proposal, which was supported by the NWFP Wildlife Department and the UNDP’s Small Grants Programme, turned into an activity that lasted from 1996 to 1999.

The survey work was started in the Hazara division of NWFP, an area with the largest pheasant population in Pakistan. The project team proudly claims that methods and techniques used in the pheasant surveys were the first of their kind in Asia, giving rare insight into the ecology and forest of the Hazara region. In the scientific aspects of the pheasant work, Whale was given strong technical support from Dr. Peter Garson in England, who is Chairman of the Pheasant Specialist Group, an international cluster of NGOs including WPA, and Birdlife International. This has given the credibility that Whale needed for his pioneering work to be taken seriously by the international community of biologists. At the local level, the team including Whale and local villagers, traveled extensively throughout the area, spending weeks in forest thickets trying to spot the birds and identify areas with large pheasant population. The team would “flush” out the birds and then count and record their numbers using trained dogs based on a sample matrix area mapped out on foot. Another more accurate method used was “call count.” During breeding season the male pheasant gives out loud territorial calls, so over a period of seven days field workers would count the calls to give them an approximate idea of the number of birds in a particular area.

It was during one such survey that the team made such an important breakthrough that made international headlines. Accompanied by Raza Abbas, a Lahore based wildlife photographer, the team was looking for the Western Tragopan. After pinpointing an area where locals had spotted many Tragopan pheasants deep the in Kaghan forests, they built a makeshift shelter in which Abbas would sit silently for hours waiting to catch a glimpse of the shy bird. As days passed with no sign of the elusive bird, the team was about to give up. But finally, on the day the team was to wrap up its operations and move out, a male Tragopan strutted right past an excited Abbas, giving him ample opportunity to film it in all its glory. The footage has been shown both nationally and internationally to scientists and ecologists. Since this was the first ever known video footage of the Western Tragopan, it created excited ripples amongst conservationists.

But for the team itself the surveys were more than scientific ventures. They were a lasting bonding and sharing experience for the English ecologist and the local villagers. The villagers, born and bred in the wilds of Hazara, were able to share their knowledge of the forests and the way it had changed with Whale. In return, the University educated Whale was able to show them how to use state of the art survey techniques.

Gradually, feeling more at home amongst the dramatic mountains and wildlife of north Pakistan than in England, Whale has developed a strong bond and affinity with the land. So that when in 1998, after completing the pheasant research, Whale was jobless and faced with the option of leaving Pakistan, he chose to stay on. He joined the WWF, where he is now working on the Himalayan Jungle Project in the Palas Valley in remote Kohistan. The work he has done with the pheasants has earned him the respect and admiration of Pakistani conservationists. Since he has every intention of staying on in the country it looks like he will soon be an established feature of mainstream environment conservation circles here.

In the years he spent in Pakistan, Whale would spend long months in the isolated valleys of Hazara, where his only human contact would be the local villagers. Through his fieldwork, Whale has had ample time and opportunity to closely interact with them. He observed local culture and was fascinated with the dissimilarity between tradition and religion. “It makes me very angry when people don’t see the wisdom of the religion and confuse tradition with religion,” he says. His fascination with Islam prodded him to study the religion in detail for nearly two years. “Someone gave me an English version of the Quran by chance and after studying it I came to the conclusion that it could not have been written by man,” says Whale. “So I woke up one day and realized that I wanted to convert to Islam.”

He converted to Islam in 1998, changing his name to Rab Nawaz. “I had no problems with that,” he says with a laugh. “People find it easier to accept me as one of them with this name and since I am living here I thought I might as well change it. Besides I like the name Rab Nawaz (which translates into ‘Grace of God’).” To complete his naturalization into Pakistani society, Rab Nawaz married a Pakistani woman in 1999, and they live together in Abbottabad. “It was a completely arranged marriage,” he says. “My friends knew her family and they suggested me to them.” Conversion to Islam and marriage has, he believes, changed him profoundly and for the better.

According to Whale putting out these roots have strengthened his links to his adopted country, particularly Palas valley that has inspired him with its beauty. “Palas valley is very special to me,” explains Whale. “Due to its inaccessibility, its forests and rivers are undisturbed. I can’t explain what draws me to this beautiful valley. Though it is a difficult place to stay and work in and the people are also sometimes hard to deal with, yet it is still very important to me.”

“Pakistan is a beautiful country with a great potential for wildlife conservation and related fields like eco-tourism,” says Rob Whale. “I hope the pheasant report and its research is able to bring all this across to its readers.” The amount of hard work and dedication needed to research and then compile the report stems from Whale’s love of nature and wildlife – a love that has made him travel from Wales to Pakistan and then finally settle down in Hazara. It has now been more than six years since Whale came to Pakistan, and during this time he has blended in so well that it is hard to distinguish between this blond, blue-eyed Welshman and the Pathans he works with in the North West Frontier Province.




  • This article is an excerpt from the book ‘Green Pioneers’, edited by Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib and published by UNDP

  • The Friday Times (www.thefridaytimes.com)

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