For many tasteful travellers, preferring the rough and less travelled tracks leading to jungles and wilderness, the penultimate point of their forays is invariably a forest resthouse or a jungle hut. While the picturesque location, antiquated design or (by a stroke of luck or bad luck, depending on individual disposition) stories of unexplained phenomenon attached to these old resthouses tended to arrest the immediate focus of travellers, it was always the caretaker or chowkidar who held the key to the true treasures in those far off heavens.

Having had the good fortune to spend time with scions from this fast diminishing breed of public functionaries, I always found them to be the integral part of beauty and bounty bestowed upon these pristine places by Mother Nature.

As I reminisce about the many chilly nights spent around cracking fires of shisham, kikar or chir pine wood in the company of likes of chowkidar Alam Sher (Chichawatni Forest Resthouse), Havaldar Sahib (Panjar Forest Resthouse) or Mian Khan (old Kallar Kahar Forest Lodge), it is difficult to delink such noble characters from the existence of these pretty resthouses. Nearly as benign of manners as the tranquil jungles, these old-styled chowkidars carried the banner of a faithful tradition in artless hospitality belonging to a bygone era.

From the moment of arrival in these dreamy resorts until the parting chores of final departure, the ubiquitous chowkidar was there to take care of anything and everything. Rarely looking directly into one’s eyes and never entering the room without a deferential cough, the royal treatment for his guests would ensue in a most sublime and pleasant manner. An extremely limited range of conveniences or an equally reduced choice of dietary items would be more than compensated by sheer quality and speed of delivery guaranteed by seasoned, wrinkled hands of these chowkidars.

The starting point of evening saga would invariably be a hot cup of tea carrying the soothing aura of jungle firewood besides the unmistakable flavour of fresh milk of blessed cows, privileged to nibble the nutritious wild grasses. And while sipping from a cup invariably dating back to colonial eras, the chowkidar would explain the dinner options, ranging from desi poultry to spinach and fiery raddish, straight from a small subsistence clearing allowed to him in nearby jungle by the local forest guard. And if permitted by the season (and a stroke of good luck) the seemingly modest night platter could be further enriched with promise of homemade butter or spicy chuttni prepared from a local variety of pomegranate and pleasantly sour leaves of timmer shrub.

It was usually at this point (and as if by a teasing design) that our caring chowkidar would leave his guessing guests to the mercy of their imagination, promising to be back with an early dinner.

Evenings in our hilly jungles have a queer way of transforming into pitch dark nights within a short time span as clatter from a multitude of twilight birds is replaced with scary hooting from night animals. And as the aghast guest summoned his courage to put up with the sudden bursts of devilish laughter from jackals, chowkidar would be mercifully back on the pretext of burning the lantern — and possibly to conjure up another pleasant surprise in the shape of a rustic collection of books.

One of the many thoughtful provisions in some of old-era resthouses are a few dozen volumes of books, donated almost exclusively by learned officers of the good old days. I was introduced to one such treasure trove by Tasawwar, the chowkidar, of scenic Sambli Forest Resthouse many years ago as he brought a termite-covered wooden box on the evening of my arrival. As I opened the decaying box, a mysterious smell from a huge and hard-bound collection of volumes in fiction, shikar yarns (tales of hunting) and classical poetry (many carrying the names and designation of colonial officers written in black ink) filled the dimly lit room.

As I opened book after book from that collection, Tasawwar, the chowkidar, lamented that guests were no longer interested in these books which had to be bundled away in the adjoining fuel room. He still remembered that the last guest to take interest in these books was an extremely unassuming minister who was also a doctor, and who briefly visited the resthouse some years ago. I later checked from the guest book that it was no other than Dr Mahboob-Ul-Haq.

The great tradition of a small supply of books appears to have been completely lost, especially after the so-called renovations carried out in many of these resthouses while articles of quaint furniture, cutlery and books were destroyed or misappropriated by unscrupulous officials.

Coming back to our story, the climax for resthouse visitors would come when chowkidars would bring the steaming dinner and place it on the now rare three-legged table for Saab to partake of. It was at this moment that the true fun for many of these old guards would begin, as stories about eminent visitors to that resthouse would be told in minute details. It could be Alam Sher of Chichawatni Forest Resthouse narrating the visit of General Zia as president or the now deceased Gul Zaman describing a day’s stay at scenic Ghora Galli Forest Resthouse by the then C-n-C General Ayub Khan or Mian Khan of Kallar Kahar Forest Lodge sharing tales about a romantic DC, namely Zaidi Sahib. One can only imagine the sheer awe and bliss that the lonely traveller would have felt on receiving such candid, intimate and lovingly frank accounts about these larger-than-life personalities through these old chowkidars and even older visitor books.

Many of these old-styled chowkidars have retired or passed away while some are still alive having succeeded in getting their sons or grandsons inducted in the caretaker jobs which run in their families since partition days.

Alam Sher of Chichawatni Forest Resthouse is now a frail old man full of years, having replaced his father in that job around 50 years ago. Alam Sher’s son got his father’s job a few years back as did the son of Gul Zaman who himself died after 40 years of service in one of Murree’s remote forest resthouses.

No surprises, if any prospective visitor to these old forest resthouses comes across benign ghosts of these old stalwarts, jealously guarding these past relics as well as nearby jungles.

 

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“Dear chinkara, I hope you would be safe and sound” …

It’s a tale of an antelope which was an integral part of the semi-arid ecosystem back in the 1970s, when human population and technology was not sprawling.

Multiplying human population and its subsequent encroachment into wildlife core areas shrunk the pristine and prime wildlife habitats into small and isolated pockets. The corridors that facilitated animal movement from one place to another were blocked. Once a wildlife species disappears from its prime habitat due to anthropogenic activities it takes years to reestablish its population in the wild under natural conditions. Rarely news is heard that a species has made an exceptional comeback.

This is what happened with chinkara: It had locally disappeared in the 1970s due to wanton poaching practices. However, the sequential progressive rehabilitation efforts have paid back as more than 24 chinkara were recorded outside the Manglot Wildlife Park in district Nowshera in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa during a wildlife monitoring survey.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the success story of rehabilitation of chinkara, a wild brisk ungulate adapted to dry conditions of arid and semi-arid habitats of the country, was awaited for long. In this context, establishment of wildlife parks in the province which serves as sanctuary and safe haven for the wild ungulates is one of the promising steps.

Manglot Wildlife Park, established over 715 hectares in 1984 in district Nowshera’s Khwara Reserve Forest, was developed to provide an undisturbed breeding ground to chinkara and urial in their natural habitat as well as recreational-cum-educational opportunities to local people and other visitors. Some species of wild ungulates like blue bull, chinkara, urial, and hog deer were released inside the park for reintroduction in the wild at appropriate point of time.

The first-ever footage and images of chinkara have been obtained in the wild. Here we cannot undermine the support of the local communities in the rehabilitation of this animal. Its population is arithmetically multiplying. Now, extensive conservation efforts on part of the management are required to see further progress.

This area has hardly been in focus for socio-economic development of the local people. The wildlife potential of the area has rightly attracted some worthwhile initiatives — the provincial government is not only establishing a Nizampur Wildlife Park over an area of 2612 hectares but has also launched a development scheme which will ensure effective conservation of the area’s wildlife. This will benefit and support the local communities that are deprived of basic amenities.

Furthermore, the project is likely to conserve biodiversity, alleviate poverty and help achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

Chinkara is also known as gazelle. The word gazelle is taken from Arabic language meaning “lovable”. Interestingly, on being disturbed the animal produces a sneeze-like nasal sound, thus locally called chinkara, the sneezer. The agile chinkara males have longer horns than its female counterpart. It can survive for long without water and can fulfill its water requirement from moist and tender parts of plants.

The IUCN Red Data Book lists chinkara as an animal of least concern.

In Pakistan, the population of chinkara has drastically been reduced due to hunting and habitat destruction — and is considered to be a threatened species. They were once plentiful in Dera Ghazi Khan, Dera Ismail Khan, Thal Desert, Kala Chita Hills, Salt Range, and some parts of Balochistan and Sindh.

The scene of this success story is Nizampur situated about 40 km south of the Attock bridge on Western bank of the Indus River. The tract is mostly mountainous with altitude, ranging between 250 meters to 1372 meters. The climate of the area is characterised by severe cold winter and hot summer. The tract falls in sub-tropical evergreen scrub forest zone with Acacia modesta and Olea furruginea as the main species. The tract is abode of a variety of mammal species, including common leopard, wolf, jackal, wild boar, fox, and hares.

Among birds, grey partridge, black partridge, chukar, see-see partridge, tree pie, kestrel, rock pigeons etc are commonly observed.     

There is dire need to conduct research on the area’s biodiversity and bring in more development projects to ensure livelihood opportunities here. The main challenge today is to ensure that chinkara does not disappear again.

Chinkara, welcome back!

 

The writer is deputy Conservator Wildlife, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Wildlife Department, Peshawar


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