of the antelope
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
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
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
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
“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.
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
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
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
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!
writer is deputy Conservator Wildlife, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Wildlife