Nature / Wildlife

Wildlife in Gilgit-Baltistan

The Gilgit-Baltistan of Pakistan are rich in flora and fauna because of varied climatic conditions and ecosystems. In spite of unscientific management and ruthless hunting in the past, wildlife in the Gilgit-Baltistan still supports rare and endangered species of mammals and birds like Marco Polo sheep, blue sheep, markhor, black bear, brown bear, chakor and ram chakor. Due to the destruction of habitat wildlife population of Gilgit-Baltistan is decreasing rapidly. According to rough estimate of late Raja Bhadur Ali Khan, (Conservator of Forests, Gilgit-Baltistan); in 1970, there were 500 Marco Polo sheep in the Khunjerab National Park, but in 2004 they were only 75, restricted to Kirchinai nallah of the valley. Similarly snow leopard and other valuable species are also decreasing. (Khan, 1970). Until 1947 almost all the important valleys, most of them now included in protected areas, supported a high density of wild animals and hunting was allowed to only a few British and high ranking local officials, rulers and persons with high social status. Further more, the area was hard to access. Hunting for the common poachers was not easy. Traditional muzzle loading guns were commonly used, but were not very effective.

Mammals: The mammalian fauna of Gilgit-Baltistan mainly belongs to Palaearctic region, which may have spread southwards from Central Asia. Fifty-four mammal species are estimated for Gilgit-Baltistan. These species consist of one shrew, 10 bats, 18 carnivores, 6 artiodactyls, 3 lagomorphs, and 16 rodents. There is only one endemic species of mammals, i.e. the woolly flying squirrel, while the Astore markhor (flare-horned markhor) can be considered near-endemic, as its distribution is restricted to a few valleys because of rugged terrain and natural barriers like rivers. The distribution of many small mammal species is very patchy and restricted to certain watersheds due to physical barriers like high mountains and rivers. Virk et al. (2003) quote Z.B. Mirza that the most diverse groups are carnivores and rodents. The rodents have high breeding capacity and are the food base for many carnivores. Species like shrews provide food base to foxes, weasels and stone martens.

Large mammal species richness is higher in Gilgit-Baltistan as compared to other parts of Pakistan. Two areas are considered as a "hot spot" for large mammals diversity. These are the upper Hunza and the triangle between Indus and Astore rivers. Several large mammal species found here are endangered. These includes snow leopard, Marco Polo sheep, Himalayan brown bear, black bear, musk deer, flare horned markhor, Laddakh urial, blue sheep, and Himalayan lynx. Most of these species require large areas to maintain viable populations. Species like markhor and Ladakh urial constitute much of the remaining global populations. The current status of Marco Polo sheep and musk deer is also uncertain, as both of these species have been persecuted heavily in the past. The population of musk deer is very low and fragmented. Its status in Northern Areas is endangered and it is listed in both the IUCN Red Data Book and in CITES Appendix-I. Marco Polo sheep is not a permanent resident of Pakistan but occasionally migrates into the Khunjerab National Park through the border passes of Khunjerab, Killick, and Mintaka. The area around the Khunjerab pass provides suitable summer habitat for this species, but it has not migrated this location in the recent past probably due to greater human presence. The Chinese have also erected fence along the Khunjerab pass, which has further reduced this species' crossing into Pakistan. The other possible place where this species can cross into Pakistan is through the Killick and Mintaka passes where its sighting has been less in recent years. Only a herd of 46 animals was sighted in the area during July 1997 by local herders and Game Watchers of KNP (Virk et al., 2003). The most comprehensive account of large mammals has been given by Schaller (1977) and Roberts (1997). However, the occurrence of some of the species as Red dog or Indian wild dog (Coun alpinus) and Tibetan wild ass (Equus kiang) is still a controversy. There are reports that these species occur in the Shimshal Pamir, the area next to Sinkiang, China (Rasool, 1998). Earlier accounts suggest occasional crossing of these species from China into Pakistan around the Broldu and Oprnag rivers in Shimshal Pamir, but there is no confirmation of their recent sightings.

Snow leopard (Uncia uncia) is a beautiful Palaearctic cat, which blends well in rocky terrain in the mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan Pakistan. In summer months it ascends to the alpine zone, returning in winter to the oak forest to forage for food, which consists mainly of grass eating animals. Its fur is very soft and luxuriant and thick in winter. It is gray-brown in summer, paling in winter with pure white under parts. Its tail has long fur. It is vulnerable to illegal hunters mainly because of its valuable pelt. Occasionally it is poisoned by nomadic shepherds to prevent goat losses. Himalayan lynx (Felis lynx isabellina) occurs in alpine slopes in the extreme of Northern Areas. It is a powerful and expert climber, generally nocturnal but occasionally hunting by day in remote areas. Its usual food is marmot, pika, hare, snow cock and other birds, but can also overpower large animals like sheep, goat and even markhor.

Wolf (Canis lupis) is found throughout the Northern Areas. It hunts domestic livestock, wild ungulates (ibex, markhor, blue sheep etc.) and other small rodents. Himalayan black bear (Selenarctos thibetanus) occurs in pockets in Iran and Balochistan and is widespread in the Himalayas from China to Russia. It lives in caves in the remote, mountains areas and descends at night to feed, mainly on small insects, but it is also eats crops, particularly ripe maize.

Brown bear (Ursus arctos) is a holarctic species found in alpine and sub alpine scrub zones in Chitral, in Deosai in the Gilgit-Baltistan, around the slopes of Nanga Parbat and in Astore, Swat and Indus Kohistan. It is also found in Pamir and the Hindu Kush. The brown bear eats insets, voles and succulent shoots. It hibernates during winter from the end of October until the following spring. Musk deer (Moschus moshiferus) is another palaearctic species found in the northern mountains, including Hazara, Kashmir and the Himalayan ranges eastwards to Nepal and Sikkim. Its usual habitat is birch scrub and bushy upland regions. At times it moves with nomadic goats. Although vulnerable to snow leopard and wolf attacks, its main enemy is human being who kills it for its valuable musk pod, which is used to make scent and other cosmetics. Siberian or Himalayan ibex (Capra ibex) is a palaearctic species found in the high mountains of Chitral, the Northern Areas, Hazara, Indus Kohistan and possibly in the Safad Koh mountains. This ibex is also distributed in Afghanistan, the Pamir the Altai and the Shah mountains. In Pakistan it stays above 6700 meters, but during the rut season in December it may descend to below 2000 meters. It mainly browses, but also grazes when lush grass is available.

Urial, Shapu (Ovis orientalis) is found in the northern mountains, the western ranges, the Salt Range, the Kalachitta Range and Balochistan. It is a close relative of the wild sheep found in North America, Europe and central and northern Asia. It is generally found in arid country where tree growth is sparse. In the Salt Range it inhabits areas of dense acacia scrub. Male herds segregate from females, mixing only to breed. In the rut season males fight to express dominance over each other. In Gilgit-Baltistan it is found in Askloi valley (Shiger), Kharpocho (skardu), Ghursey (Khaplu) and Astore valley.

Marco Polo sheep (Ovis amon polii) is found in a very small area (less than 26 hectares) of high rolling terrain in extreme northern Hunza in the Kilik and Khunjerab passes into which it migrates from China during winter. Its main population is found in the greater Pamir mountains, in Wakhan, Afghanistan, in Tajikistan and China. It shares its habitat with the snow leopard and the wolf, and is hunted by both. Alpine or Altai weasel (Mustela altaica) is found in the palaearctic zone of Pakistan, mainly in Baltistan and on the slopes of Nanga Parbat. It is also found in Kaghan valley above 3200 meters. Like the stoat, it feeds on pikas, hamsters and other rodents, birds and insects. Common otter (Lutra lutra) lives in the cold mountain rivers and streams of northern Pakistan. It is an agile swimmer, diving for fish. It has a distinctive bark, and when alarmed lets a loud cry.

Marmot (Marmota caudata and Marmota bobock) are two palaearctic species found in the northern mountains, including Hazara district, near the high glaciers at 3200 to 4850 meters. They live in burrows amongst rocks, collecting large quantities of food to last them through the snowy months. Bat (Isabelline serotine eptesicus isabellinus) is found in Gilgit. They hibernate in winter. Out of seven Pipistrelle species of bats found in Pakistan two are palaearctic. These are the common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) found in Gilgit-Baltistan. The common pipistrelle has been known to fly with open mouth emitting ultrasonic notes. Unlike other bats it is mainly active around dawn and dusk. Hemprich's long -eared bat (Otonycteris hemprichi) is found in Gilgit. It has conspicuous long eared and flies very low to the ground hunting for insects. Grey long eared bat (Plecotus austriacus) is a palaearctic bat found in the Gilgit-Baltistan and the Kaghan valley. It roosts with its ears tucked under its forelegs in the roofs of houses, tunnels and other dark areas. It is capable of flying very slowly and can hover, enabling it to pick insects from the surface of leaves.

The tube-nosed bat (Murina huttoni) is a palaearctic species and has been recorded in Nalter in the Northern Areas and in the Murree hills. It roosts mainly in tree cavities. Royals high mountain vole (Alticola roylei) is found in the Gilgit-Baltistan, the Kaghan valley, Swat and the Safed Koh. It is nocturnal and partly diurnal. It lives in burrows in stony soil from about 8,000 ft up to the permanent snow line. It collects and stores food for winter consumption. It is eaten by stoats, weasels, kestrels and even the brown bear. Chinese birch mouse (Scista concolor) is found in Gilgit-Baltistan and northern parts of the Kaghan valley up to a height of 13,200 ft and hibernates in winter. It has a semi prehensile tail. Its teeth are strong enabling it to rack seeds, but also feeds on insects. Migratory hamsters (Cricetulus migratorius) are found in Northern Areas, the western mountains and northern Balochistan above 4,400 ft. It has well developed cheek pouches, which it fills with food for chewing later on or for storing. It is aggressive, especially when cornered, and will attack jerboas and frogs. Royal pika (Ochotona royalei) is found in Hazara, Gilgit and Baltistan. The long eared pika (Ochotona macrotis) is also reported from extreme northeastern Baltistan. But it is very scarce. Russian scientists considers it to be a subspecies of Royal pika. These are active during the day, gathering vegetation to store for winter.

Avi-fauna: According to Virk et al. (2003) the Gilgit-Baltistan have one of the most diverse avi fauna of the mountain region of the world. But little information is available on the distribution, status, diversity and ecology of many of these bird species. The most comprehensive account of the avifauna of Pakistan comes from Robert (1992, 1991). Some researchers have documented bird diversity of certain parts of Gilgit-Baltistan. These include studies on avifauna of the Khunjerab National Park (Blumstein, 1995), Deosai plateau in Baltistan (Khan and Rafiq, 1998; Woods et al., 1997) and in the Nalter Wildlife Sanctuary (Sheikh, 2001). Much of the information contained in this section is derived from these publications.

The Karakoram and Himalayan ranges separate the uplands of Central Asia from South Asia, forming a barrier between two large areas of Asia which are different climatically. The geographic location of Gilgit-Baltistan make them ideal for many bird species. The area is a staging, transitory, breeding, migratory and native ground for many species. In total, about 230 species of birds have been estimated for this region. These include passage migrants, vagrants, residents, breeding and irregular visitors. Many of these species breed in Northern Areas and are found over a large range. The estimated number of birds species here is based on published records, distribution range maps and discussion in Roberts (1992, 1991). But the lack of reliable and consistently published data of the Gilgit-Baltistan indicates the need for long term ornithological studies to determine the distribution and abundance of birds.

Studies indicate that the area is rich in avifauna For example 109 birds species have been recorded from the Deosai plateau (Khan and Rafiq, 1998). Similarly, 87 species have been reported from KNP. Nalter valley in particular and lower Hunza, Gilgit and Astore valleys in general have been studied by Sheikh (2001) describing the ecology, breeding biology, distribution and species diversity of about 110 species .A large number of warblers, buntings, red start were found to be breeding here.

There are some rare species which not only occur in the area but also breed here. These include lammergeyer and the golden eagle. There is a possibility that species like peregrine falcon also breed in some high altitudes valleys, particularly in Ghizer district. A few sightings of lesser kestrel have also been reported in lower Hunza near the Hunza river by Sheikh (2001). Some of the restricted range species like snow partridge and Himalayan monal pheasant are extremely rare and may be at the verge of extinction from many of their earlier strongholds.

The most diverse group of birds in Gilgit-Baltistan is the passseriformes species. There are mostly warblers, tits, fly catchers and buntings. BirdLife International (2001) reported 27 species of Pakistan birds which are threatened internationally. Out of these, several species are found in Gilgit-Baltistan. There may be several more species, which are threatened nationally or face local extinction. For example, snow partridge and Himalayan monal pheasant are facing local extinction from many valleys. Similarly, large-billed bush warbler and tytlers warblers are rare species, but not included in the report of Bird Life International. A list of threatened species is given in the following table. These species have small and fragmented population and are threaten by loss and fragmentation of their habitat. (Virk et al., 2003). Snow partridge (Lerwa lerwa) is found in stony habitats in high areas above the tree line of the Himalayas, the Northern Areas and the Safed Koh mountains. It feeds on new grass in areas clear of snow. Himalayan snow cock (Tetraogallus himalayensis) is found in the Gilgit-Baltistan, Chitral and Safad Koh region above 3600 meters. It cockles loudly in the morning and evenings all year round, and is a very fast flyer, beating its wings during the initial part of flight, then gliding with wings slightly closed in swoop. It usually lives where the ibex can be found and eats succulent plants. Chukar partridge (Alectoris chukar) is resident in the northern and western mountains of Pakistan at minimum altitudes of 600 meters rising to 4500 meters. It is found in coveys of up to 40 birds, and eats insects, seeds, soft leaves, bulbs and roots dusk, emits a rapidly -repeated "chukor-chukor" which accounts for its name.

Snow pigeon (Coiumba leuconata) is a palaearctic pigeon found in the Gilgit-Baltistan and the Kaghan valley up to 4000 meters. It roosts on cliffs and nests in rocks, holes and crevices. It flies down in large flocks to the lower valleys during early morning, returning to its roosts in the evening. Pintail (Anas acuta) Alert and wary, this is one of the most elegant of the ducks, with a distinctive, long, pointed tail. It often feeds at night, especially where there is much disturbance. It is a good walker, holding the long neck erect, and the wings make a distinct hissing noise in flight. It is a common sight in winter throughout the areas on jheels or coastal waters. Common teal (Anas crecca) Abundant throughout the area in winter, this is a very agile duck, twisting and turning in flight and springing off the water with characteristic dash when alarmed. The drake looks rather dark at distance, but closer up it reveals attractive colors. Like other dabblers, it feeds mainly on vegetable matter. Sometimes it is seen in huge flocks, but usually occurs in much smaller parties (Woodcock, 1980).

Freshwater Fish

The Gilgit-Baltistan have many rivers, streams and alpine lakes fed by snowmelt and glacier waters. The freshwater resources contain several fish species which are an important component of the region's biodiversity. The fish fauna here is relatively poor due to high turbidity, low water temperature, high water speed, low benthic productivity, and long stretches of narrow river gorges (Rafiq, 2002). The fish are predominately Palaearctic with elements of Central Asian highlands. The fish diversity in Gilgit-Baltistan is not yet described with greater detail despite its biological and evolutionary significance. However, some recent studies report there are about 17 species of native fish and 3 of exotic fish, belonging to five families (Table 8). Out of these 17 native species, four are endemic to Gilgit-Baltistan, while several others have ranges confined to one or two localities. For example, Triplophysa stoliczkai, Ptychobarbus conirostis and Schizopygopsis stoliczkai are only found in eastern waters up to Kachura. During the Hunza/Gojal expedition 2000 undertaken by Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Pakistan Museum of Natural History, specimens of three species of fish were collected; one of these reported as endemic here (Virk et al., 2003). The number of fish species found in high altitude streams and lakes is low. For example, only three fish species have been recognized from Deosai. These include Triplophysa stoliczkai, Diptyichus maculatus, and Ptychobarbus conirostis (Woods et al., 1997). Among exotic species, brown trout was introduced in Gilgit agency during the early 1900s. This species is now well established and is found in most of the rivers and lakes of Gilgit and Ghizer districts. Particularly upstream of the Ghizer river and its tributaries contain a large number of brown trout (AKRSP/DFID, 2000). Other exotic species include North America rainbow trout and Chinese carp introduced for aquaculture. However, it is not clear whether these exotics breed naturally. But their distribution is very limited and they are found only in those water bodies where they were stocked.

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