Kirthar National Park, spread over an area of more than 3,000 square kilometres, is a nature lover’s paradise and home to the beautiful urial
s we headed towards Kirthar National Park a few months ago to capture urial footage for a documentary, we knew we were up for some trekking in the killer heat but like time and tide that wait for no one, our passion for filming wildlife cannot be held back by harsh weather conditions.
The park, spread over an area of more than 3,000 square kilometres is a wildlife photographer’s paradise; you don’t know when you would be pleasantly surprised. Every visit is like a treasure trove, presenting something extraordinary. If you are a nature lover, rest assured you won’t be bored here. Kirthar was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1972 and a national park in 1974. The sanctuary stretches from Hub Dam north of Karachi all the way to Ranikot in Jamshoro.
We had Khurram Asim Kalimi, a passionate wildlife photographer and a tech entrepreneur and Dr Usman-ul Haq, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon who had come all the way from Islamabad to join us for the excursion. The enthusiasm for something we love doing without any monetary benefit has been contagious. This can be likened to a famous Oscar Wilde quote, “Wildlife photographers are rare enough but those working without getting anything in return are rarer still.” [Millionaire models are rare enough, but model millionaires are rarer still!]
An urial, scientific name: Ovis orientalis, is a medium sized stout-bodied wild sheep, native to Central and South Asia. It is also known as arkar or shapo. The graceful animal is found from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Afghanistan to Pakistan and India.
A notable difference between juvenile and adult urials is that the former have a reddish hue with a mild fur coat and the latter a dark brown coat with a thick tuft of hair below the chin.
Urials are quite fast-paced, sturdy and able to survive in Kirthar’s dry arid lands on very little water. The ones found in Sindh are linked to the Afghan urial species. They are also known as Blandford urials. These are found at a height ranging from 2,500 to 8,000 feet mostly in the mountain ranges of Mari, Lusar, and Mungthar. They survive on the grass and herbs growing naturally in the rugged grasslands. Their horns converge towards the back of the neck into elegant curves and can measure up to 90 centimetres, making them fairly taller than the average goat. Considering their physique, they are well adapted to the steep and rocky terrain.
They also have a strong olfactory system. The ewe and its offspring recognise one another through their unique scent. The same can be said about their memory. They can recognise animals they have met several years down the lane.
“It is not easy to locate urials even with the tele-lenses, because of their perfect camouflage with the terrain. No wonder, the thrill of looking into the eyes of an urial buck with its crescent like horns is unforgettable,” says Nusrat Ali, whose keen observation and precise spotting has helped the group (Wildlife With Dream Merchants) document birds and wildlife which otherwise would not have been spotted by the naked eye.
Urials, given their beautiful horns and plentiful meat, are a prized catch for hunters. They can live up to 12 years of age but only a few get to complete their life span in the wild.
An interesting fact about urials is that they are polygamous animals. The adult males pair up with more than one female in a season. They mostly breed during cooler months of the year - from September to January. The ewes raise the lambs until March. A great time to spot and document the families is February and March. That was when we visited Kirthar National Park following some rough off-roading that is only possible in 4X4 vehicles. Even that is not enough. Next comes the trekking part. One must negotiate dangerously winding and steep slopes, not to mention the equipment the team must carry. Those who suffer from motion sickness are likely to find it hard during the bumpy ride and are advised to act with caution. The trek is not for the faint hearted either; it is an expedition for adventurous souls.
“My passion for wildlife photography stems from the fact that we cannot protect and conserve what we cannot see. I capture these beautiful creatures on film and present them to audiences worldwide so that people can know, appreciate and protect these beautiful creatures that cohabit the planet with us,” says Dr Usman-ul Haq. The good doctor loves to spend his free time close to nature, deep in some forests or under the sea as he is a scuba diver as well.
A high zoom lens is often used to shoot long distance subjects, especially to document birds and animals. The setup is heavy and cumbersome to carry around. Alternatively, bridge cameras are used to film wildlife. These offer great zooming capabilities along with lightweight mobility and are sometimes seen as a near perfect solution for filming in such conditions. The urials that would otherwise appear tiny are relatively easily captured with such cameras. However, extreme patience is still the key. Camouflage suits help as they allow one to blend in with nature. Even a slight movement can alert these stealth animals which can run at speeds of about 40 kilometres per hour.
The closest we got to urials was roughly about 100 metres. We found them bleating loudly as a means of communicating. They are also known to maintain strong visual contact. Our local guide, Qalandar Burfat, was of immense help. He is thoroughly acquainted with the way around Kirthar National Park and took us straight to the urials’ abodes. He also helped us find the much revered Lichtenstein’s and chestnut-bellied sandgrouse, and pratincoles - both small and collared, around the Hub Dam. Shafi Burfat helped us not only spot the disguised urials but also helped us chase and intercept those on some challenging uphill tracks.
The reward for the excursion was a short documentary titled, Blandford Urial of Kirthar National Park. It can be viewed on the Youtube channel Sindh Wildlife Club. There is a dire need for supporting the conservation efforts for these adorable native species.
Given their beautiful horns and abundant meat, urials are a tempting catch for hunters. They can live to be 12 years of age in the wild but only a few get to complete their life span. It should come as no surprise that these animals have been listed as a vulnerable species on the Red List by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They require all the attention of the authorities, including the Wildlife Department and the conservationists.
Ahmer Ali Rizvi is a sales and marketing professional who develops wildlife documentaries. He can be reached at email@example.com
Heba Moeen is a PR and communication professional, an artist, and a wildlife photographer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org