Located at a height of over 4000 metres and along the famous Karakoram Highway (KKH) and near the Kunjrab Pass, Khunjrab National Park is Pakistan’s third largest National Park. The park is adjacent to Taxkorgan Natural Reserve in China. This park was established in 1975 on the recommendation of renowned wildlife biologist Dr. George Schaller, since the population of Marco Polo Sheep was declining at an alarming rate. In fact the construction of the Karakoram Highway provided an easy access to the hunters to the wildlife in the area. The Marco Polo Sheep’s trophy sells for as much as $60,000 and this rare animal was hunted to near extinction. Also, the building of the highway has disturbed the wildlife in the area and many animals have migrated across the border to China and Afghanistan.
Khunjerab National Park consists of three different valleys: Khunjerab (through which the Karakoram Highway passes), Ghujerab and the remote Shimshal valley. As local communities had traditionally used the entire area for grazing domestic livestock in summer, Dr. Schaller recommended a 12 kilometre portion of the park to be closed for grazing in order to provide protection to Marco Polo sheep against disturbance and food competition. This portion of the park was declared the core zone of the park. However, imposing a ban on grazing of livestock without compensation or concessions to grazing for the local communities created serious conflicts between the park management and the local people.
Now with the emergence of this park, the number of this species is very slowly increasing. Marco Polo Sheep is recognized by the very long outward curving horns, developed in the mature males. An aged ram is is very impressive and majestic, mainly because of massive spiraling horns which can span a man’s outstretched arms and almost twice the height and size of most other wild or domestic sheep. The Marco Polo sheep is an inhabitant of very high mountains subject to severely cold winds and climatic conditions throughout the year. Currently, its population is confined to northwestern part of Hunza district along the Chinese border. Here, between spring and autumn, it occupies two separate valleys in the northwest section of Khunjrab National Park, and also inhabits the Kilik-Mintaka border area, just west of the National Park. Marco Polo sheep is probably the most endangered of Pakistan’s wild sheep and goats, and unless action is taken immediately they will probably become extinct. Kilik/Mintaka Game Reserve along the border with China, east of the KKH and the Khunjerab National Park has been specially created to provide 65,000 hectares for preservation of Marco Polo sheep habitat.
The the total remaining population of Snow Leopard is estimated around 7,000-10,000 worldwide, of which around 300 are found in Pakistan. Anyone who can venture up to Nagar Valley, 65 kilometres north of Gilgit, one has a fair chance of siting the big cat, preferably at dawn or dusk. The Baltistan Wildlife Sanctuary covering 415 square kilometres in Baltistan, contiguous with the Astor Wildlife Sanctuary to its south and east and south of the Indus River, is basically established to protect the Snow Leopard besides Brown Bear, Lynx, Tibetan wolf, Tibetan fox, Markhor, Blue sheep and Asiatic ibex. Recently, an animal husbandry program in Chitral has been established which combines science to provide a new approach to save snow leopards. Snow Leopard is also found in Khunjrab National Park.
Other wild life that is found in the park include the Himalayan Ibex, Brown Bear, Tibetan Red Fox, Tibetan Wolf, Blue Sheep, Tibetan Wild Donkey, Ermine, Alpine Weasel, Stone Martin, Golden Marmot, Large-eared Pika, Cape Hare and many other small mammals. Most of these animals are considered to be in the threatened species category.
Beside the mammals, a wide variety of birds is also found in the park area, which include Golden Eagle, Lammegier, Himalayan Griffon and Eurasian Black Vultures, Marsh Harrier, Eurasian Sparrow Hawk, Eurasian and Lesser Kestrel, Saker and Peregrin Falcon, Himalayan Snow Cock, Snow Partridge, Grey Heron, Hill and Snow Pigeon, Northern Eagle Owl, Eurasian Cuckoo, Common Swallow, Magpie, Alpine Cough and Raven.
With the establishment of the park and laying down strict rules for the locals as well as the hunters, visitors can view plenty of wildlife from the main KKH. Ibex can easily be seen grazing on distant ridges, Golden Marmots play alongside the road and sometimes even a brown bear can be spotted. A four-day trek to the Karchanai Nullah rewards visitors with a close-up view of a herd of Marco Polo sheep. According to estimates supplied by members of the KVO, there are now around 1000 Ibex, 300 Blue Sheep, 60 Marco Polo Sheep, and a handful of brown bears and Snow Leopards (which have been spotted) living in the park. Since these animals tend to migrate across the border, these numbers are not accurate.
The Khunjerab National Park has the potential to develop into one of the world’s foremost national parks. According to WWF officials, a plan is now afoot to turn it into an ‘International Peace Park’ with conserved areas on both sides of the border. Negotiations with the Chinese are underway. If this plan can be realized, it would mean one ecological park with open boundaries for the wildlife – a truly spectacular habitat on top of the world.