Committe Meeting Photo
Members of a community resource committee gather for a meeting.
Peter Zahler
Community Rangers in Pakistan Photo
Community rangers train for surveys of the endangered flare-horned markhor.
Peter Zahler
Tangir Valley Photo
In the Tangir Valley of the Diamer District, WCS-Pakistan helps local communities to manage their forests and wildlife in a sustainable manner.
Peter Zahler

Northern Pakistan has some of the most astonishing geography on the planet. Home to the intersection of three great mountain ranges—the Himalayas, the Karakorams, and the Hindu Kush—many of its peaks soar more than 20,000 feet high. Three of the world’s longest glaciers outside of the polar regions also occur here.

Prowling the region’s steep cliffs and boulder fields are snow leopards, wolves, and brown bears. These agile predators hunt wild sheep and goats—the “mountain monarchs” that include flare-horned markhor, Siberian ibex, Ladakh urial, blue sheep, and Marco Polo sheep.

Partly because of the region’s geological boundaries, the people of Northern Pakistan represent diverse ethnic backgrounds. The Indus River splits the region and its deep gorge has created one of the only mountain passages, used by a trickle of pilgrims, traders, and would-be conquerors for thousands of years. The rushing waters and steep-sided valleys on either side of this gorge have allowed local communities to maintain a surprising isolation. Fiercely independent, the people of the Gilgit-Baltistan speak at least six languages. There are seven dialects of just one of the languages, Shina, suggesting some of the cultural complexities found in these largely isolated mountain communities.

Fast Facts

  • Northern Pakistan has the second-highest mountain in the world, K-2, which soars more than 28,000 feet tall—nearly the height that transcontinental jets fly.
  • Northern Pakistan boasts the world’s greatest terrestrial gorge. The ninth-highest mountain in the world, Nanga Parbat, plunges from its peak at more than 26,000 feet down to the Indus River at approximately 4,000 feet—a distance of more than 17 Empire State Buildings piled on top of each other!
  • The woolly flying squirrel was thought to be extinct for 70 years until it was rediscovered in northern Pakistan in 1994. Four feet long from nose to tail, it is the largest squirrel in the world. It lives in cliff caves and glides down to pine trees at night to feed.


Pakistan has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. The region known as Gilgit-Baltistan is only 4 percent forested, and the pine forests of the Diamer and southern Gilgit districts are one of the country’s last remaining large tracts of conifers. Extensive, often illegal logging is quickly reducing what’s left of the pine, spruce, cedar, and juniper trees. Logging provides little economic return to local communities, and the loss of trees also causes soil erosion and drying that threatens the people’s ability to survive over the long-term.

Deforestation isn’t the only threat to the environmental integrity of Northern Pakistan. Extensive hunting is also a major problem, especially with the recent influx of modern weapons from two decades of conflict in Afghanistan. Populations of markhor, urial, Asiatic black bear, snow leopard, and various pheasants (e.g., monal, koklass, cheer, western tragopan) have declined precipitously in recent years. There is an urgent need to regulate and enforce restrictions on hunting and logging through community-based agreements.

WCS Responds

WCS has a long history in Northern Pakistan, beginning with Dr. George Schaller’s surveys of wild sheep, goats, and snow leopards in the 1970s. He published two books on this work, Mountain Monarchs and Stones of Silence, and contributed to the creation of Khunjerab National Park.

Thanks to 15 years of work with local communities, building capacity and facilitating community-based management of natural resource bases for future generations, WCS has achieved “trusted partner” status. The work has also yielded tangible conservation results:

  • WCS facilitated the creation of, and helped write the bylaws and resource regulations for, 65 community-based committees across four districts, whose objectives are to sustainably manage local natural resources, mainly wildlife and forests.
  • WCS fostered the development of a local umbrella institution, the Mountain Conservation and Development Program (MCDP), covering all the valleys in the program. It consists of two duly elected representatives from each community-based committee as well as government officials from the relevant line departments.
  • The community ranger program, which began with a few rangers in three valleys, has now trained and deployed over 100 rangers (based on direct requests from the communities themselves). These rangers regularly monitor markhor and other wildlife and control poaching. Over 10 rangers are now paid directly by the government through agreements facilitated by WCS – the first such agreements between some of these communities and the government in their history.
  • With this project has come the creation of “markhor conservancies” – essentially the grouping of related valleys (and their community resource committees) into larger resource governance structures that closely match markhor habitat “units.” These enable more comprehensive landscape-level planning and conservation implementation as opposed to operating on a valley-by-valley basis. This project’s markhor conservation work now encompasses more than 80 percent of markhor habitat and population in Gilgit-Baltistan, along with over 80 percent of natural forests in the province. Community ranger surveys have shown that populations of flare-horned markhor are making a remarkable comeback, with an estimated 50 percent increase from a little more than a decade ago.
  • Illegal hunting and logging have stopped in most of the valleys where the rangers are active. Most valleys have now banned hunting completely and economically important wildlife populations are increasing in number. Many valleys have also banned unsustainable forest cutting (but do allow for the collection of deadfall for firewood; and specific exceptions are made upon community institution review if construction needs arise).

As a result of all these efforts, one of the last great conifer forests remaining in western Asia (once projected to be gone in five to ten years) is now protected; threatened and economically important wildlife species, such as markhor and urial, are increasing in number; new governance structures have been created and are in operation across the region; and some of the first-ever co-management initiatives with the government have been forged.

From the Newsroom

Saving More Than Just Snow LeopardsFebruary 1, 2014

After many years of hard work and trial and error, real successes are being seen in snow leopard conservation, in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and in northern Pakistan, among other places, as communities come together to manage their land and wildlife, and neighboring countries find ways to cooperate across borders. WCS Asia Program deputy director Peter Zahler and George Schaller, WCS senior conservationist and Panthera VP, explain.

Markhor Numbers Mounting in PakistanJuly 3, 2012

Pakistan’s national mammal is making a comeback, with populations growing across northern Pakistan. A wild goat, the majestic markhor possesses corkscrew horns that can be 5-feet long.

An Investment in Stripes and RibbitsFebruary 9, 2012

In a big boost for wildlife, 23 new species conservation projects will receive funding from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the World Bank, and the Global Environment Facility.

Endangered Markhor Catch PneumoniaJanuary 6, 2012

A pneumonia outbreak reduces numbers of a wild population of endangered wild goats in Tajikistan by as much as 20 percent. Fewer than 2,500 markhor are left in the wild.

New Findings on a Woolly Wanderer July 22, 2011

In Afghanistan, researchers conducting a genetic study of the Marco Polo sheep discover the species to be an international traveler. WCS recommends trans-boundary monitoring to help ensure its future.

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