Pakistan is home to a population of the Punjab Urial, an endemic subspecies of the globally vulnerable urial (Ovisorientalispunjabieuris). Punjab urials were reportedly plentiful in the northern mountains of Punjab, however, human encroachment into their habitat has not only decreased their historic range but lowered their numbers so much that they are now classified as endangered by the IUCN. Once abundant all over the northern Punjab mountains, the Punjab Urial is now confined only to the Kala Chitta and Salt Range, areas which are dominated by dry sub-tropical and semi evergreen scrub forests, making it a favourable place for domestic livestock grazing, increasing the Urial’s chances of proximity to humans.
The Punjab urials are a member of the antelope sheep sub family. With their long reddish brown fur and majestic horns, they add to the scenic beauty of the landscape they call home. Being a herbivore, this species plays an important link in the food chain as primary consumer, converting photosynthetically produced carbohydrates into energy for carnivores to consume. The male urial can be distinguished by the black ruff stretching from its neck to the chest and its significantly large horns, curling outwards from the top of the head and turning in to end somewhere behind the head. In contrast, the female has short, compressed horns. With an average shoulder height between 80 and 90 cm, the male’s horns may grow up to one metre. An urial’s horns tend to grow throughout its life, signifying that older males have larger horns and vice versa. During the mating season, which begins in September, rams select four to five ewes who, after a gestation period of five months, give birth to one or occasionally two lambs.
The low altitudes and open terrain where this species is accustomed to live is perfectly suitable for human intervention. Efforts are being made for habitat evaluation and recovery of urial numbers. With the purpose of collecting data of the Punjab urial population and to assess the threat to them in their habitat, WWF-Pakistan’s Small Grants Programme funded a study conducted by Dr. Waseem Ahmad Khan from the Pakistan Wildlife Foundation, over a period of 18 months, from 2014 and 2015.
Following a series of interviews with the residents and local hunters, and after an extensive literature review, 80 sites in five districts were selected. The existence of the Punjab urial was confirmed by direct sighting or fresh trails, at 59 sites in 13 tehsils of five districts, among which 45 sites were found to have potential where the population was permanently at residence. The remaining 14 sites were observed to be seasonally visited by the species. Traversing an area of 3,500 km, the total population of the Punjab urial was estimated to be approximately 3,482 individuals.
Under the study, threats to the Punjab urial were also highlighted. Habitat degradation had been widespread, for the purpose of development such as roads and towns. Additionally, fires are intentionally set by locals to clear land for plantations and trees and shrub used for fuelwood adding to the urial’s decreasing habitat. Although the predation of lambs, once in a while by jackals, is not serious in their core natural habitat, the mass production of solid waste by human settlements, in the vicinity of the urial’s habitat, attract jackals who then not only attack domestic livestock but also urial lambs nearby. Furthermore, the illegal hunting and poaching of lambs, especially during the lambing season, is a major threat to the decline of the Punjab urial population, accelerating its way to extinction. Sharing their grazing land with domestic livestock increases ecological competition as vegetation availability decreases. The presence of shepherds puts additional pressure on the urial in its own habitat. Moreover, interaction with livestock can transfer diseases to urials, which can result in their death.
It is the need of the hour that awareness activities be conducted on a regular basis to sensitize local communities about the importance of wildlife and its ecological significance. The population of the Punjab urial needs immediate attention for its recovery, which requires regular follow-up surveys to record its status. Initiatives such as use of biogas plants can reduce the dependence of locals on the Punjab urial’s habitat. In addition, providing alternate livelihoods like ecotourism and community watch and ward can help promote community-based conservations. Some immediate measures needed are the demarcation of grazing land to draw a boundary between the urial population and domestic livestock. Lamb poaching should also be strictly checked. Measures should be taken to bring Punjab urial conservation to the attention of the masses.