‘The current state of wildlife in Kashmir is a cause for concern’

Poached birds in Kashmir wetland. [FPK File Photo.]

The wildlife watchers of Kashmir are drawing some disturbing parallels between the Project Hangul and the Project Tiger. Despite launched concurrently, the one meant for the conservation of the regional animal—Hangul—never reached its logical conclusion. 

Among others, Dr. Mehreen Khaleel is holding past years of challenges that left many aspects unchecked responsible for this wildlife apathy. 

“Kashmir was one of the places where Project Hangul was launched alongside Project Tiger at the National Level,” Dr. Mehreen, a highly accomplished ecologist with a Ph.D. in Ecological Science from IISc-Bangalore, said. 

“Comparing the results, the Tiger populations have shown positive trends, but the Hangul remains unchanged, highlighting existing challenges. The laws are in place but require respect, implementation, and enforcement by both government agencies and stakeholders.”

Currently working as an independent researcher and as a consultant for various conservation projects, Dr. Mehreen said the grim situation of the Hangul population, surviving at just 350 individuals over the last four decades, highlights a pressing issue. 

“The troubling female to fawn ratio adds complexity to the challenge,” continues the Founder and Chairperson of the Wildlife Research and Conservation Foundation. “Information gaps extend to other ungulates, primates, reptiles, amphibians, and insects, are impeding our understanding of their interactions with each other and with humans. Rising cases of Human-Animal interactions further underscore the need for data.”

In a candid chat with Free Press Kashmir, Dr. Mehreen delves into a detailed discourse on the valley’s wildlife grappling with myriad issues. 

Dr. Mehreen.


Dr. Mehreen, looking back to your early days, what ignited your passion for nature and wildlife conservation, especially when some might find it a less financially rewarding path? 

The concept of conservation didn’t seem alien because I grew up in an environment that fuelled this passion. Also, every religion emphasizes the importance of maintaining balance in Nature, entrusting humans with the responsibility of preserving this equilibrium. The chapters in the holy Quran elaborate on various life forms and their benefits. 

As a Muslim, I draw inspiration from the simple life of Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him. His judicious use of water during ablutions and his kindness to all life forms inspired me in my childhood and continue to influence me.

If I have to name people in my circle who acted as inspiration in my life, it would be my grandmother and my father. They have always taught me to lead a minimalist life and instilled lessons of conservation in their daily chores. Whether it’s the sensible use of water while washing clothes, utensils, and daily cleaning, or the adoption of traditional methods like using a luffa sponge made out of bitter gourd, composting kitchen waste, and cultivating the habit of organic gardening. 

It was these teachings that ignited the spark in me. And now, when I’m passing the same teachings, it gives me an immense happiness. It delights me to see Kashmiri youth recognize their roots through our discussions on traditional methods. Witnessing the pride in their eyes as they share stories related to nature conservation is incredibly fulfilling. There’s nothing more rewarding than discovering like-minded individuals eager to be directed in a positive direction. 


Before we explore the connection between humans and the natural world, could you describe what Nature means to people in this region and how it contributes to their well-being and identity?

Renowned for its pristine natural spaces, the valley of Kashmir is deeply connected to mountains, pine trees, gushing streams, snow, meadows, and the beautiful innocence of its people and their culture. These natural elements bring a profound sense of peace. 

The intrinsic connection to Nature is reflected in our poetry, literature, art forms, and lifestyle, all inspired by the beauty of the environment. Whether rich or poor, there’s a universal desire to have a view of snow-clad mountains, highlighting our collective aesthetic sense.

Personally, in times of stress, I find solace in taking a stroll or sitting quietly, listening to the soothing sounds of birds. I believe many share this sentiment. The absence of man-made noises adds to the heavenly experience of this place.


Considering global concerns about biodiversity, what’s your perspective on the current status in Kashmir? Can you share insights into the unique aspects, challenges, and positive developments shaping the region’s biodiversity? What measures do you think are crucial for preventing further loss and fostering conservation?

Kashmir holds a unique biodiversity in terms of endemicity, presenting a complex set of challenges for conservation. Limited scientific data on various wild species, including flagship and lesser-known ones, hampers ecological studies and conservation planning. Consequently, we need to start conservation efforts from the ground up.

The grim situation of the Hangul population, surviving at just 350 individuals over the last four decades, highlights a pressing issue. The troubling female to fawn ratio adds complexity to the challenge. Information gaps extend to other ungulates, primates, reptiles, amphibians, and insects, are impeding our understanding of their interactions with each other and with humans. Rising cases of Human-Animal interactions further underscore the need for data.

Our wetlands, scrublands, and forests also present concerning figures, with even the famous Dal Lake facing degradation. Decreasing species richness indicates that water conditions no longer support diversity. Shaping regional biodiversity requires collaborative efforts from all stakeholders, including policymakers, legislatures, enforcement agencies, researchers, and local communities. Immediate measures involve raising awareness through various channels and establishing a comprehensive database with constant monitoring.


What specific threats do conservation efforts face in Kashmir, and how serious do you perceive the problem to be? What factors contribute to the urgency in addressing these conservation challenges?

While the root cause of conservation is understood here, effective contributions are lacking. This reluctance may stem from a loss of trust in policies, potentially not favouring the common masses, or a historical exclusion of locals in decision-making. Successful conservation necessitates equal involvement and benefit for local communities, currently lacking in Kashmir.

It’s time to confront the issue at hand. We must consider the pressures we’ve imposed on the region’s biodiversity and reflect on the potential long-term consequences. Local residents, especially the younger generation, need to step up and initiate discussions about the repercussions of the ecological imbalance we’ve created.


Despite challenges, what gives you hope for the future of Nature conservation in Kashmir?

I believe every place, despite challenges, harbours a ray of hope. Over the years, I’ve encountered young minds who genuinely aspire to witness an ecologically healthy Kashmir. People who have joined me at Wildlife Research and Conservation Foundation (WRCF) work voluntarily for this cause, driven by a shared desire for positive change. My hope is vested in these individuals who work relentlessly to spread the message.


Could you introduce the Wildlife Research and Conservation Foundation (WRCF), its inspiration, and how it has evolved in fostering wildlife conservation and biodiversity awareness?

The roots of WRCF were planted in 2016 when my colleague and I visited a local school to share insights about the lesser-known Langur of Kashmir. Our aim was to ignite curiosity in children by narrating stories about this unique species. Observing a poster in the school that depicted ‘A for Antelope,’ it struck me that without familiarity with the Langur, how could the students relate to an Antelope? This realization lingered, leading to discussions with friends, and eventually, the formalization of the idea into a full-fledged organization.

In 2018, starting with just two members, WRCF has now grown to include four core members from diverse educational backgrounds, all dedicated to contextualizing ecological concepts with relevant examples. We’ve also had interns and volunteers from across the country contributing remotely to our cause.

Since our inception, we’ve actively engaged with over 10,000 individuals across Jammu & Kashmir through various initiatives, including Nature Camps, Outdoor sessions, Scientific workshops, lecture series, and fun-based teachings. In 2020, we organized the valley’s first wildlife photography competition, a groundbreaking event in J&K and Ladakh that encouraged public participation in building a database. With over 1,000 photographs from 150 participants, the competition was a huge success. We’ve published this data in the form of a coffee table book, highlighting the region’s Mammals, Birds, and Insects.

WRCF endeavours to place J&K on the global map for its biodiversity, collaborating with national and international organizations to promote nature education. Additionally, we’re developing resource material for nature-based studies, aiming to integrate it into the school curriculum.


What does wildlife conservation mean for the common person?

Wildlife conservation, in simple terms, is the effort to protect and preserve the diverse plants and animals that inhabit our environment. Explaining this concept to the average person is a challenge. Initially, when we discussed the importance of saving Kashmir’s declining wildlife, we often faced skepticism, with some questioning its relevance in our busy lives. However, over time, I’ve met parents, especially mothers, who simply want their children to learn about wildlife—the plants and animals around us. They believe that understanding and appreciating nature is a crucial step toward protecting it.    


Considering the unique wildlife in Kashmir, how do you see the future of wildlife conservation unfolding? What actions can individuals take for a positive trajectory?

The current state of wildlife in Kashmir is a cause for concern. Past years of challenges have left many aspects unchecked. While it’s somewhat challenging to predict the future, Kashmir was one of the places where Project Hangul was launched alongside Project Tiger at the National Level. Comparing the results, the Tiger populations have shown positive trends, but the Hangul remains unchanged, highlighting existing challenges. The laws are in place but require respect, implementation, and enforcement by both government agencies and stakeholders.

At the organizational level, we at WRCF strive to raise awareness about biodiversity and our interdependencies with it. However, effective conservation requires collective efforts from the government and the public. Crucially, it involves how young minds are educated, teaching them to respect and care for nature. The future belongs to them, and fostering a sense of belongingness and conservation is a key focus of our efforts.


Conservation often requires policy support. How conducive is the policy environment in Kashmir, and are there specific policy changes you believe would enhance conservation efforts?

The policy-making process in Kashmir appears to be sluggish, possibly due to conservation not being a top priority or insufficient advocacy. The focus on rapid development, leading to concrete jungles, often comes at the expense of ecological considerations in this eco-sensitive zone. Visionary policy makers are crucial to align policies with the region’s ecology. On a positive note, there have been instances, like when residents near Manasbal lake raised concerns about a waste management plant. WRCF collaborated to develop an eco-legal plan, aligning government planning with ecological harmony.

India has enacted various laws covering Air, Water, Environment, Wildlife, Soil, and other elements of Nature. Strict adherence to these laws is essential for effective policies.


Media can play a vital role in shaping public perception and support for conservation action. In the realm of Nature and wildlife conservation, how do you leverage traditional and social media platforms to contribute to raising awareness and shaping public perceptions?

Media can indeed significantly influence public support for conservation. Through our social media channels, we engage with people daily, sensitizing them about pressing issues and raising awareness. Our social media team dedicates substantial effort to gather authentic information, create engaging posts, and target the right audience. We take the responsibility seriously to share accurate information about nature and its conservation. Additionally, we have published important scientific findings in reputable peer-reviewed journals, aiming to spotlight Jammu & Kashmir on the global map for its active conservation efforts.


As someone who has attended numerous global conferences, how does the global perspective from international conferences influence your approach to local conservation efforts?

International conferences provide a unique platform for like-minded individuals globally to explore and discuss shared conservation challenges. These gatherings facilitate the exchange of ideas and solutions. By sharing our local conservation challenges at these conferences, I’ve received valuable suggestions from experts in the field, which have proven to be fruitful for our approach to local conservation efforts.


In regions like Kashmir known for natural beauty, how can ecotourism balance promoting sustainable travel and protecting ecosystems? Are there specific practices to enhance its positive impact?

It’s crucial for places like Kashmir to strike a balance between tourism and sustainable practices. Unplanned tourism can lead to issues seen in other regions. Popular destinations here face overburdening, resulting in environmental challenges. Regulated and sustainable tourism, with tourists making eco-conscious choices, is key. Learning from successful eco-tourism models, especially in Himachal Pradesh, emphasizes the importance of local community awareness to mitigate negative impacts on sensitive ecosystems.


Regarding the crucial role of mountain communities, how do you believe they can be effectively engaged and made aware of their impact on nature and wildlife? What strategies are essential for their active participation in conservation efforts?

Unless the aspirations, ethnicity and rich culture of mountain communities are considered, no conservation effort is going to yield success. Engaging mountain communities effectively requires recognizing their aspirations, culture, and ethnicity. Conservation efforts must incorporate their traditional knowledge, ensuring a sense of ownership. Honorary ownership, empowering communities, and integrating their traditional justice systems can foster active participation, preserving the harmony they’ve historically maintained with nature.


As someone with a distinguished career, what is your advice for those aspiring to make a meaningful impact in nature conservation?

Nature conservation is a shared moral responsibility. Those interested in making meaningful impact can start by making small lifestyle changes. Embrace evidence-based conservation, relying on high-quality scientific evidence. Cultivate curiosity, knowledge, and a strong will to drive meaningful change.


Any advice for those seeking a career in nature and wildlife conservation?

Explore, understand and research, and make effective engagement with society. These are the prerequisites for a successful and meaningful career in nature and wildlife conservation. I would suggest understanding nature, for nature.

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