We’re happy to introduce you to Dr. Muhammad Kabir! He just graduated with a PhD from the Carnivore Conservation Lab, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad , Pakistan, working with the Snow Leopard Foundation Pakistan (SLF), Snow Leopard Trust’s Pakistan partner. He studied the often overlooked grey wolf (Canis lupus) seeking to draw attention to wolf conservation in Pakistan.
What kindled your interest in ecology and conservation?
Since childhood, I have loved and cared about nature and wildlife. When I started my career working on the common leopard (Panthera pardus), I realized there was very little evidence-based conservation policy in Pakistan, and poor understanding and cooperation among stakeholders. For example there appeared to be little dialogue between communities co-existing with wildlife and conservationists. I believe that the lack of scientific knowledge on various wildlife species is an obstacle in developing effective conservation strategies. Our conservation strategies need to address the current and emerging threats to wildlife in Pakistan.
In Pakistan research and conservation primarily focusses on a few wildlife species such as the charismatic snow leopard. The country is however blessed with an incredible range of species. The wolf for example has remained largely ignored in research and conservation. Seeing how important it was to build our understanding of the status of more species, I decided to focus my PhD on the grey wolf in Pakistan. Through my studies I was inspired and had the incredible opportunity to work with veteran ecologists and conservationists such as my supervisor Dr. Ali Nawaz.
What are the main findings of your PhD research?
The grey wolf has long been ignored in Pakistan. My PhD research focused on several aspects of wolf ecology, ranging from its spatial distribution, habitat use, and diet, as well as quantifying wolf-human conflicts. The outcomes of my research provides a baseline understanding of grey wolf distribution and areas that need to be prioritized for conservation efforts.
Through my research I estimated that Pakistan holds 23,129 km2 of suitable habitat for the wolf. The majority of suitable habitat is in remote and inaccessible areas that appear to be well-connected through movement corridors. These corridors suggest that the potential wolf range can be expanded in Pakistan’s northern areas. The habitat map produced through my PhD work will help the government make decision on strategies to conserve wolves in Pakistan.
The grey wolf has proved resilient to human impacts. It however continues to face serious conflicts with humans related to depredation on livestock. My research highlights that wolves kill a lot of livestock and this needs to be addressed in order to promote acceptance of the wolf’s presence in Pakistan’s rural communities. To promote the co-existence of wolf populations and livestock, we suggest multi-pronged conservation management programs which include livestock insurance, livestock vaccination, and awareness campaigns. This will help reduce livestock mortality from disease and help compensate for losses of livestock to wolves. We hope that such programs will help reduce the killing of wolves in retaliation for livestock losses.
The grey wolf is the most controversial predator in the Himalaya-Karakoram mountain ranges, but information about what food it eats is limited. The high depredation rates claimed by communities interviewed were validated through diet analysis. Our diet surveys indicated that almost half of the dietary needs of wolves are met from livestock, preying mainly small livestock (sheep and goats). This further confirmed the high level of human wildlife conflict in the area.
My research attempted to address the lack of data on wolf ecology, particularly diet, and can support wildlife managers, policymakers and conservation biologists in developing conservations plans based on an evidence base.
What is innovative about your research?
My research demonstrates that non-invasive study techniques such as camera trapping, genetics sampling and interviews, in combination with statistical and analytical tools, are a promising approach to understanding landscape ecology of threatened carnivore species. The study represents the first large-scale assessment of the grey wolf, and the outcomes have policy implications for conservation of this iconic species in Pakistan. Until this decade, wildlife research in Pakistan has relied largely on sign surveys and sighting reports. I however confirmed the presence of wolves through camera pictures and DNA samples of scats, along with using some of the latest statistical methods. This more robust baseline understanding of wolf population and distribution can help us assess future conservation efforts.
What was the most memorable moment from your research experience?
Each and every moment of my PhD research with my fellow researchers is memorable. In particular, I remember setting up camera traps in Shimshal Valley of Gilgit Baltistan in snow leopard habitat to capture images of both snow leopards and wolves. This was my first time installing camera traps and I was hoping that some of the cameras I set up would catch the rare snow leopard. For the first round of camera trapping, I was disappointed that there was not even one snow leopard in any of the camera photos, although there were other wildlife species! Then, with the second round, one of the cameras I installed had one of the best snow leopard photographs ever seen in the camera traps.
Although I have seen many wolf images in the camera traps, I always wanted to see them “in the flesh.” One day, while sitting near a lake, a pair of wolves just ran in front of me. I felt like God had fulfilled my desire in a wonderful and surprising way.
I would also like to add that during my research I was fortunate to work with, who I consider, one the best research teams in Pakistan.
How can your work so far contribute to high mountain area conservation?
My PhD research, using the latest field and analytical approaches, helps us understand the status of wolves in Pakistan. It also uses methods that can be applied to other threatened carnivore species. Under my PhD project, it is the first time a large area of Northern Pakistan has been surveyed for wildlife through camera trapping. It includes 8 protected areas!
Camera trapping helped us understand the current the distribution of carnivore species such as the grey wolf and the snow leopard. My research findings will help identify potential areas for future studies. My interactions with local communities provided information for conservationists on community dependency on livestock and natural resources, and attitudes towards wildlife conservation.
What do you see yourself doing in ten years’ time?
I see myself continuing to work in wildlife conservation. I look back and am amazed that I managed to overcome the hurdles associated with lack of expertise, financial constraints, and, in-the-field, with almost impossible weather and terrain conditions to conduct wildlife surveys.
I am now working with various organizations to build a team of young researchers. Older research techniques may not be able to properly assess the growing threats of climate change. In the future, I hope to build our understanding of threaten wildlife species using the best available scientific approaches. I also want to help increase the capacity of the wildlife departments of Pakistan.
I like to do things that make me happy. I love to travel and explore nature and landscapes. I have a love for photography. I enjoy working with students. I feel very happy when I am training a new researcher. I like to engage in healthy discussions on ecology and conservation. My long-term goal is to help build a database of ecological knowledge for threatened species in Pakistan. I dream of supporting wildlife conservation on the ground in the great Himalayas, Karakorum and Hindukush ranges.
Dr. Muhammad Kabir thanks his PhD supervisor, Dr. Muhammad Ali Nawaz, for his guidance and support throughout his graduate degree. He also thanks Dr. Koustubh Sharma, Dr. Richard Bischof and Dr. Steve Redpath for their guidance and support in reviewing many research drafts. Kabir is thankful to the Higher Education Commission (HEC) Research Council of Norway, Snow Leopard Trust (SLT), Panthera, International Bear Association (IBA) for their generous financial support during the research work. Finally Kabir would like to thank the Snow Leopard Foundation-Pakistan, the Gilgit-Baltistan Wildlife Department, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Wildlife Department, and Azad Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Department for their support throughout his fieldwork.