The name markhor probably arose as a corruption of the Pushto words ‘mar’ (meaning snake) and ‘akhur’ (meaning horn) - an apt description of the serpentine shape of their horns. Based on the shape of their horns, three main groups of markhor can be recognized (i) the straight-horn shape, e.g the Sulaiman markhor (Capra falconeri jerdoni) and the Kabul markhor (Capra falconeri megaceros), (ii) theopen-spiral shape of the Pir Panjal markhor (Capra falconeri cashmiriensis) and the western Hindu Kush, Hunza, Kafer khan, Chitral, and Chilas markhor, and (iii) the out-flaring shape, represented the Astor markhor (Capra falconeri falconeri).
In Kashmir, the Pir Panjal markhor is found only in the Pir Panjal Range, the Kaj-i-nag and Shamshabari Keran mountains of northwestern Himalaya, but extends into the Greater Himalayan range in Pakistan near Nanga Parbat. No range-wide survey had been conducted to assess the status and distribution of the species, although some localized surveys by the Jammu and Kashmir State Wildlife Department estimated close to 200 animals in J&K during the early 1980’s. Some authors later conjured that the population may have gone extinct during the years of turmoil in the state since 1989.
Poaching and trophy hunting were historically the primary threat to the markhor. There was a practice of communal winter hunting of the markhor by the local population where numerous animals were trapped in the deep snow and killed for both meat and trophy. Markhor is endangered (EN – C2A) in the IUCN Red List (2000). In India markhor is included in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act (1972) and Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Protection Act (1978; 2002 amendment). In Jammu and Kashmir, markhor are known to occur in three Wildlife Sanctuaries and one Conservation Reserve, in all covering an area of c. 252km2. Even while the status of the species was not clear, hunting licenses were being given into the late 1980’s.
In 2004-05, we conducted a survey to evaluate whether or not the markhor continued to persist within India. Our objectives were to assess the current presence and distribution of the Pir Panjal markhor in Jammu & Kashmir, to assess its status, and identify threats to the species.
The study was conducted in Jammu and Kashmir that has three geo-political regions – the southern Jammu, the northwestern Kashmir and the northeastern Ladakh region. Our study sites consisted of a vast stretch of Himalaya from Pader- Kishtwar to Poonch in Jammu region and Hirpura (in south Kashmir) to Kaj-i-nag and Shamshabari (in north Kashmir) in the Kashmir region. The vegetation in general is Temperate Coniferous and Sub Alpine Forest.
The selection of the study blocks was based on the old distribution records of markhor and an old Kashmir shikar map (Survey of India, 1947). We identified six blocks to survey in the vast Pir Panjal range of the state covering c. 400km from, east to west, namely Poonch, Hirpura, Gulmarg-Bonyar, Kaj-i-nag, Shamshabari and Bhaderwah-Kishtwar.
In each area we first spoke with shikaris and other villagers to confirm the presence of markhor in the area and identify the likely areas to find them. We then spread out in one to two teams comprising of 2-3 trained persons to look for markhor in the region. All sightings were recorded with details on location, habitat, group size and structure and presence of disturbance. A total of c. 420km was covered on foot during the survey.
We observed markhor only in the Hirpura and the Kajinag blocks, where 155 markhor were counted. We were also able to confirm their continued presence In the Gulmarg-Boniyar and Poonch blocks. Evidence suggests that markhor may have gone extinct in Shamsabari, and was probably never present in Kisthwar. Based on a map developed in 1947 where markhor were spread over an area of c. 300km2, we recorded considerable range reduction to c. 100km2 today. Our coarse extrapolations suggest that 280-330 markhor may exist in the state. The Kajinag and to some extent the Hirpura populations seem to have some scope of recovery if the extant threats are addressed.
We have identified eight threats that affect the potential for the recovery of the markhor in J&K. Three of these however seem to have the maximum impact. The turmoil prone range is next to the LoC where military activity from both countries causes immense disturbance and the LoC fencing has fragmented the already narrow habitat of the species in the country. Continuing poaching of the species by locals and officials is also affecting the population recovery. In the Hirpura area competition with large migratory livestock herds is also causing a serious threat. In general poor infrastructure and staff strength of the conservation agencies also limits their ability to enforce wildlife laws as well as work with the community and defense forces for conservation.