Female black stork Katerina seemed to be at a loss. Day by day, she was wandering around the Tarim basin in a freezing-cold weather and was probably getting tired. "Is she unable to find a suitable place to winter or where she could feed at least?" we asked. "If she is alone and is unfamiliar with the Tarim basin, does she have a chance to survive?" It did not occur to us that she could cross the roof of the world to the Indian sub-continent, especially in winter. But that's what eventually did happen: Katerina crossed the Karakoram mountains to reach the Indus valley. That was the most impressive of what we have experienced with black storks over the past few years. But our joy was soon to end?
Worries come true
"Katerina managed to escape the deadly embrace of freezing mountain peaks to stop at Indus, near 8000-metre Nanga Parbat," Lubos Peske reported joyfully on the Czech Radio website. "She is just 200 kilometres away from temperate lowlands?"
At that time, Katerina was still all right. But after several days, around Christmas, we received another batch of information from the satellite that made us worry about her more than ever. Had she been staying at one place we would have said she was taking a rest? However, her backpack was not moving and there was something wrong about the temperature. In the evening, instead of falling, it started growing well over 20 degrees Celsius.
"It is as if the backpack was somewhere indoors, where they make fire in the evening and start cooking the meal," I said sadly. "But that would suggest that someone killed her," Lubos noted.
|In the WWF office in Lahore.|
A row of computers on one side of the room, a huge tablet on the opposite - and maps scattered everywhere: I would not expect such a well-equipped office of the geographic information system in Pakistan. My high esteem of the Pakistani branch of WWF grew even higher.
Pakistani conservationists reacted very quickly to the news of Katerina's death. Director of WWF-Pakistan, Ali Habib, send us a letter sort after New Year, offering us all possible assistance in searching for the truth. A month later, were sitting in the WWF office in Lahore planning further steps
Richard Garstang, a South-African working for WWF-Pakistan, called us to one of the computers: "My colleague entered the coordinates of Katerina's transmitter in the computer.
We look at the screen closely. The map showed that the transmitter was located just by a road along Indus, probably in a village.
"It should not be a problem," Lubos said. "If we can get to the north to Nanga Parbat at all."
This was not certain. Some sources said the area was absolutely inaccessible for foreigners, according to others it was "only" extremely dangerous. It was soon decided that we will all go to the place where Katerina died, not just our Pakistani colleagues.
|Nanga Parbat, alias Killer Mountain. Katerina was killed in its shadow.|| |
We could not have had a better guide for our expedition to the north than Ibrahim Khan. He works for the WWF-Pakistan office in Gilgit but he studied in the Netherlands and besides other activities he assisted BBC with recording documentaries about the mountains and people living there. He, too, warned us against villagers in the area where Katerina died: "They are tough. Even I am an outsider for them? If they feel that we are accusing them of theft - be it just indirectly - things could go very wrong? But I asked Rahmat to join us in Besham. He is local and will know how to approach them."
When we reached Besham in two off-road cars with images of panda on the bonnets in the evening, Ibrahim and Rahmat suggested how to proceed. The next morning, we would go to Chilas, a town close to the place where the transmitter is located, and find accommodation there. In the afternoon, we would drive pass the transmitter without stopping and try to establish its exact location. If it is in a house, Rahmat would return and asked local people if they knew anything about it.
Everything went to the plan. We left our luggage in a hotel in Chilas and, in order to draw as little attention as possible, we drove in a car with a Gilgit licence plate to the place where Katerina ended her journey. And yes, the signal was coming from houses between the road and the river! Now it was Rahmat's turn.
|The signal from Katerina's transmitter was coming from a house below the road.|
"A son of a man I have spoken to shot Katerina," Rahmat said when he came back. "He shot her when she stopped by Indus and then they ate her, like ducks and other birds they hunt. They did not give me the transmitter because one of their relatives told them that it must be something valuable."
Nasruddín, Ziauddín, Saniolla
We were driving along a winding patchy road cut into steep slopes of the Indus Valley perhaps too fast, as if our drivers were infected by our - and mainly Ibrahim's - nervousness..
"Let's move on," he was hurrying us in Chilas a while ago. "People have started to be curious". We knew that he was worried local people might understand our search for the transmitter wrongly or take it as an insult.
We - or rather our guides - had spent the previous evening negotiating. In the morning, local physician Mohammad Nasruddin came to visit us - he was the man who lived with his brothers and their families in the farm, from where Katerina's transmitter was to be heard. It was him who prevented the backpack from destruction. The negotiation was difficult, he wanted to leave twice, but eventually to us visiting the farm and that we might get information as well as the backpack itself.
We finally came to stop at a place we secretly located the day before. We had to stay in the cars though and only Nasruddin went to the farm on the Indus bank. We could follow him in about fifteen minutes.
The farm comprised several houses inhabited by six brothers and their families. There were children running everywhere - fifty or so, but nobody knew the exact number. Nasruddin led us to the guest room. They served tea with milk (locals put salt in it), boiled eggs, walnuts and Prince biscuits. We started a long negotiation at the end of which we had both the transmitter and an idea of what happened to Katerina:
|Mohammad Nasruddin had Katerina's backpack brought in.|
It was late in the afternoon, drizzling. Little Saniolla was strolling along the river and some five hundred metres up the stream he saw several large birds on a sandy bank. He rushed home. The first one he met was his older cousin Ziauddin who took an old German rifle and followed Saniolla along the road till they got above the place where the storks were resting. When they were nearly there, they carefully descended the steep slope and hiding behind huge boulders, they crawled to the river. When they were close enough, a shot thundered. Five or six storks started off, one remained lying on the bank. Ziauddin took it and only then did he notice that it had something attached to its back
"I am really very sorry," Nasruddin was apologising for his relatives while leading us to the place of the accident. "We had no idea that it might be a rare bird. We won't do it again."
|Indus, where Katerina was shot.|
We may believe everything he said or just part of it. But there is no reason to doubt there were more black storks, which is extremely interesting and important, because we can rule out the possibility that Katerina flew over Karakoram alone and that her journey was accidental. It is likely that she joined other storks before leaving the Tarim basin... Besides, Nasruddin told us about other flocks of black storks of different numbers that come in autumn and stop by Indus at the same place as Katerina was killed and then fly on. Karakoram and the Indus valley seem to be an important migrating path of storks as well as other birds which, with the exception of birds of prey, are being intensively hunted?
|Our expedition on the Karakoram Highway.|
In the following two weeks, we travelled around Karakoram, examining Katerina's route which is most likely a bird migration highway. We also unsuccessfully tried to find Petr's transmitter in Afghan Hindukush, and also visited Punjab where black storks might winter.
We met again with Ibrahim and the director of WWF-Pakistan, Ali Habib, in Islamabad short before our return home.
"We decided to inform people in the north to limit the number of rare birds they kill for food," Ibrahim said and Ali nodded approvingly. "Besides that, we are planning to start monitoring bird migration in Karakoram and the Indus valley. We would like to involve local people, too."
"I would hardly believe if someone else but Ibrahim and Ali said that," I thought. "It won't be easy but if the effort yields at least some results in the future, it would perhaps be a "happy" ending to Katerina's story."
And we started thinking what and how could be done.
|Panda as a logo|
World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is a non-governmental organisation which has been striving for environment and wildlife protection for more than four decades. It operates in 90 countries around the world and has some five million supporters. Its logo depicts one of the most seriously endangered mammals ? Giant Panda.
The Pakistan branch of WWF was established in the 1970's and in reality plays the role of state wildlife protection body. Today, it has 200 employees and works on a variety of projects - from placing dustbins in city streets, to protection of nearly extinct species, such as snow leopard, River Dolphin, and Western Tragopan, but also establishing natural reserves and national parks. An important aspect in all of their activities is cooperation with local people.