Nyal Mueenuddin is a wildlife photographer and filmmaker at WWF-Pakistan.
The dramatic scene that took place before us, on the very first morning of filming, was something none of us could have expected, an event that few people have ever witnessed...
Our assignment was simple: to drive to Chitral Valley and create a short uplifting video about the comeback of Pakistan’s endangered national animal, the Kashmir markhor.
But the dramatic scene that took place before us, on the very first morning of filming, was something none of us could have expected, an event that few people have ever witnessed, and one that has never before been filmed
– a fully grown Himalayan lynx on the hunt for Kashmir markhor.
As I opened my eyes in the small guesthouse bedroom that freezing February morning, I could hear the rain coming down hard outside. Still dark out, I dreaded the thought of leaving my bed and searched for an excuse good enough to postpone our first day of filming. But there was none. Rain or shine, we were in one of the top wildlife hotspots in Pakistan, with a very specific mission and very limited time.
As the sun began to rise, we were already in the land cruiser packed full of camera gear and on the move toward Tooshi Shasha, the heartland of markhor conservation in Pakistan. Iftikhar, a competent WWF field officer sat in the passenger seat scouring the cliffs for movement with a pair of binoculars, as Wasim, our faithful driver, pushed us further into the icy valley. In the backseat, Hashim, a fellow photographer and friend, filmed the passing landscape with a GoPro while I judiciously assembled the main camera rig, imagining which bodies and lens would work best together in the challenging conditions.
We spotted our first group of markhors, females and yearlings, grazing by the riverside. With the itch of adrenaline usual to the first moments seeing what you’ve set out to find, I locked the rig onto my tripod and began filming. After some time observing the mothers and their young nibble away naïvely, I began to scan the cliffs above, soon spotting another group, boldly descending the treacherous cliffs. Perfectly demonstrating the versatility
of these animals, I switched to a super-telephoto lens and began trailing their movements.
Then something caught my eye. A pair of hunched shoulders, perched just above the group and within striking distance, but in an instant, the phantom predator slipped behind a rock and out of sight. Unsure of what I had seen, I looked up from my camera but could see nothing. I called down to Iftikhar and told him I had seen something suspiciously feline, pointing out the spot to him. This was, after all, the exact location where over a decade ago, a BBC team filmed the now-famous sequence of a female snow leopard hunting markhor.
Then he saw it too. “Lynx!” he called out in a very loud whisper. I looked back into my camera and trained my lens in towards where he was pointing. Sure enough, some 20 metres from where I had seen the shoulders, stood a Himalayan lynx, characteristic with its peaked snow-capped ears, majestically overlooking the valley. Surely the cat had weighed its odds in going up against a group of adult markhors and decided on a more vulnerable target and strategic use of valuable energy.
Then suddenly, the lynx was on the move. Down the cliffs, right towards the group of females and young
I had been filming just minutes before by the river’s edge. With astonishing speed and stealth, the cat
came down the craggy mountainside, and in my mind, there was nothing else in the world but the scene that was unfolding within the four corners of my camera’s monitor. A minute passed trying desperately to keep
the quickly moving subject in frame, and before I knew it the lynx was standing at a halt above the tree line by the river. After a moment’s calculation, the lynx pounced with a pronounced finality and disappeared from sight and frame into the bushes. A moment later the lynx fell out of the brush and into the heavy snow, with the throat of a yearling markhor clasped between its jaws. I watched as the life went out of the goat, myself stunned by how perfectly considered the attack had been, and the surgical execution of the final strike. My heart raced with adrenaline and disbelief imagining that what had seemed like a dream before my eyes mere moments before now existed in perpetuity, captured on the very tangible memory card of my camera.
Its meal secured, and now directly across the river from me, the lynx began to eat. After some time, as I sat silently watching from the opposite bank, the cat looked up from the carcass and stared long and hard into my eyes. I stared right back, wondering what it thought of me. I was sharing a moment with one of the most elusive, beautiful and intelligent animals still living wild in these mountains.
That moment, looking back at the lynx, immediately confirmed all my previous determination for this kind of work. It renewed my belief in the power of environmental storytelling and how capturing and sharing these most intimate moments with our planet’s endangered species can bring people together to fight for their protection. Not only that but capturing and analyzing the behaviours of rarely seen species can also be crucial in guiding targeted conservation actions specific to the geographic contexts in which these animals live.
More personally, I learned many technical lessons that morning, mainly due to the many filming errors I committed in those most crucial moments. More positively, the experience also stirred
a new and more passionate curiosity in me to study and better understand the secret lives and behaviours of the many fascinating species living in these high mountains.
So, how many cold risings in the dark is it worth to experience something you could never expect, but which might change your way of looking at the world forever? I realize now that it is only by fighting back against that intoxicating urge to stay safe in bed, safe from the cold and the wet and the often uneventful, that you are able to create opportunities to witness something spectacular. Thanks to the lynx, and everything else still out there, I’ll continue getting up to have that first hot cup of coffee in the dark.