The small wooden boat rocks precariously as it navigates through the marshy water of the Hokersar Wetland Reserve. Aaliya Mir, perched on the edge of the boat, points out migratory birds as they fly out of the golden reeds and into the blue sky, against the stunning background of the magnificent snow-capped mountains of the Pir Panjal range. She’s spent the last two weeks conducting the Asian Water-bird census in Kashmir, along with the forest department and volunteers from the region, and spots and identifies the avian visitors with ease.
The previous day, Aaliya was at the Wildlife SOS Asiatic Black Bear Rescue Centre in Pahalgam, one of two such rescue facilities run by the organisation in the state of Kashmir. Aaliya runs the two centres, managing staff and six large black bears, with the same graceful ease with which she is now identifying birds. The rugged mountains and pine-scented forests of Kashmir are home to Aaliya, and it is this home that she has dedicated her life to protecting.
She makes it look easy, even fun, as she happily hikes through the golden grass of the Dachigam National Park conducting the annual Red Deer (Hangul) census or tells visitors about the beautiful bears she cares for. But Aaliya’s comfort in her role is driven by a unique passion and dedication to the cause she stands for, and masks the reality of the challenging task she is tackling headlong- in the hostile and unpredictable weather of this rugged and difficult terrain, a fragile political situation leaves Kashmir among the most contested places in the world, and it is in this challenging environment that Aaliya works, to protect the forests she has grown up amidst and the animals that inhabit them.
Aaliya’s determination to help save Kashmir’s bears grew out of a tragic event, where she saw a bear being burnt alive and dragged through the streets following escalating human-wildlife conflict in the state. Driven by the tearful horror she experienced that day, Aaliya found herself joining Wildlife SOS in 2007, and slowly becoming one of the most inspiring members of the Wildlife SOS family.
The two rescue centres in Kashmir are home to a total of six Asiatic Black Bears, each rescued as a tiny, helpless cub, orphaned due to man-animal conflict and unable to fend for themselves. Aaliya has brought up each with a heart-warming affection that is evident when she talks about them, hand-raising them from infancy to the towering, magnificent bears they are today.
“When we first found them, they were the size of new-born puppies, and their eyes hadn’t even opened yet,” She says of rescued cub siblings Raja and Zara, now four years old, as they saunter cheerfully up to her as she approaches, “Now we need to expand their enclosure, they’ve gotten so big.”
Aaliya’s work doesn’t just involve rescuing bears though, as she constantly reiterates the significant role awareness plays in offering a permanent solution to the problem of man-animal conflict in the region. She conducts awareness drives for affected communities, taking out the time and patience to listen to their grievances and address their queries, wherever possible offering solutions for the people and wildlife to live together.
She conducts workshops with law enforcement agencies and the local forest department, as well as camps for local schools and visitors. Rescuing a snake from someone’s home or an orphaned owl- Aaliya addresses the needs of Kashmir’s wildlife in any way she can. She’s an inspirational powerhouse, and she makes it all look easy.
As a flock of greylag geese erupt from the marshy water, Aaliya breaks the tranquil silence of the Hokersar wetlands, whispering “For the ecosystem, the wetlands are like kidneys.”
With her unstoppable drive and passion, Aaliya is keeping the forests and wildlife of Kashmir alive.
In the Kashmir ecosystem, Aaliya is its heart.