The situation is grave in remote Alai valley where subsistence farmers, struggling to make ends meet at the best of times, are currently faced with an extremely bleak future indeed as, thanks to the arrival of a mysterious disease, their buffaloes are dying.

Alai, it lies north and east of Battagram in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in a rugged area of high mountains and largely in hospitable terrain, was devastated during the huge earthquake of 2005 and during which many lives, and countless homes, were lost.

Eight years down the line, poverty and sickness – tuberculosis being a prime example, are endemic and unless a household has a least one male member gainfully employed in places such as Karachi and Lahore, cash money is a luxury that the people there rarely see.

Under such circumstances, as high a level of self-sufficiency as possible is the only means to survival and, with much of the steep, rocky land, uncultivable, the possession of a buffalo is all that keep some families from actual starvation: On a daily diet of milk, yoghurt, butter, cheese and roti, with, depending on the season, saag made from a variety of wild plants, plus, for the lucky ones, a little home produced corn, beans, cucumbers and pumpkins, they manage to get by although, despite this, there are evident signs of malnutrition. Meat is rarely, if ever on the menu and chicken, along with seasonal eggs, is, for the vast majority, reserved for very special occasions.

Some families do, along with a prized buffalo or two, own perhaps a few goats or even a cow but, these aside, everyone depends on their buffalo or buffaloes which are, as mountain tradition dictates, kept in a specially constructed room inside the family home and from where, in good weather only, they are taken out to graze under the watchful eyes of women and children whose hard lives revolves around these animals.

Now though, according to Kamran Shah from a tiny hamlet called Diyar – this is simply a scattering of basic village homes inhabited by relatives located almost at the head of Alai valley – almost 200 buffaloes have sickened and died over the past few weeks: his own family have lost two, their third one is sick and a calf, born on the tenth day of Ramadan, is unlikely to survive without fresh milk to sustain it. The claves mother was the first of their buffaloes to succumb to this mystery illness, a second buffalo was convinced to foster the calf but she died a few days ago. The third buffalo, a young adult, is not yet in milk and buying in milk, even powdered milk, is completely out of financial reach.

Kamran traces the source of the disease back to a buffalo in the nearby village of Gunther which was brought in from somewhere in the Punjab. “That one was the first to get sick and die” he says. “They die very quickly, just two or three days is all it takes and not a single one of the buffaloes that gets ill has survived. Over 90 buffaloes have died around Gunther and at least another 80 in a village up on the mountain above Karak at the entrance to Alai.”

Employed as a mali in a large hotel in the Murree Hills, Kamran explains that the government veterinary doctor for the Alai area has not been able to identify the disease which “Attacks the buffaloes liver, heart and brain. The medicine injections for the buffaloes are expensive but they have not stopped them from dying” he says obviously very upset and worried about the situation back home.”

The only one of his extended family of 11 people to have paid work, Kamran explained how essential a buffalo is for family survival “Without a buffalo it will be almost impossible to have even basic food like milk” he said. “During the earthquake many buffaloes and other livestock were killed. Many families who lost their homes at that time had to sell their surviving livestock when they moved in to camps outside Alai or went to stay with distant relatives until their homes could be rebuilt. At that time livestock dealers gave very little money for the animals because they knew that people had no option but to sell them. Since then people have worked hard and saved hard, some have taken loans to buy replacement buffaloes. My own family really struggled to get the three we had. The price of a buffalo now is very high, a good one costs Rs 1,40,000 – Rs 1,50,000 and even if, by some miracle, the money can be found, this sickness might stay in the soil and any new buffaloes could die which is a risk we cannot afford to take.”

Cows have, apparently, suffered to a lesser extent and goats not at all. It is, however, surprising and of high concern that government veterinaries have not, as yet, been able to either identify or control the obviously contagious disease which is, by annihilating a basic food source, endangering the health and the lives of literally thousands of people who have absolutely nowhere to turn for essential support in this time of need: A time which is further highlighted by the rapid approach of winter for which, due to the adverse impact of climate change on the few crops they are able to grow, they have frighteningly little put by.

All the poor, subsistence farmers of Alai can do right now is hope – and pray.

The writer has authored a book titled The Gun Tree:  One Woman’s War and lives in Bhurban.