Saving the land of the Brown Bears

Published May 18, 2014
Photo credit: www.facebook.com/WalkaboutFilmsPakistan
Photo credit: www.facebook.com/WalkaboutFilmsPakistan

Located at 13,500 feet above sea-lev­el, it is not easy to camp on the Deosai Plateau in Gilgit-Baltistan, let alone spend four months work­ing out of a tent with tem­per­a­tures vary­ing from mi­nus 15 de­grees Celsius to 38 plus in just one day! But that is ex­act­ly what Nisar Malik and his team of cam­era­men did last sum­mer to film Deosai — the Last Sanctuary, a docu­men­ta­ry film on the crit­i­cal­ly en­dan­gered Himalayan Brown Bear spe­cies. As the head of Walkabout Films, a com­pa­ny he formed 10 years ago, Malik is not on­ly an ex­pe­ri­enced film mak­er, but he is al­so an avid trek­ker and moun­tain-lov­er. He was in­stru­men­tal in film­ing the snow leop­ards for Sir David Attenborough’s spec­tac­u­lar Planet Earth ser­ies in 2004. He then hos­ted the award win­ning film Snow Leopard — Beyond the Myth which was al­so shown all over the world.

“It was a one year proj­ect,” he says about the Deosai film, “so we had no choice but to do all the film­ing over four-and-a-half months — that is the on­ly win­dow in a year that Deosai is open to the out­side world.” The well craf­ted docu­men­ta­ry not on­ly shows the wild beau­ty of the area, but al­so high­lights the var­i­ous prob­lems faced by the lo­cal com­mun­i­ty, wild­life of­fi­cials and, of course, the unique Brown Bears of Deosai dur­ing the sum­mer months.

In the short-lived sum­mer sea­son Deosai comes alive with the bloom­ing of wild flow­ers on roll­ing grass­lands with clear streams and snow-cov­ered peaks in the back­ground. The rest of the year it lies bur­ied deep un­der­neath snow and ice and is com­plete­ly cut off from the out­side world. The Deosai Plateau’s re­mark­a­ble flora and fau­na has earned it rec­og­ni­tion as a na­tion­al wil­der­ness park. It is al­so the last ref­uge of the Himalayan Brown Bear, which has been hun­ted in­to ex­tinc­tion in oth­er moun­tain areas.

“We knew where the bears were, so find­ing them and film­ing them was not a prob­lem for us,” he says of the 40 or so bears that are left re­main­ing in the wild. “But over the years, in­stead of be­ing ag­gres­sive like they were say 20 years ago, the bears now run away when they smell hu­mans.” His guess is that it is be­cause of the in­creased pres­ence of dogs and live­stock, brought in by the Gujjars (or no­mads) who are en­croach­ing on their ter­ri­to­ry. “People have star­ted in­trud­ing in­to the bears’ core area.” The prob­lems caused by the large num­bers of Gujjars now com­ing to Deosai in the sum­mer months are among the main is­sues threat­en­ing Deosai National Park’s frag­ile eco­sys­tem. Livestock graz­ing in Deosai and the burn­ing of shrubs for fire­wood (which is de­stroy­ing the hab­i­tat of the wild­life) have all been high­ligh­ted by the docu­men­ta­ry film, which was fun­ded by the USAID’s Small Grants & Ambassador’s Fund Programme.

It is the first film to be shown to the pub­lic un­der Walkabout’s “Give Back Series”. The launch­ing of the film and “The Give Back Project” was joint­ly or­gan­ised by the US Embassy in Islamabad along with Walkabout Films at the National Art Gallery last month. “The point of the ‘Give Back Project’ is to in­form, ed­u­cate and en­ter­tain peo­ple,” ex­plains Malik. “We hope to share these films for free with school and col­lege chil­dren, with lo­cal com­mun­i­ties and on the Internet. We want to share our nat­u­ral her­it­age with the world.” Deosai — The Last Sanctuary will now be free­ly dis­trib­uted to all schools along with sup­port­ing ed­u­ca­tion­al re­source ma­te­ri­al, in or­der to cre­ate aware­ness among the youth of the coun­try about their nat­u­ral her­it­age and to en­gage them in the strug­gle to pre­serve it.

US Ambassador Richard Olson in­aug­u­ra­ted the 40-mi­nute long film that was shown in cel­e­bra­tion of Earth Day 2014. A keen trek­ker him­self, Ambassador Olson ex­pressed ad­mi­ra­tion for the im­mense tour­ism po­ten­tial of Pakistan’s wild­life and nat­u­ral beau­ty, stat­ing, “I look for­ward to the day when peo­ple from around the world flock to Pakistan to hike over the Hispar La, ral­ly in the Cholistan Desert, ad­mire the mas­sive sea cliffs of Gwadar or sim­ply en­joy bird-watch­ing at Rawal Lake.”

The screen­ing of the film was fol­lowed by a pan­el dis­cus­sion with Pakistani wild­life ex­perts dis­cus­sing wild­life con­ser­va­tion as well as hu­man-an­i­mal con­flict. It was men­tioned that tou­rists have in­creased in the last few years due to the in­creased ac­ces­si­bil­i­ty of Deosai (bridges and roads). Unfortunately, the tou­rists leave a lot of trash be­hind; plas­tic bags and box­es and oth­er non-bi­o­de­grad­a­ble gar­bage. It was al­so ob­served that due to lack of funds, the lo­cal com­mun­i­ties have limi­ted man­pow­er to mon­i­tor un­law­ful ac­tiv­i­ties and are help­less when it comes to the Gujjars en­croach­ing on the Brown Bears’ hab­i­tat. As a re­sult, all the pal­at­a­ble plants are per­ish­ing and the bears’ food re­source is dwin­dling. The ex­perts poin­ted out that do­nors should come for­ward to con­trib­ute much nee­ded fund­ing to im­prove the park’s man­age­ment.

“There is a lot of pres­sure on Deosai in the sum­mer months,” says Malik. “I hope my film en­cour­ag­es the peo­ple of Gilgit-Baltistan to take bet­ter care of their nat­u­ral her­it­age. They should be proud of Deosai and pro­tect it as a val­ua­ble as­set. I real­ly hope they view my film from a pos­i­tive per­spec­tive. They need to charge all vis­i­tors to Deosai National Park. The Gilgit-Baltistan wildlife department which real­ly don’t have any funds at the mo­ment should take charge and they must make peo­ple pay to use the park.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 18th, 2014

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