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.
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