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Distress calls: Wildlife at Margalla Hills under threat

Updated Jan 23, 2015 01:36am

By Suhail Yusuf and Muhammad Umar


What would you do if one fine morning you walk up to your breakfast table, eyes half shut, and find a flying squirrel, a Bronzeback tree snake and a Rhesus monkey seated comfortably on your chair, sipping a hot cup of tea?

The natural reaction for many would be to shriek and run away. Chances are, if the same scene is repeated every morning, you would most likely start avoiding your breakfast table and find another place to get your meal.

That is exactly what's happened at the Margalla Hills National Park (MHNP) in Islamabad, except in this case the perpetrators have been the humans and the unfortunate victims the wildlife at the park.

Roughly 40 km long, the MHNP was declared a national park on 27 April, 1980, under Section 21(1) of the Islamabad Wildlife (protection, conservation and management) Ordinance, 1979 and also affirmed as a wildlife sanctuary. This status strictly prohibits any commercial activity and settlement in the area. But a chain of hotels, mushrooming at the heart of this diverse park, is eating away at its habitat.

Illegal urban encroachments, poaching, and tree chopping are the major pressures on the delicate ecosystem of the park, home also to a host of endangered species.

"The whole purpose of a national park is conserve and protect. Ideally, there is very little to no human activity in the core areas of these parks and it is usually limited to research. Unfortunately, the location of the Margalla Hills means that it has become a recreational hub for people in Islamabad more than a secluded, protected park,"

says Dr Fakhar Abbas of the Bioresource Research Centre.

"The strategic location of the Margalla Hills also means that extraordinary security measures are also in place here which add to the stress to the ecosystem."

In recent times human activity increased a great deal and a two-way road had to be constructed. This resulted in creating a division, cutting right through the MHNP and dividing the wildlife on two sides of the road.

"A physical barrier was created and the wildlife populations were pushed to the east and west of the hills. The interaction between these populations decreased as a result," Abbas adds.

MHNP is home to gray gorals, listed as "Near Threatened" by IUCN because of hunting and habitat loss, Rhesus macaque, barking deer, wild boars, mangoose, porcupines, flying squirrels, bats, Indian hare, scaly anteaters, pangolin and leopards.

As far as the fate of the grey gorals is concerned Abbas fears for the worst.

"In 2003-2004, we had sighted about 12 gorals in the area. We had estimated through those numbers that there were approximately 40 gorals in MHNP. Then in 2011, some of our students set out to research on the feeding habits of the goral. Let alone direct sightings, we did not even find any signs hinting at the presence of gorals."

The highly secretive barking deers, which were in such big numbers that sometimes they used to wash up in streams during high monsoon season, have also disappeared from the area, Abbas says.

A park ranger from the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation (HWF) attributed the declining number of the barking deer and the grey goral (wild goats) to not only a loss of habitat but also to poaching.

The ranger also noted fewer footprints of the deer around water bodies which were seen in large numbers some four to five years back.

Dr Maqsood Anwar, a wildlife professor at the Barani University Rawalpindi said that grazing for domestic animals and chopping trees for fuel could have also resulted in the decline of grey goral in the park.

Deadly contact

Hundreds of cars travel on the coiled road every day towards restaurants of the now busy MHNP, creating light and noise pollution and intruding the delicate habitat of wildlife at MHNP.

“There are many lights on the road even during late at night which is seriously disturbing the wildlife at the national park,”

said Rafque Ahmed at PMNH.

Several animals have been hit by the fast moving vehicles on the way. Among them wild boars accidents are common as they suddenly came out on the roads at night and are hit by vehicles.

Animal attacks have also been observed, run-ins with leoparda being the fatal instances.

“The leopard attacks on herds of livestock and grab the easiest pray. It silently travels at a distance besides the shepherd and his herd,” Said Dr.Waseem Ahmed, President of the Wildlife Society of Pakistan and professor at the University of Veterinary Science (UVAS), Lahore.

Ahmed adds that the common leopard moves to low altitudes during winters and have attacked people as well.

“At the Galiyaat areas near Islamabad, many leopard attacks have been reported even on women and children,”

Ahmed says.

Bats – Our silent servants

Ten different types of bats have been recorded at the Margala Hills during a recent survey by Muhammad Mahmood-ul-Hassan, Associate Professor at the Department of Zoology and Fisheries, University of Agriculture, Faisalabad.

“The Egyptian tomb bat and the greater Asiatic yellow house bat were a new record from Margalla Hills National Park while Indian flying fox, the naked-rumped tomb bat, the lesser Asiatic yellow house bat , the common pipistrelle, the Kelaart’s pipistrelle, the Javan pipistrelle, the Indian pygmy bat and the Savi’s Pipistrelle are also found at MHNP,” said Hassan.

“Bats of Pakistan are mainly categorised in two main groups on the basis of their food. The ones that feed on nothing but plant matter such as nectar, petals, fruits and leaves are called fruit bats. Whereas the others consume only the insects,” he added.

Both types of bats are useful for agriculture and biological control as they are active pollinators and eat harmful night insects. Thanks to these silent servers the ecosystem is maintained and cultivation enhanced.

A world without bats needs painstaking efforts to pollinate plants one by one and need large amount of insecticides for the crops to kill damaging pests but with other extremely harmful side effects.

“A single bat can eat thousands of insects each night (ranging from 1,000 to 3,000), and may consume up to 50 per cent of their own body weight of insects in a single evening The little brown bat (Eptesicus lucifugus) is capable of capturing 600 mosquitoes in just one hour!” added Hassan.

A sanctuary

Herons, larks, doves, sparrows, robins, little ringed plower, owl and tree pie are the birds found here. While the Himalayan Griffon, Chit Chat, mallard, Tufted duck, Pintail and Gold finches are among the winter visitors at the park. More than 65 species of birds have been spotted here so far but some sources put the number close to 100.

Almost six types of snakes crawl slither through the dense forest of MHNP and the common Bronzeback tree snake was also observed in 2011 by the experts of Pakistan Museum of Natural History (PMNH).

In the unique ecosystem of Margalla hills, the subtropical weather is responsible for the thick vegetation. Numerous types of trees, herbs and shrubs hold valuable ingredients of medicinal worth and are still used by local people as natural products. More than 46 plants have been identified for their healing properties.

The wilderness of Margalla hills is full of surprises and may hold new species to be discovered. The site needs three steps urgently: first, immediately halt illegal settlements, secondly, strict implementation of wildlife conservation laws with full force and third a detailed survey of all the flora and fauna.

"Shakarparian is also part of the Margalla Hills National Park but it has been transformed into concrete. At the Margalla Hills several big hotels have sprung up. 50,000-60,000 people eat food here per day, the black water emissions and the fossil fuel burning and even the cars coming here have taken a big toll on MHNP," laments Dr Fakhar Abbas.

"Unfortunately, we can't call it a national park anymore but steps can still be taken to limit human activity and preserve what is left."


Credits

Text by

Suhail Yusuf

Text editing by

Taimur Sikander

Video and Post Production by

Muhammad Umar

Data from Pakistan Journal of Botany by Sheikh Saeed Ahmed, Fakhra Mahmood et al