Located at an average elevation of 4,000 metres, the Deosai plateau in Gilgit-Baltistan is one of the highest plateaus in the world. Legend has it that several centuries ago a huge giant lived on this vast plateau; hence its name Deosai or ‘Dev Vasai’, (meaning ‘land of the giant’). No longer the abode of a giant, the Deosai plateau is now best known for supporting the largest brown bear population in Pakistan.

Despite the high altitude and extreme climate, there are many settlements on the north-eastern border of the Deosai National Park. Grazing of livestock is the traditional practice of these communities. The area is also visited by nomadic herdsmen, the Gujjar-Bakarwals, who bring their cattle to Deosai for grazing in summer.

While the local communities remain restricted to certain areas, the Gujjars indiscriminately graze their livestock in almost all the areas of Deosai. Grazing not only degrades the vegetation cover leading to habitat loss and fragmentation, it also increases competition for natural resources for the local wildlife species of the Park. The Gujjars also remove bushes and plants that provide cover to the wildlife and protect the soil from degradation. These actions have a detrimental effect on the wildlife species of Deosai, particularly the brown bear.

Once found in large numbers, the Himalayan brown bear is now a critically endangered species

In the late 1980s, a small group of researchers observed brown bears in the Deosai region. In 1993, an NGO, the Himalayan Wildlife Project — later renamed Himalayan Wildlife Foundation (HWF) — established a research camp; it was the first time that the bears of Deosai became the subject of scientific inquiry and census. Investigations revealed that Deosai was home to just 19 bears, a much smaller number than claimed by Wildlife Department.

Realising the importance of conserving these precious few bears as well as other mammals, various species of migratory birds and a great variety of flora, the HWF made efforts to get this unique high altitude plateau declared a national park. The same year, the boundary of the Deosai National Park was demarcated and the area received officially protected status.

From 1993 to 2004, the HWF provided support to the Forest Department in research, planning and development activities for the Park. Information on the bear’s population status and dynamics, behaviour, feeding habits, habitat use, etc. was collected through scientific methods. Based on this information, the Park was divided into separate zones for bears (that were off limits for grazing) and for grazing. The Forest Department staff was provided necessary training and an awareness raising programme for the local communities was initiated. Financial and technical support was provided by a number of national and international donors and agencies. These efforts bore fruit and the bear population increased from about 20 in 1993 to about 58 at the end of 2004. The fish population in the rivers also increased significantly in this period.

In 2004, the Forest Department took over from the HWF all the management functions of the Park. In 2005, the Northern Areas Forest Department (now Department of Forest, Wildlife and Environment, Gilgit-Baltistan) assumed full ownership and took full control of the park management.

However in 2012, an independent study showed that the population of brown bears was stagnating at about 60 individuals. The reasons: habitat degradation and fragmentation caused by increasing number of visitors, encroachment into wildlife habitat by Gujjars as well as violation of National Park regulations by construction contractors. The report stated that the Department was facing resource and financial constraints and had inadequate equipment and facilities for park management, wildlife surveys and commincation.

Brown bears are at the top of the food chain in the Deosai plateau
Brown bears are at the top of the food chain in the Deosai plateau

Keeping in view the results of this assessment, the HWF initiated a new project, ‘Towards Sustainable Management of Deosai National Park’, in April 2014, aimed at conserving the brown bear in Deosai National Park. The project is funded by the USAID’s Small Grants and Ambassadors Fund Program and will be completed in May 2015. According to Vaqar Zakaria, Director of HWF, “The objective of the project is to support the Forest, Wildlife and Environment Department to remove threats to the habitat and population of the brown bear; create a policy, institutional, and financial framework for sustainable management of the park; and develop and test a monitoring framework to assess the achievement of the above objectives.”

The new management plan of the Park, being currently being developed, is set to define and designate various management zones in the Deosai National Park (DNP) such as conservation zone, sustainable management zone and intensive community zone. It is expected that proper management of these areas will lead to an increase in the population of the Brown Bear, as well as meet the objectives of the National Park.

“Our aim is to make conservation in DNP financially sustainable,” says Dr Anis ur Rahman, CEO of the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation. “We have recommended to the government to amend the current legislation specific to the DNP to include grazing rules in which the number of Gujjar-Bakarwals will be curtailed through management policies such as grazing permits. We have also suggested that a separate Wildlife Conservation Fund be set up for the DNP to ensure protection of the park and availability of resources. Entry, grazing fee, angling fee (permit based fishing in only designated areas) as well as fines can go into the fund.”

It is heartening to learn that attempts are being made that will be beneficial for all stakeholders. Not only the ecological resources, particularly the brown bear population, will be conserved but the Department and the government will also benefit from improved internal revenue generation, while the traditional grazing rights of the Gujjars will be protected.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 22nd, 2015

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