“This is perhaps the only capital in the world that has a thick natural forest right inside it; on one side you have this concrete, urban city and on the other side you have this beautiful national park,” explained Dr Anis-ur-Rahman, head of the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board which now looks after the affairs of the Margalla Hills National Park (MNHP) and other wildlife concerns in the capital. “Living in a concrete jungle boxes in your soul and then when you come and walk in this forest and connect with nature, it is like expanding your soul; it is nature’s gift to the people of Islamabad.”
Indeed, on Trail Number 6, which was more recently opened up behind Faisal Mosque, and is covered with a canopy of indigenous trees and dotted with flowing streams, one feels one has entered an enchanted green wonderland. The fragrance of wild jasmine greets one at the unassuming entrance to the trail where a visitor centre displays mounted posters of the park’s endangered wildlife and flora. The trail then ducks under the thick tree cover and before one knows it, one is surrounded by dense forest, bubbling brooks and the songs of birds.
Dr Anis was addressing a group of environmental journalists on a one-day visit to MNHP. Earlier, the group listened to a presentation given by Vaqar Zakaria, director of the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation (HWF), an NGO that has been working in Margalla National Park. “We can surely develop and yet protect our environment, that is what sustainable development is all about,” stated Zakaria.
People must take ownership in the protection of our national parks
Roughly 40 km long and spread over 12,605 hectares, the MHNP was declared a national park in 1980, and also affirmed as a wildlife sanctuary. Local wildlife species include the Barking deer and the Khaleej pheasant. This status strictly prohibits any commercial activity and new settlements in the area. But a chain of hotels (approved by the Capital Development Authority), new roads and the growth of the local villages inside the park (all 23 of them with a combined population of 150,000 people) are now eating away at its habitat.
We started our tour of MHNP at Trail number 5, which once housed an army barrack and poultry farm during Gen Ziaul Haq’s era. The land would have been turned into a housing colony if the citizens of Islamabad had not campaigned at the highest level for the land to be returned to the people. Eventually 200 acres of the national park were returned and developed into Trail number 5. The barracks were turned into a nursery for indigenous plants and the poultry farm was destroyed.
“We had a South African landscape architect, Johan Lowe, design the park and he had the idea for visitor centres,” explained Zakaria. Today, this trail attracts around 300 to 400 visitors per day as it is more level then the popular but steep Trail number 3.
However, the visitors, numbering up to 1,200 per day during the holidays are also a nuisance as they dump their garbage on the trails or bring along barbeques, which inadvertently can cause fires inside the forest during the dry seasons. “Now we have banned barbeques inside the park and all plastic bags etc. must be deposited at the entrance to the trails”, said Zakaria.
“We are trying our best but despite putting up signs people don’t listen. The local villagers are also cutting trees and branches for firewood in winters and for use in the goat market in Saidpur Village. That is why we need more guards,” the HWF director adds.
Currently there are only a handful of guards protecting the park. “On paper there are 52, but actually there are only 21 and of these only five or six are actually working in the park!” The Capital Development Authority (CDA) is supposed to be in charge of hiring these guards but there is no top-level supervision.
Illegal urban encroachments, poaching, and tree chopping are the major pressures on the ecosystem of the park. “We are slowly destroying the most important thing we have” said Zakaria. CDA has allowed the construction of even more hotels who dump their waste into the park and plus they have expanded the picturesque Saidpur village illegally.
“Saidpur was supposed to be a model village with a few old houses so that city people could visit and see what a traditional village is like, but today it is a sprawling concrete settlement captured by CDA. The problem is that CDA regards the national park as a wasteland instead of a valuable repository”.
The Margalla Hills had also been experiencing stone crushing and mining but one good thing that CDA has done is to close down the last quarry in the park, which was shut down a year ago. According to CDA deputy director of environment, Akhtar Rasool, “it took a lot of effort to close down all the quarries in the park and we had to approach the Supreme Court to order the closure of the last one”.
Since there was no provision for proper wildlife management at the capital city, a board for the protection, conservation and management of MHNP was set up by the Islamabad High Court in 2015, after the hearing of different petitions about the miserable condition of the national park.
Headed by Dr Anis, the 13-member board was constituted under the Wildlife Management Board rules. With members like Senator Mushahid Hussein and MNA Maryam Aurangzeb, the board meets regularly and hopes to turn things around. “If we don’t take care of this park it will be gone in another 10 years or so. People need to look after it and invest in its protection” said Dr Anis.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 2nd, 2016