River Poonch meanders through Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK), cutting through the low Himalayan mountains as it passes through one picturesque valley after another. With its shallow gravel beds and rocky shores, it is the ideal breeding ground for the famous Mahasheer fish, scientifically known as Tor Putitora.
In 2010, the Poonch, its tributaries and their beds were designated as the River Poonch Mahasheer National Park, located at an approximately three-hour drive from Islamabad.
From Degwar Madarpur, where the 62-kilometre long Poonch river enters the AJK territory to Dadyal — where it drains into Mangla dam — is now a protected area for the Mahasheer.
Inhabiting the southern watersheds of the Himalayas, and opting to live in lakes or dams, the Mahasheer migrates upwards to the tributaries each year to breed in the gravel stream beds. Conservationists say the Golden Mahasheer is the largest fresh water fish on earth found in many of the rivers originating from Himalayas. Anglers call it the best sports fish while culinary experts believe it is the best tasting one.
The entire length of Poonch river in Azad Jammu and Kashmir has been declared as the first-ever aquatic protected area for a globally threatened species of fish
The state of Jammu and Kashmir has historically been the stronghold for the Mahasheer with the Poonch being its major habitat.
“This river is the only place where you can still find large numbers of this fish. Today, one can hardly find any commercial fish in other rivers of Pakistan, which are polluted by the dumping of waste and the extraction of sediments”, explained Dr Anis-ur-Rahman, a wildlife expert.
The Poonch has not been spared either. Destruction of the spawning habitat by extraction of gravel and sand over the years has been seriously threatening the Mahasheer population in the river system, as has fishing through large nets, in which hundreds of fish were caught at a time. Additonally, the people of Kotli have been dumping garbage into the river. Fortunately, the declaration of the river as a national park has now put an end to all such activities.
The government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir and the Mira Power Company Ltd, a subsidiary of Korea South-East Power (Kosep) company responsible for developing the environmentally sustainable 102-MW Gulpur hydropower project, have also signed an agreement for implementing a biodiversity action plan for the park.
This important agreement could become the model for future hydropower projects on the northern rivers. “Energy from our rivers will be used to relieve loadshedding,” explains Dr Anis, who works for the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation, a NGO that will provide trained wildlife guards to protect the Poonch river inside the national park.
A group of environmental journalists recently visited the under-construction hydropower plant. “In Gulpur, we are ensuring that there will be minimal damage to the river,” says Dr Anis.
In agreement with the AJK government, Kosep will provide supplemental funds for the protection of the park as well as for construction of a hatchery for the Mahasheer fish in Murli Nullah near Kotli. This is the first of its kind long-term collaboration between the government and the private sector to manage a national park. Kosep has conducted an environmental impact assessment and modified the design of the project, diverting just 0.7km of the Poonch River instead of the originally planned 6km stretch.
“The threat of environmental damage became an opportunity for us to plan protection scenarios. We studied how we could get energy and conserve at the same time,” explains Jahanzeb Murad, the manager in charge of environment and corporate social responsibility from the Gulpur hydropower project.
A biodiversity action plan was prepared and a management committee formed for monitoring and evaluation. Guards were hired and trained to look after the river and its fish.
“There is a community relations programme that includes women to raise awareness about protection,” he adds. “We want people to stop fishing using nets and dumping waste into the river. The higher ups of the area are cooperating with us.” As the health of the river improves, the quantity of fish in it will go up and will be measured at special points in the river.
The hydropower project is currently under construction and we were taken to a lookout point to see the massive remodeling of the hills. On completion, it will provide much-needed power to the national grid and conservation funds will be built into the tariff. “We want to engage the wildlife department, local fisheries, and the local communities to preserve the park,” explains Jahanzeb Murad. With its exemplary management plan and implementation, Mahasheer National Park strives to become a model national park.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 16th, 2016