PESHAWAR: The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has made zero progress on establishing six new national parks and three biosphere reserves to increase protected area in the province, as directed by Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Officials told Dawn that KP Wildlife and Biodiversity Board, established in 2015 and headed by Chief Minister Mahmood Khan, discussed the issue in May 2021 when it met for the first time since its establishment. However, minutes of the meeting never became available owing to differences between wildlife and forests sections of the environment department.

“The board held its maiden meeting in May last that remained inconclusive and even minutes of the meeting were not released to the departments,” said an official, who is dealing with matters related to conservation of natural resources. Legally the board was in deficit by not holding meetings, he said on condition of anonymity.

Under Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Wildlife and Biodiversity (Protection, Preservation, Conservation and Management) Act, 2015, the meeting of the board should be held twice a year to advise the government on policy decisions relating to protection, promotion, preservation, conservation and management of wildlife in the province.

Wildlife and biodiversity board, established in 2015, held its maiden meeting in May 2021

Minister for Environment Syed Mohammad Ishtiaq, when contacted, said that Covid-19 pandemic caused delay in convening the board’s meeting. The minister, who might not have had updated information, claimed that six new national parks had been established in the province under the prime minister’s directives.

In the light of prime minister’s directives, the wildlife department has chalked out plan to increase protected area of the province from the existing 10.21 per cent to 16 per cent. Officials said that protected area of the province had dropped from 15 per cent to 10.21 per cent after the merger of tribal districts with the province.

They said that being signatory to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Pakistan would increase protected area to 17 per cent of its total territory by the year 2030 in order to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values. The country’s total protected area comprising all game reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and national parks is around 11 per cent.

A source in the wildlife department said that the province’s protected area would increase to 13 per cent if the government notified six new national parks and three biosphere reserves. A national park requires minimum 5,000 acres land.

The government has established six national parks in the province since 1984. Broghil, the national park in Chitral, was set up in 2010.

Sources said that wildlife department had identified nine sites for setting up six national parks and three biosphere reserves, however, forest department was of the view that such reserves should be established on range land or above tree line instead of going for places, which had already been utilised by it.

The wildlife department has recently submitted detailed plan regarding new national parks and biosphere reserves. The proposed sites for national parks include Kamal Ban in Mansehra, Rakh Topi in Kohat, Koh-i-Sulaiman in Dera Ismail Khan, Malkandi in Mansehra, Ghossarah in Kohat-Hangu and Nizampur in Nowshera.

The department has identified three sites -- Kumarat in Dir, Mankial in Swat and Palas Valley in Kolai Palas district -- that will be developed as biosphere reserves. A biosphere reserve is an ecosystem with plants and animals of unusual scientific and natural interest.

Officials said that the department had also proposed extension of Ayubia National Park and Sheikh Baddin National park besides developing Kumarat in Dir and Makhnial in Haripur district as sites of special scientific interest.

Sources said that differences between wildlife and forest departments, both operating under the umbrella of environment department, surfaced during the board’s meeting. The chief minister, being chairman of the board, chaired the meeting.

An official said that during the meeting, the forest department officials insisted that wildlife department should not intervene in their domain. He said that the department suggested that national parks should be established above the tree line -- the edge of the habitat at which trees are capable of growing, found at high elevations and high latitudes.

He said that forest department was reluctant to share woodlands it had developed over many years, saying that wildlife departments should establish its own protected territories. In response to this, the wildlife department said that areas above the tree line did not serve its purpose.

“Beyond the tree line, the lifecycle needs of wild animals are not available due to its barren and inhospitable nature. Again, the purpose of establishing national parks is to encourage eco-tourism, but with little access to highlands, that purpose is also defeated,” said an official.

The forest department suggested that the protected area should be established in the newly merged tribal districts. However, officials of wildlife department said that it was not feasible because the land record and status in the merged areas had yet to be settled in a region where land remained an abiding source of major disputes among the tribes.

Published in Dawn, August 16th, 2021

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