Funds freeze hampers Chitral Gol National Park conservation

Published November 8, 2021
A man looking through binoculars at the lookout point at the Chitral Gol National Park. — Photo by Muhammad Niaz/File
A man looking through binoculars at the lookout point at the Chitral Gol National Park. — Photo by Muhammad Niaz/File

PESHAWAR: Freezing of funds for local communities by federal ministry of climate change is hampering conservation activities at Chitral Gol National Park where a recent study has revealed significant decline in population of markhor, according to community members and conservators.

Markhor count survey conducted by the provincial wildlife department earlier last year carries shocking disclosures about the number of the national animal at Chitral Gol National Park. The official report said that about 2,000 markhors were spotted in the annual counting at the park, down from 2,850 in 2019.

The report cited fencing of the Pak-Afghan border and change in snowfall pattern as main factors for decline in the population of markhors, the country’s national animal. “Increased human activities and construction work along the border have restricted movement of markhors back to the national park which disturbed trans-border migration too,” said the report.

Report says annual count of markhor drops from 2,850 to 2,000

In addition, it said, December 2020 experienced less snow and rain in Chitral therefore the animals did not leave habitats at the high altitude area. Officials said whenever there was snowfall, the animal had to come down to lower altitude for foraging.

Since there was no snowfall in December last year in Chitral, therefore, the animal did not bother to leave his habitat. Besides, December is also the mating time for the animal, so both factors led to the decreased count of the animal, according to official accounts.

Background interviews with officials, conservationists and representative of the local community paint worrying situation for conservation programme, which has been lauded as a success story globally. They said that the stopping of funds to local community had a debilitating impact on conservation activities as the move removed the element of financial benefit for the community.

Hussain Ahmed, general secretary of Chitral Gol National Park Association, told Dawn that as long as the communities were getting benefits through Protected Areas Management Project (PAMP), they were interested in protecting the animal. However, stopping the cash flow also lessened the interest of community in the conservation work, he said.

“Till 2018, communities had owned the animal and the park, but after the stoppage of funds it is just a formality,” he quoted a community watcher as saying.

The multi-million rupees PAMP was initiated for the better management and capacity building of three national parks in the country including Chitral Gol, Hingol in Balochistan and Machiyara in Azad Jammu and Kashmir. After completion of the project that lasted ten years, the government established an endowment fund for sustainable development in three national parks areas.

Officials said that the fund was established at the ministry of climate change with seed money of $2 million.

They said that local communities identified in Chitral Gol National Park Management Plan, prepared during the PAMP, submitted their annual demand to the ministry which in turn released funds. “This process continued for seven years; however, due to unknown reasons endowment fund is not releasing funds for the communities,” said a source.

Mr Ahmed said that initially communities used to receive Rs8 million per annum, which they put to use for construction of water channels, check dams and other welfare schemes. He said that 22 community watchers were also hired for protection of the park and were being paid from the same fund.

He said that later the amount was halved to Rs4 million per annum. Consequently, the number of community watchers was also halved to 11. “Since 2016, the money flow from endowment fund has completely stopped,” he added.

Mr Ahmed said that local community sacrificed a lot for the protection of nature and conservation in their area. “People, who had herd of goats up to 1,000 animals, sold their animals to protect the park,” he said, adding that local people had stopped collection of fuel wood from the park.

He said that the community was not happy with the shifting of bank account to Islamabad and conveyed its reservations. Some 2,500 families were direct beneficiaries of PAMP, he.

Stakeholders blamed the joint secretary of MOCC, M Suleyman Khan, who is also holding additional charge of the post of inspector general forests Pakistan for the fiasco. However, Mr Khan was out of country and was not available for comments.

Dr Raja Mohammad Omer, deputy inspector general of forests, told Dawn that since the issue was subjudice at the Mingora branch of Peshawar High Court; therefore, he could not talk much about it.

However, he said that main reason for freezing funds for the communities was that it was not very productive. Bedsides they also decided to turn three smaller funds including endowment fund into a consolidated fund. “Now we are waiting for the court decision,” said Dr Omer.

Dr Mumtaz Malik, former KP chief conservator wildlife and chairman of the board of directors of the endowment fund, said that political factors and vested interest were responsible for freezing of the funds.

He said that the matter was taken up with the Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Environment Malik Amin Aslam and other relevant officials in Islamabad to unfreeze the funds to continue conservation activities in the park.

“If number of animals has dropped, then I would definitely think that community support for the project is vanishing,” insisted Dr Malik.

“The fund has been frozen for unknown reasons, rendering up to 200 local people jobless,” he said, adding that someone could not even have thought of poaching markhor in the park due to involvement and support of community.

Dr Malik said that number of counted animals also depended on the professional expertise of the surveyors. He said that the animal moved in herd; therefore, it could have stayed high up in the mountains due to less snowfall.

Published in Dawn, November 8th, 2021

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