There are many challenges to juniper regeneration, including its slow rate of growth | Photo by the writer
There are many challenges to juniper regeneration, including its slow rate of growth | Photo by the writer

Fifty-year-old Muhammad Hashim, an environmental activist and forest expert, has been working on climate education in Ziarat Valley for the last decade. Ziarat Valley is situated some 130 kilometres from Quetta and is known for its juniper forest. The juniper is locally known as Obashta and is also seen as a symbol of resilience and endurance.

Hashim worries about the degradation of the juniper forest, which has been badly impacted by natural calamities and the actions of locals. He believes climate education may help conserve the world’s second largest juniper forest. Although the government declared the Ziarat juniper forest a national park in 2017, its management plan is still unclear.

The juniper forest in Ziarat is believed to be one of the oldest forests on the planet and spans 112,185 hectares of land. It was declared a Man and Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) under their International Coordinating Council of the Man and the Biosphere Programme in 2013.

There are at least 50 species of junipers across Europe, North America, North Africa, West Asia, Central Asia and South Asia. Six of these can be found across western Pakistan.

The world’s second largest juniper forest in Ziarat Valley, developed over thousands of years, is facing threats both from climate change and human activity

A FRAGILE ECOSYSTEM

According to Hashim, the Ziarat juniper forest is located in a dry temperate zone at an altitude of approximately 7,000 feet above sea level in the northeast region of Balochistan. The forest is adjacent to the second highest mountain of Balochistan, Khalifat. It is home to a variety of flora, such as olives, wild ash, pomegranates, figs, wild pistachio, wild almond and local medicinal plants (shinshobi, maakhei and zralga).

Hashim explains, “The juniper forest in Ziarat, the pine forest in the Sulaiman range and the mangrove forests in the coastal belt play a pivotal role in carbon sequestration. The forest and its associated plants and wildlife constitute a unique ecosystem.”

The juniper forest’s diverse ecosystem also supports a range of wildlife, including straight-horned markhor, wolves, hill foxes, jackals, cape hares, porcupines, Afghan hedgehogs, Afghan pikas and stone marten. You can also find birds such as the red-legged rock partridge, see-see partridge, kestrel, rosy starling, magpie and golden eagle and reptiles such as the Afghan tortoise, agama, brown cobra, saw-scaled viper, dwarf dark-headed racer and Levantine viper.

The forest plays a crucial role in the ecosystem of the region, as it helps maintain the local climate, prevents soil erosion and provides habitat for various species of flora and fauna. Moreover, the forest is also crucial in curbing extreme weather and other problems associated with climate change, since the trees absorb carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.

The juniper forest is called a “living fossil” because of its outsized life cycle. It is an important carbon sink, storing a significant amount of carbon in all its pools. Environmentalists estimate that a single juniper tree may emit about 50 tons of oxygen annually as an evergreen coniferous tree, while simultaneously absorbing other harmful gases from the atmosphere.

The juniper tree is considered to be very tolerant to harsh conditions as it is a drought-resistant tree that reduces aridity by transpiration, prevents soil erosion, increases soil fertility and provides grazing pasture. It also improves the groundwater table.

Climate change, nevertheless, poses a great threat to this area.

A CHANGING CLIMATE

According to The Journal of Biodiversity and Environmental Sciences, devastating strong winds in February 2015 severely damaged the juniper forest of Ziarat. Prior to open canopy vegetation, nearly 132 trees were damaged in the four ranges of the juniper forest in the Ziarat district.

Climate change has also impacted how much snow Ziarat receives. According to Hashim, Ziarat would receive between eight to 10 feet of snowfall in the winter season, but it has been reduced to merely eight inches of snow now. As a result, the juniper trees now get less water and this is impacting their health negatively.

“It is crystal clear that droughts have further depleted groundwater levels but, on the other hand, the solar-powered pumping machines have also exacerbated the situation,” says Hashim.

There are many challenges to juniper regeneration, including its slow rate of growth, but climate change is the major factor. For example, the parasitic disease Dwarf Mistletoe recently infected the juniper trees on a large scale. Dieback and fungal diseases have also had adverse effects on the health and productivity of juniper trees.

Deputy Conservator Forest Ziarat Haseeb Kakar says, “During past winters, when there would be heavy snowfall, the juniper seed would remain under the snow for three to four months. The hard coat would soften under the snow. In the spring season, the seed would sprout. Now, since the snowfall has decreased, the dormancy of the seed is broken.”

The parasites have also resulted in the migration of a wild bird, locally known as Obasht Khwara, which consumes the juniper berry and plays an important role in the regeneration of juniper trees.

Deputy Commissioner Ziarat Muhammad Ramzan Palal adds that temperature fluctuation affects the juniper forest. People are now facing an uncertain situation, suffering either by drought or by super floods. Rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and disruptions to ecosystems have far-reaching consequences for people, animals and the environment.

Palal points out that Pakistan contributes only one percent to global carbon emission compared to countries like China and the US, which are the highest contributors. “The juniper forest of Ziarat is our valuable asset and national heritage,” Palal says, “It plays a vital role in mitigating environmental pollution and the impact of global warming and needs to be protected.”

DEFORESTATION AND DEGRADATION

Climate change is not the only threat to the juniper forests, however. Rising populations are also having an impact.

Since the natural gas supply in the area is poor, the local community cuts the trees to use as fuel during the winter season. The trees may be an asset for the government and international organisations, but for the locals they are often more important as a source of livelihood.

According to Haseeb Kakar, “As the population in the region grew, the forest faced numerous pressures. Poor regeneration, deforestation, overgrazing, agricultural land extension, canopy dieback, mistletoe attack and periodic drought are the contributing factors for the forest degradation. These factors not only destroy the regeneration capacity and vegetation cover but also make the soil susceptible to erosion.”

Amjad Khilji, a researcher at the Balochistan University of Information Technology Engineering and Management Sciences (BUITEMS), explains, “People have planted apple, cherry, plum and peach trees, as it is more profitable compared to selling juniper trees. In some areas, people are using forest land for agriculture and expanding their orchards. Urbanisation is not only replacing the forests but the agricultural land too.”

Like elsewhere, different environmental factors also impact the juniper forests of Ziarat, which are now facing both anthropogenic and natural threats.

EFFORTS

Despite its protected status, the juniper forest today faces various challenges. Com­m­unity involvement is crucial to ensure the conservation of this unique natural treasure.

Under the 10 Billion Tree Tsunami programme, cluster, woodlot, block and roadside tree plantations were done on 275 acres of land. Moreover, potted and bedded nurseries have also been established in the Ziarat Valley.

According to a forest official, “A notification for the construction of a National Park — the third national park in Balochistan — on 16,000 hectares was issued in 2017 under the Balochistan Wildlife Protection, Preservation, Conservation and Management Act 2014. Under the Establishment of National Park at Ziarat project, we are giving the finishing touches to the management plan for the national park.

“The core aim of the establishment of a national park is enhancing forestry and conserving wildlife.”

Juniper forests like Ziarat’s take thousands of years to develop. Plans to sustain them cannot wait until the trees are gone.

The writer covers climate change in Balochistan. He can be reached at mandokhail.rafi@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 31st, 2023

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