AGHORE (Lasbela district): The government is all set to slice land off the Hingol National Park, the country’s largest, as the Pakistan Air Force and another defence-related organisation eye the prized real estate near the estuary whose value is likely to increase phenomenally once the Gwadar port starts functioning.
Sources in the Balochistan revenue department told Dawn that while the PAF has asked for around 80,000 acres, including 23,000 acres in the national park, Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission’s demand is for eight mauzas.
A mauza is a local unit for measuring an area of land and has no fixed acreage.
Notified a national a park in 1997, the Hingol National Park’s total area is over 600,000 hectares (over 1.5 million acres). The national park includes the Hingol estuary and offshore, to a depth of five fathoms (30 feet). Its land falls in the Lasbela, Gwadar and Awaran districts.
According to Uthal-based divisional forest officer Hizbullah Jamali, the provincial wildlife department is merely a custodian of the land of the Hingol National Park.
“The land belongs to the revenue department which declared the area a national park through a notification under the Balochistan Wildlife Protection Act 1974. If now the government wants to take a piece of land from the national park, it will have to de-notify it. But what is beyond me is how the government will take such a step which amounts to a clear violation of international environment agreements,” he says.
Under an environmental agreement, the prestigious Global Environment Facility has been providing considerable financial support to the national park through the World Bank.
Environmentalists point out that the government would put the national park’s wildlife at risk if it gives away land.
They recall that the national park was established to protect marine estuarine and terrestrial fauna, such as the marsh crocodile, green turtle, masher fish, houbara bustard, dalmatian pelican, spot-billed pelican, plumbeous dolphin, Sindh ibex, urial, chinkara, pangolin and the leopard.
According to well-known naturalist Obaidullah Baig, who previously edited the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Urdu-language wildlife journal, the government has taken few steps over the years to protect wildlife in the Hingol National Park.
“To now allow defence organisations to set up their installations near a national park is to ensure that its wildlife is doomed. There should be little human activity around the national park. But for some odd reason a national highway was built right through the Hingol National Park,” he says.
A 109-kilometre stretch of the Makran Coastal Highway lies within the Hingol National Park, home to the Hinglaj shrine, which is dedicated to a ‘goddess’ known as Nani to the Muslims and Parvati, Kali or Mata to the Hindus. The Chandragup mud volcana, also sacred to the Hindus, lies across the coastal highway towards the beach.
Experts warn that allotment of land from a natural park to other organisations would set a bad precedent.
“The PAF is asking for land from the Hingol National Park because it got away with acquiring land from the Maslakh wildlife sanctuary in the Pishin district,” says Tahir Rasheed, national project manager of the Sustainable Use Specialist Group-Central Asia, an NGO involved in habitat and species conservation projects.
“The Maslakh wildlife sanctuary was established in 1968 to protect the chinkara and urial. According to the IUCN, all flagship wildlife species have now been eliminated from the area,” he says.
Locals also view giving away of land from the national park with unease. According to Balochistan assembly deputy speaker Aslam Bhootani, many government organisations are seeking to acquire land near the Gwadar port.
“It is nothing but an unseemly scramble for real estate. When the Makran Coastal Highway had not been built and the Gwadar port had appeared an impossible project, there was little interest in land in this part of Balochistan. But if the armed forces have asked for land from the national park, I think the environmentalists are fighting a losing battle,” says Mr Bhootani, whose constituency falls in the area around the Hingol National Park. A spokesman for the Pakistan Air Force was twice contacted for comment. We had not heard from him till the filing of this story late on Tuesday evening.