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Out in the wild

December 02, 2012

Rina Saeed Khan discusses the importance of conserving what is left of Pakistan’s unique habitats and wildlife

Pakistan has some of the most dramatic changes in elevation on earth — from 0m on Sonmiani Bay near Karachi to 8,611m, which is the summit of K-2, the second highest mountain in the world. According to WWF-Pakistan, Pakistan has 1,027 species of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles, of which 3.5 per cent are endemic and 5.5 per cent are threatened.

Unfortunately, Pakistan also has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. Extensive, often illegal logging is quickly reducing what’s left of the pine, spruce, cedar, and juniper trees in Pakistan’s north. Hunting is also a major threat to Pakistan’s rich wildlife, especially with the influx of modern weapons from decades of conflict in Afghanistan. Populations of markhor, urial, Asiatic black bear, snow leopard, and various pheasants (such as the monal, koklass, cheer and western tragopan) have declined in recent years. There is an urgent need to regulate and enforce restrictions on hunting and logging.

To conserve what is left of Pakistan’s unique habitats and wildlife, WWF-Pakistan and its partners are working with local authorities in a number of protected areas throughout the country. This includes successful conservation projects in the Hingol National Park on the Makran coast in Balochistan, home to a diversity of bird and fish species as well as leopards and ibex; Chitral Gol National Park near the border with Afghanistan, known for its markhor goats; and Machiara National Park, one of the few sites in which one finds a breeding population of the western tragopan pheasant.

The government of Pakistan has designated around 14 protected areas as national parks in order to save the wildlife of these areas. The Deosai National Park, for example, was established in 1993 to ensure the survival of the local population of Himalayan brown bears and protect their habitat. The number of brown bears has now gone up from 19 to above 40 in Deosai, so the establishment of the park has really helped to protect these endangered animals.

Most of Pakistan’s national parks are under the supervision of provincial governments. Pakistan also has 99 designated wildlife sanctuaries, which are special areas set aside for the protection of wildlife. Public access is prohibited or regulated and no exploitation of forests is allowed. Then there are 96 designated game reserves where hunting and shooting of wild animals is regulated under permits. The number of shoots allowed in reserves varies, and is determined by the provincial governments.

The oldest national park is Lal Suhanra in Bahawalpur District, established in 1972. Here the wildlife found in the nearby Cholistan Desert is given protection and there are captive breeding enclosures for the endangered black buck (which is no longer found in the open desert). The second oldest national park is the Khunjerab National Park (KNP), which at 15,500 feet is also the highest border crossing in the world into China.

The KNP is perhaps the most spectacular of them all given the dramatic changes in its altitude and the rich wildlife that is found there. It was established in 1975 on the recommendation of an American biologist, Dr George B Schaller, with the main purpose of conserving endangered animals like the Marco Polo sheep, blue sheep and snow leopard.

He recommended a portion of the park to be closed for grazing in order to provide protection to the wildlife. Imposing a ban on grazing livestock without buying the rights, however, created serious conflicts between the park management and the local people. Although agreements have now been hammered out between the Gilgit-Baltistan government and the local people, for many years the management plan of the park could not be implemented properly.

One of the newest national parks in Pakistan, the Central Karakoram National Park (CKNP) is also located in northern Pakistan. Covering 10,000sqkm it is Pakistan’s largest national park, home to K-2 and the most extensive glacial systems outside the polar regions but its ecosystem is fragile and threatened by environmental changes. Established in 1993, it remained largely a park on paper until the 50th celebration of the first ascent of K-2. That is when the Italians came in and offered funding to implement the management plan of the CKNP.

The people living in and around these parks have an important role to play in the protection of these areas and WWF-Pakistan is now thinking beyond the conventional top-down national park approach and adopting locally feasible strategies for conservation and natural resource management by involving the local communities.