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Looking back at Pakistan's environmental disaster in the 80s

Published Nov 08, 2018 03:32am

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Sindh ibex: But conservation must go beyond protected areas | Courtesy Sindh Wildlife Management Board
Sindh ibex: But conservation must go beyond protected areas | Courtesy Sindh Wildlife Management Board

The visit to Prince Bernhard of Denmark, one of the founder members of the World Wildlife Fund met with the usual kind of official response - speeches, dinners, visits to selected wildlife locations conducted under a heavy blanket of security. But out of sight is definitely out of mind, it seems. Hardly a fortnight after Prince Bernhard had been assured by official spokesmen of Pakistan's commitment to wildlife conservation, the National Assembly gave a less than sympathetic welcome to the second appearance of Syeda Abida Hussain's bill seeking to impose a five-year ban on Houbara hunting.

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of WWF. For Pakistan, the occasion may come as a time for stock-taking. Both wildlife - in the form of threatened species such as the Houbara bustard- and the natural environment as a whole are the subject of public concern to a greater extent than ever before. Yet in terms of concrete measures taken to protect the environment or wildlife, the government seems to have decided that verbal commitments, expressed in the most general of platitudes, are as far as it is prepared to go.

Though an Environment Protection Ordinance has been promulgated, not even the first step towards its implementation - setting up the bureaucratic machinery of regulation – has been taken. And though the Ministry of Food and Agriculture requested the International Union for Conservation of Nature to formulate a national conservation strategy for Pakistan (in line with the World Conservation Strategy launched in 1980) no further steps have been taken so far, despite the fact that our environment faces growing and multiple threats.

On a global scale, environmental destruction presents an appalling set of statistics. Tropical rain-forests; the world's major treasure trove of both plant and animal wildlife, are being cut down at the rate of 100 acres a minute and if this continues, they will all have gone by the end of the century. What this means for mankind, let alone non-human life, is a disaster approaching the dimensions of a nuclear holocaust. Every day, one more species of plant or animal becomes extinct, the majority of them unknown and unrecorded. Three quarter of a million invertebrate species and one thousand vertebrates (ranging from elephants and rhinos to the tropical birdwing butterfly) face extinction. Twenty-five thousand plant species are also in danger.

And the biggest threats are not the direct ones - hunting or commercial exploitation - but the indirect: the massive habitat destruction resulting from economic development, which literally makes wildlife homeless. "Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home, your house is on fire and your children all gone," used to be a popular nursery-rhyme. It now sounds like a grim prophecy. According to WWF's research and scientific sister organisation, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 20 birds, 31 mammal and 4 reptiles are in danger of becoming extinct in Pakistan. We have already lost the tiger the wild dog and probably the cheetah. The snow leopard is down to the Iast few dozen. The Indus dolphin, found only in Pakistan, was barely saved from extinction by timely intervention in 1974. And currently, the Houbara bustard is facing an annual decimation of its numbers through hunting by Arab visitors.

But though the prospect seems bleak, it is not entirely hopeless. Certain important steps have been taken which have the potential to become the foundation stones of a serious commitment to the environment. If nothing else, environmental protection and conservation of wildlife have been put on the national agenda, and a growing public awareness is slowly but surely bringing pressure to bear on policy making.

Till 1983 when the Environmental Protection Ordinance was formulated, the approach taken to environment and wildlife was piecemeal and reactive. But conservation is more than just the preservation of one species of wildlife or one area of forest or wilderness. It needs to be a much larger commitment, integrating environmental protection and the concept of sustainable resource use into development programmes. It was as a result of this awareness that the Environmental Protection Ordinance sought to build environmental impact assessment into the process of formulating industrial and economic development projects.

Pakistan's conservation history is not undistinguished. Several projects - the green turtle, the Sind ibex and Indus dolphin, Kirthar and other national parks the Haleji bird sanctuary - have been successfully undertaken. But so far these initiatives have been dependent on single individuals or dedicated team-work by non-governmental organisations like the Sind Wildlife Management Board and WWF. No serious commitment however has been made by the government at the national IeveI – which is where it matters most.

The National Assembly’s response to the plight of the Houbara serves to illustrate a central problem faced by conservationists: that of answering the question “Why?” Of what use is a remote desert-dwelling bird like the Houbara, and what difference would it make to anyone if it were to die out? The benefits of it continued existence are difficult to define and probably impossible to quantify. On the other hand, the benefits derived from its hunting - in the shape of material largesse distributed by its affluent predators - are a much more tangible argument in favour of allowing the hunting to go on.

However, though the arguments for conservation may be hard to define or quantify in any short-term analysis, they are both several and, in the long-term, powerful. On the most abstract level there is the moral argument: do we have the right to kill animals for pleasure or for profit alone (for example, fur coat or ivory objets d’art or exotic game for gourmet meals)?

There is, secondly the aesthetic argument: do we want to live in a world devoid of wild animals and denuded of its forest cover? Pakistan, for example, already has one of the lowest ratios of forested land in the world - with devastating economic, as well as aesthetic, consequences.

The economic argument usually used against conservation (as in the case of development, where policy-makers consider conservation to be an expensive luxury at best and an unnecessary obstacle at worst) can also be turned in its favour: money can be made from animals, not just through killing them, but also through protecting them. Kenya’s safari parks, for example, have made wildlife tourism the countries major foreign exchange earner. And, in a more long-term context, conservation and environmental protections are the equivalent of a capital investment: the returns will only accrue gradually, but without such investment, sooner or later the capital on which all development is based – natural resources will run out.

There is also the scientific argument, perhaps one of the most powerful, though probably the least publicized. Mankind has always relied on animals and insects to pollinate his crops; all domestic crops and animals are derived from wild ancestors and a continuous process of inter-breeding with wild cousins is necessary to produce and strengthen hybrids adapted to changing environmental conditions. For example, in Africa the iland, a non-domesticated hoofed animal, is now being reintroduced in livestock because the drought conditions of recent years have made the less hardy domesticated cattle a burden for a water-starved population. The iland, which is well-adapted to drought conditions, is a much more useful beast in these circumstances.

Another major use for wild plants is medicinal: 50 percent of our modern pharmacopoeia, and much more of the traditional, is derived from them. And in pure research, animals and plants are invaluable sources of information.

Arab falconers preparing for the kill | Photo taken from the March 1986 issue of the Herald
Arab falconers preparing for the kill | Photo taken from the March 1986 issue of the Herald

All these arguments add up to the same conclusion: in the final analysis, conservation is about people. An endangered species of plant or animal is a warning signal, a symptom of a wider problem: that of man's misuse and abuse of the environment. Hunting is not the only, or even the most serious, threat to wildlife, both plant and animal. Much more dangerous, widespread and insidious is the way that man's economic development changes the natural environment to the detriment of both human and non-human life. Pollution, desertification, de-forestation, over-fishing and over-grazing are all major contributory factors to the extinction of wildlife. They are also grave threats to man's own well-being, as the natural resource base which is the essential raw material of economic development and human existence is destroyed beyond repair.

Those who imagine that Pakistan does not suffer from the environmental threats listed above, or that they are of limited or isolated importance, might do well to consider the case of the drought in Africa's Sahel region, which caused the massive famine conditions now seen in Ethiopia and Sudan. According to IUCN consultant Mark Carwardine, who recently visited Pakistan, the Sahel drought could easily be repeated in parts of Pakistan, where similar pre-drought conditions are already apparent. On his visit to the Kirthar hills in Sind, Carwardine saw evidence of over-grazing and deforestation.

"It reminded me of parts of the Sahel just a few years ago," he says."You can easily see the process of desertification. Though the mountain range itself is protected (as the Kirthar National Park) nothing is being done to take care of the surrounding area. There's a lot of dust, which means the topsoil has gone - exactly the same problem as in the Sahel. At one time, the Sahel was savanna grassland. But as the trees were chopped down for firewood and the grass over-grazed, there was nothing to hold the topsoil down, and as soon as winds and heavy rains came it all disappeared."

The scenes of starving African children and dead cattle which shocked the world for the last two years could easily be repeated in Pakistan. Deserts are not static, as Mark Carwardine points out. "Did you ever hear the joke about the Sahara forest?" he asks. "Everyone assumes that the Sahara has always been the same as it is now, but it's actually extending southwards at the rate of 10 miles every year. Exactly the same thing is happening here."

The answer? Controlling grazing so that the land has time to recover and planting trees to combat deforestation. Mr. W .A. Kermani, who headed both the provincial and federal departments of agriculture and forestry for many years, is a dedicated conservationist, responsible for the setting up of Kirthar National Park, among many other major projects. He recalls a range management project in the Thar desert carried out by his department: ''When the drought hit Thar five or six years ago, the people turned to this project for guidance. They saw that controlled grazing, with fallow periods and rotation of herds, meant a continuous supply of fodder. They were eager to learn about range management practices from our staff.

Mr. Kermani emphasises that "there is no such thing as wasteland. This word is an insult to mankind. Sixty-five percent of Pakistan's land is arid, but it can be made productive by correct land use. The desert can also produce, but with the current practices it has become impoverished. We need to regenerate it, in order to sustain the people of the desert."

But it is not only those living in areas threatened by deforestation or desertification who suffer from the consquences. Land and water are the basic productive resources on which the entire population of the country -- including the urban areas - depends. And what happens in one part of the country can trigger off a destructive chain of events throughout the country. Deforestation in the northern areas, for example, means a drastic reduction of capacity to absorb and retain water, and thus rapid erosion of the steep hillsides whenever there is heavy rainfall. This washes away fertile topsoil, leaving the land unproductive, and filling rivers with silt, which is in turn deposited downstream in dams, shortening their life. Increased silt also affects animal and plant life in the river, and the increased volume of water resulting from non-absorption upstream leads to floods. Much of this havoc could be prevented by simple measures like reforestation. Providing people with an alternative source of fuel- like subsidised kerosene, or small hydel plants - would provide an incentive not to cut trees for firewood. Deforestation has now also developed political overtones, and become a particularly acute problem, with the massive influx of Afghan refugees.

The problem is that few people see what is happening until it becomes unavoidable - by which time it is probably too late. What can be done? The most immediate and direct action is legislation. But even when acts and ordinances are passed, they are difficult to enforce. And often, legislation needs to be coordinated on a regional or international level, to be really effective.

An example of such legislation is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), one of the most widely accepted international conservation treaties. CITES, which has 77 states as signatories, is administered by IUCN on behalf of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). lts purpose is to check that endangered species are not traded in the international marketplace. Several other international treaties are also administered through IUCN.

Protected areas have been successfully used to provide animals and plants with safe habitats. Pakistan has five national parks, seventy wildlife sanctuaries and seventy-four game reserves. The main task in these areas is to ensure that regulations are strictly enforced. The concept of including local people in the monitoring of these areas has proven popular: instead of seeing wildlife as a lucrative short term source of income, locals are encouraged to take a long-term perspective. They are employed as wardens by the provincial wildlife authorities, which brings in a steady income and gives them access to government service benefits.

Captive breeding is a last resort hope of saving a species threatened with extinction. This year will see the reintroduction of the Arabian oryx to its original habitat, where it became extinct some time ago as a result of hunting. It had, however, been bred in captivity at San Diego Zoo for many years. When a ban was imposed on hunting in its native habitat, the oryx could be released into the wild. But not all captive breeding is successful. The Gulf states have been trying to breed the Houbara bustard for several years, with unsatisfactory results. If the present rate of hunting continues, the Houbara may well become extinct in its natural habitat, like the oryx, but with no hope of return in the future.

Research is a fundamental aspect of any conservation effort. Though its results may not be immediately apparent, it is essential for planning understanding the methods and goals of conservation - for example, which areas or species need to be protected, or the best combination of techniques to use. Gathering baseline data is also vital, to determine present levels and status of wildlife populations. The lack of such data in Pakistan is an acute problem in situations such as the Port Qasim/Steel Mill complex, where conservationists strongly suspect environmental damage but are unable to determine exactly how much has taken place so far.

Integrating conservation concepts with development programme is essential for long-term protection of the environment. This was the basic aim of the 1984 Environmental Protection Ordinance, and one of the aims of the World Conservation Strategy. Though this may be the most difficult aspect of conservation to actually put into practice, since it means that policy-makers and implementing agencies have to radically change the way they see development, it is undeniably the most important in the long-term.

And finally, public education and awareness are the cement which bind together the various conservation tactics outlined above. Public vigilance and concern are essential in safe-guarding conservation goals, and making sure that once policies are formulated and laws passed, they are adequately implemented.


The article was originally published in the March 1986 issue of the Herald. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.