When death and destruction pervade incessantly in a region, its cost is not limited to human beings alone. Environment has to pay equal share. This phenomenon partly defines ecological cascade in the hilly-forested belt along Pakistan-Afghan borders, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and some parts of Balochistan (provinces in northeastern and southwestern Pakistan), where rich stock of wildlife is increasingly exposed to deleterious conditions.
In October last, Baloch insurgents attack on the hunting camp of former Qatari oil minister Abdullah bin Hamad Al Attiyah in Buleda area of Kech district, killing one levies guard is one such incident, which should not be analyzed in terms of spot news only. This incident identifies patterns of exploitation continued for decades, which has threatened wildlife reserves. Not only the wealthy Arab Sheikhs have their permanent resorts across the country to mercilessly hunt down birds and animals, officials and politicians in Pakistan have also left no stone unturned in this respect. Militancy, of course, is most threatening of all.
In 2001, the US started unrelenting bombing on Afghanistan. However, impact of large armament destruction was hardly observed with respect to changes in the patterns of biodiversity and possible ecological degeneration in the region. Later, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) sent study teams to different wetlands in KP to find out impact of war across the border on migratory birds in Pakistan. Alarmingly, the data revealed 85 percent decrease in the flight of migratory birds along wildlife corridors in the North and West of the country.
Traditionally, Afghanistan had served a prime sanctuary and transitory route for migratory birds from Central Asia, Russia and far off Siberia. Besides so many passerine and prey birds, over 30 species of waterfowl and four species of crane used to fly, stage, and winter in Pakistan and some proceeding further to India. This search for habitat along Indus Flyway — green route — starts in October and ends by April, when flocks of the birds fly back home for breeding season ahead. Apart from sedentary wildlife, this migratory cycle has remained vital component of autumn and spring culture; immortalized in folklores and songs in many areas of the KP.
“Such birds visit us no more,” said a District Wildlife Officer. Wildlife experts admit that disturbance along the green route and increasing water pollution has stopped Sarus and Siberian cranes from visiting the region. Similarly, Eurasian cranes have not been seen for quite sometimes. Plight of waterfowl seems no different, but fresh surveys would help estimate the damage precisely.
Had it been for migratory birds only, the matter would have been of less concern. Ironically, the plague of militancy has extracted quite heavy a toll on forests, wildlife and conservation as a whole. Militants have been using forested terrains for refuge and training camps in the FATA and KP. This invited unending military operations supported by indiscriminate ground and aerial bombings. Curtain has yet to fall on the war theatre to know how much wildlife and their habitat have suffered due to blazing guns and artillery fusillades.
Some ecologists, however, analyze the situation differently. They believe that wildlife is quite resilient in nature and can extenuate negative impact of armed disturbance. This notion, of course, has made it possible to expect comeback anytime (once overall situation settles down in the region). But, understandably, it requires long-term strategy to get back what we have lost in the last one decade. Ban on hunting, control on river pollution, and conserving wetlands, where migratory birds visit for natural habitats, are a few steps urgently required to put a stop to, at least, one aspect of ecological degeneration.
At present, ecologists are not sure of long-term official commitment to the cause of wildlife. “Despite poverty, people in Gujrat state of India save part of their earnings round the year to buy food for the visiting cranes,” said Ashiq Ahmad Khan, former Chief Technical Advisor WWF. On the contrary, the KP government has yet to ban crane hunting, which is already banned in other three provinces, he added.
By 2003, the issue to ban crane hunting was raised with the then KP governor Iftikhar Hussain Shah. In a meeting one prestigious ecologist threatened to resign, following which the Governor agreed to ban crane hunting but only for a year. Such halfhearted steps in the past had hardly made decisive impact on die-hard hunters. Whenever situation tightened in the KP, they crossed over into the adjoining Balochistan province to continue hunting, netting and trapping.
The matter once aggravated when local community living in the vicinity of Zhob river reacted to the heavy concentration of indiscriminate hunters. Announcements were made through mosques’ loudspeakers, which led to armed clashes. Subsequently, raids were carried out at the riverside hovels, in which, over 5,000 cranes were recovered from scores of hunters.
On the whole, despite occasional raids, networks of hunters in the KP and FATA remained as strong as ever. A recent study has identified over 400 hunters in Charsadda District (located northeast of Peshawar, the capital of KP) alone. In some areas such hunters sell thousands of trapped birds every year. Particularly, cranes are in great demand in the market, which are offered as priceless gifts to friends and influential. “Whenever we arrest someone or cancel any license, political figures come to the rescue of violators,” said a Wildlife official.
Record of the Wildlife Department is witness that many bureaucrats, politicians, and their influential friends are keen hunters themselves. Consciously or unconsciously, they have contributed to the general sense of indifference towards wildlife conservation. Resultantly, hardly any in the official machinery look upon indiscriminate hunting as a crime at all. This factor has damaged rich prospects of wildlife development.
Until recently sub-tropical thorn forests in Kohat (a city south of Peshawar) and Bannu (another city in southern KP) were regarded as partridge paradise. Black partridge, grey partridges, see-see partridge and Chakor were abundantly available there. Shooting policy of the Wildlife Department allowed VIPs in Game Reserves — specified area where hunting is allowed for special people. But now birds are getting less for the VIPs too.
“They wanted to kill as many birds as possible to add to their hunting brag,” said a tour operator. This situation has benefited commercial hunters especially from FATA. They sell birds to officials of the Wildlife Department, which are then released in game reserves to help VIPs meeting their hunting targets.
Given the circumstances, wildlife protection in FATA is getting more important than it was in the past. In 1998 the KP (then called the NWFP) government sponsored a survey in Orakzai Agency and found out Common leopard, Black bear, Urial, Chankara, Kabul markhor, and Hyena as part of sprawling wildlife in Maula Ghar Area. But a project could not be initiated because mismanagement led to local resistance, said conservation expert Syed Iqmail Hussain Shah. Another project met the same fate in Sherani Area in Dera Ismail Khan. Such projects need to be re-started in FATA, where the government claims to have restored peace. Otherwise, if things prevailed the same way, wildlife experts admit that many species of birds and wild animals in FATA and KP would hardly make it to the next decade.
The author is pursuing a PhD in Mass Communication at the Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.