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May 17, 2020

Punjab Urial and communities protecting it

Lahore

May 17, 2020

Pakistan boasts a wide variety of ecological systems, ranging from deltaic mangrove forest along its coast with the Arabian Sea, to xerophytic desert and arid scrub lands, rolling dunes, riverine, forests, subtropical forests, temperate forests and alpine meadows.

Each one of these unique ecosystems hosts a broad diversity of fauna and flora, including iconic species that are specific to this country, such as Urial, Ibex and our national animal Markhor. However, since independence in 1947 till the late 90s, all these species and others suffered a seemingly irreversible decline in the population due to loss of habitat, caused by a burgeoning human population, poaching and most of all apathy at all levels of officialdom.

The return of the species, from the brink of extinction to a viable and healthy population was made possible, and is still driven by an approach that at a first glance seems contrary to conventional notions of wildlife conservation, community-based and managed trophy hunting.

The communities involved in conservation and sustainable hunting are rural communities in remote areas of Pakistan, isolated from the cities and leading traditional lifestyles largely dependent on natural resources. There is only basic infrastructure in the areas, and the communities are primarily subsistence farmers and pastoralists, with very few means to generate cash income. Community members can establish an organizational structure (CBOs), and apply to the government to gain official wildlife management, protection rights and responsibilities for defined areas, thereby establishing a conservancy. The aim of these conservancies is to support sustainable development and sustainable livelihoods of the community in a way that promotes conservation of rather than damage to wild species and the broader ecosystem. Where conservancy organizations are well based in their communities and share benefits with the broader local community. Communities develop a strong feeling of ownership and responsibility.

Trophy hunting is an important form of sustainable use that generates economic benefits and incentivizes wildlife protection. Sustainable hunting is specifically aimed at increasing the local value of wildlife to counter two key threats; poaching and land degradation via overgrazing.

There are highly successful examples scattered all over Pakistan introduced by the great conservationist Syed Babar Ali, who proved to be an angel for the wildlife of Pakistan. Over 65 community based organizations (CBOs) were formed in Gilgit Baltistan alone with many more under the process of being registered. The first CBO in Punjab was registered in 2004 in Jhelum, to-date a total of five have been registered, two each in Jhelum and Chakwal and one in Mianwali.

The last CBO in Punjab was registered in 2016, named The Potohar, the initiative has been proved to be the most effective for the scientific basis of its inception and its technical/administrative team. Sightings of Urial from the motorway are now a routine occurrence, the one never been witnessed before.

It is estimated that the Salt Range currently holds approximately 5,000 Urials, a manifold increase seen in the last two decades. The Urial population moves across the range preferred areas falling within CBO boundaries due to protection provided by the communities. Various surveys done by the CBOs and the wild life department have seen a significant increase in the population of Urial in CBO-controlled areas, a spillover effect has also been seen into surrounding areas. Sightings of Urial in areas where they were never seen before is now a routine occurrence.

The major threats to Urial include depletion of its range, deforestation, poaching, lamb lifting, weak laws and a severe lack of resources available to battle the challenges.

Human encroachment into the traditional Urial ranges of Pakistan has been the biggest threat, even now housing schemes and other developments are taking place on the peripheries and sometimes in the middle of Urial territories. Deforestation has led to soil degradation; droughts and many more natural and man-made calamities have made it a challenge for Urial to survive let alone thrive. Poaching for food and sport has been a chronic issue which persists till date. Weak laws don’t punish even those who are caught in the act. There is a strong culture of lamb lifting, poachers set up camps in the mountains and catch lambs as they are born and sell them in the cities where they are kept as pets.

Our government is well placed to preserve and protect Punjab Urial, there have been proposals to match funds raised by the CBOs through trophy hunting by the federal and provincial governments. These need to be revived and implemented. Wildlife laws need to be upgraded with strong penalties for poaching, trapping/catching and sale of Urial. Current laws are weak at best and don’t act as a deterrent.

The government should make it easier for communities to come together and form CBOs, giving incentives to them to do so.

It is safe to say that the revival of Punjab Urial has taken place due to the efforts of communities and their CBO managers.

Whatever revenue is collected from the few trophy animals which are allowed to be harvested by foreign hunters is put back into the protection of Urial and its habitat. The funds are so little that not much goes towards development of projects that benefit the communities as envisioned originally. Hiring of watchers, setting up of pickets, developing roads and pathways into Urial territory to safeguard them from poaching, equipment and many more inputs needed are costly proposals and community managers have to depend on personal funds to make up for the deficit.

Camps are set up for two months every year in lambing season. Additional staff is hired to stop poachers from stealing newly born lambs. Patrolling of the Urial Range is a year-round exercise, community managers face tough resistance from illegal hunters often having powerful backgrounds, CBO owning communities face routine litigation from aggrieved parties used to poaching.

These CBOs have created an amazing opportunity for ecotourism and the government needs to support them, even now trophy hunters who visit these areas go back with amazing stories of beautiful vistas and amazing hospitality.

Existing wildlife laws in Punjab maybe the best in Pakistan, they allow for communities to come together and form organizations to protect wildlife and their ecosystems, the laws allow for punishment of offenders as well, however, there is always room for improvements, punishment of offenders needs to be more severe. Red tape can be removed to make it easier to set up these organizations, more resources can and should be made available to the organizations from the government and they should not be left alone to fend for themselves.

Punjab Urial is now safe. Community-based protection has yielded amazing results. A lot more can and should be done. Our government needs to allocate more funds and resources to these communities, allow harvesting more trophy animals, include more areas and communities in the effort by giving incentives and removing bureaucratic red tape.

(The writer is Punjab’s honorary game warden)