Desert jeep rallies are enthralling, but what about the areas where they are conducted
The driver’s body is harnessed to the seat but the gravitational force has started to take its toll on the body, his fingers sore and hands fatigued from holding onto the steering wheel.
This, along with many other breathtaking scenarios were witnessed in the recently concluded Thal Jeep Rally, as petrol-heads from across the country shredded through the sand dunes of the Thal desert and roared across some of the most stunning landscapes. Once a year the wilderness bursts into an unforgettable activity as competitors race their 4x4 on a gruelling track and test their driving skills against the treacherous terrain. For most participants, it is just the event to get an adrenaline rush.
The deserts in Pakistan consist of vast, largely unpopulated regions serviced by only a few roads. In recent years, tourism has been identified as a potential industry to generate employment and investment opportunities in the region. Due to the distances involved and largely unsealed road network that radiates off the main highway, much of the region is inaccessible to conventional vehicles. As a consequence, interest in four-wheel-drive (4WD) tourism is being promoted through these jeep rallies and a number of desert regions have already been identified as potential venues for this sport that could be further developed.
It is predicted that in future these jeep rallies will draw in bigger crowds and the subsequent proportion of visitor’s expenditure will be reinvested into heritage tourism. But while investment in heritage tourism is just one of the many predicted outcomes of these rallies, these rallies should also result in an increased contribution to the region’s natural and built heritage.
Many a time, in an attempt to promote tourism, the glaring problems of the region are ignored and brushed under the carpet. From an ecological point of view, the area is faced with massive aridity and desertification by wind erosion. Environmentalists worry that the desire to find the most dramatic and challenging landscapes has taken jeep rallies into terrains which are not ready for the barrage of vehicles due to a fragile ecosystem that is already under a lot of stress.
The sociocultural significance of the area which is being highlighted for tourism should also be used to draw attention to the ecological problems faced by the area
Land degradation is a problem in Thal where vast areas have already been destroyed as a result of misuse of the land for cultivation and overgrazing. This has affected the biodiversity that once thrived in the area. According to a recent survey conducted following an order of the Lahore High Court, a sharp decline has been recorded in the number of migratory birds like the houbara bustard, sand grouse, quail, rain quail and falcons in the area. The most harrowing discovery came last year when the houbara bustard survey team failed to spot a single bird in the Thal desert as a result of the destruction of its natural habitat.
For an untrained eye, these vast expanses of land are nothing but a barren quarter of the world but for many species, like the houbara bustard, they serve as a refuge. Holding a jeep rally during a time of the year when these areas are frequented by migratory birds is tantamount to disturbing historical migratory patterns which will consequently impact the number of these already endangered species.
Organisers of such rallies need to come up with a multi-tiered approach to understand motorised recreation in natural and protected areas. Their aim should be to increase the understanding of motorsport and motorised recreation phenomenon that impact protected areas.
The sociocultural significance of the area which is being highlighted for tourism should also be used to draw attention to the ecological problems faced by the area. The events can be used as an opportunity to initiate a debate between 4WD enthusiasts, departments involved in the environmental management of natural and protected areas, as well as professional and community groups opposed to motorised recreation in these areas.
The writer is a development communications specialist and writes on environment and urban planning