This year the theme of the UN’s World Environment Day 2020, which fell on June 5, was “Celebrate Biodiversity”. During the recent lockdowns enforced by Covid-19 all over the world, I think many of us found the time to do just that this spring. We appreciated the birdsong in our trees, the butterflies in our gardens and the sighting of wildlife that had dared to venture into the cities that had gone quiet.
In Islamabad, which is perhaps the only capital in the world that has a thick natural forest right inside it, we discovered that there was not just one or two but three common leopards residing in the Margalla Hills National Park. Camera traps set up by the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB) caught the leopards on film and residents were thrilled to see the pictures.
Since the popular trails that lead into the park were shut during the lockdown, wildlife was free to venture out without fear of human disturbance. Not just leopards but foxes, porcupines, barking deer, jackals and wild boars descended from the hills and enjoyed a respite from trekkers. This was their habitat after all — we humans had only encroached upon it last century when the park was established in 1980.
Dr Anisur Rahman, head of the IWMB, told me last year, “Living in a concrete jungle boxes in your soul and then when you come and walk in this forest and connect with nature, it is like expanding your soul; it is nature’s gift for the people of Islamabad.” The IWMB was only set up by the Islamabad High Court in 2015 after the hearing of different petitions about the national park’s miserable condition.
Indeed my favourite Trail Number 6, located behind Faisal Mosque, is covered with a canopy of indigenous trees and dotted with flowing streams. The fragrance of wild jasmine greets one at the entrance to the trail and before one knows it, one is surrounded by a dense forest, bubbling brooks and the songs of birds. The Japanese call the experience “forest bathing”.
Unfortunately over the years, illegal urban encroachments, poaching, and tree chopping have been slowly destroying the national park. The Capital Development Authority (CDA) has allowed the construction of even more hotels, which dump their waste into the park and the hotels have also expanded. The Supreme Court and the local administration recently shut down the popular Monal Restaurant that had sneakily cut all the trees around it during lockdown so it could make lawns for more seating! The top court has issued an order to cease all building actions within the park and is now hearing the case.
If Covid-19 has taught us anything it is a renewed respect for the planet and an appreciation of its beauty. Pakistan is a unique country in many ways because its diverse physical environment has resulted in a great diversity of biological life. From 0m on the coast to above 8,600m, which is the summit of K-2, it has the greatest change in elevation within any sovereign state on earth.
Pakistan alone has five sub-species of markhor (or wild goat). We have a number of endangered species ranging from green turtles on the coast to snow leopards up in the high mountains. The United Nations says there has never been a more important time to focus on biodiversity than now, with one million plants and animal species on the brink of extinction. Now more than ever we must conserve what’s left of nature because without the natural world, we won’t survive either.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 7th, 2020.
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