“In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
The above quote by famous naturalist Henry David Thoreau is from 1862 but the year 2020 has brought out its real significance. The world today has been forced to accept that it is the destruction of wildlife habitats as well as the degradation of the world’s ecosystems that are the root cause of the pandemic — Covid-19. This ongoing catastrophe is painfully reminding us that collectively we no longer have a choice but to respect the natural limits and boundaries of our coexistence with other species. Nature, while reclaiming lost space, seems to be rebalancing our relationship with it.
In this context, protected areas remain one of the prime nature-based tools for actualising this rebalancing act. They do that by providing a safe haven for nature to flourish, valuable biodiversity to survive, and for life itself to sustain. These protected refuges of nature also create a payback mechanism by creating spaces for human recreation, promoting ecotourism, generating green jobs, enhancing resilience to natural disasters, contributing to food and water security through ecosystem restoration and addressing issues such as climate change by sequestering carbon.
With so many benefits flowing from them, it comes as no surprise that when the present government, in the midst of this pandemic, launched the “Green Stimulus” Initiative aimed at nature protection and creation of jobs, it included the expansion of protected areas as one of the prime intervention areas.
Taking a look back at the genesis of the country’s protected areas network, an important milestone was a trigger created in the early 70s by the famous conservationist George Schaller who managed to convince the then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to create the iconic National Park at Khunjerab (G-B) which was followed soon by one at Kirthar (Sindh) and at Lal Soharna (Punjab). These catalysed a momentum for change which has, since then, continued with variable speeds. Today, Pakistan can claim 398 “notified” protected areas which include 31 national parks, 92 wildlife sanctuaries, 97 game reserves, 19 wetland reserves and 160 community reserves. However, the past 50-year experience with this movement for nature protection has brought forward two challenges that needed to be addressed.
The first is that amongst all the “notified” protected areas none is truly “protected” through effective governance and management regimes. The second is that the current protected area coverage demanded further expansion to ensure future ecosystem sustenance. The “Protected Areas Initiative” launched by Prime Minister Imran Khan, himself an avid environmentalist, is a response to the above challenges while also a means for creating nature jobs under the green stimulus.
The three main objectives of this initiative include expanding the protected areas coverage to at least 15% of Pakistan’s area by 2023. When this government came to power in 2018, this stood at 12% and it has been expanding ever since and stands at 13% today. The second objective is to effectively “protect what is notified” with proper management plans, legislative interventions as well as standardised eco-infrastructure designs. The third objective is to link this initiative globally by getting at least seven leading national parks registered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) “Green List of Protected Areas”, which accords the gold standard for nature protection.
This initiative is being kick-started with the announcement of 15 national parks, covering a land area of over 7,300 square kilometres, spanning the mountains in the north to the scrub forests and the plains in the centre and the virgin coastline in the south including Pakistan’s first marine protected area at Astolla. Out of these, nine are new and recently declared national parks while six others were notified earlier, but never protected. The unique mountainous oasis of Sheikh Badin National Park, the unmatched urban setting of Margalla Hills National Park, the exceptional flora and fauna of the Kheri Murrat National Park in Kala Chitta range, the wildlife habitat of the Chiltan Ganji park near Quetta, the distinctive natural landscape of the Takkar National Park in upper Sindh, the historic Salt Range National Park, the green alpine Deva Vatala and Musk Deer National Parks in Azad Kashmir, the iconic high altitude Khunjerab National Park bordering with China and the wetland reserves of Namal Lake as well as the Balloki nature reserve along the River Ravi floodplains are all included under this exciting initiative.
All of the above will be made fully functional protected areas for the first time, with proper ecological management plans as well as effective governance through community-led conservation funds. This will be supported with the launch of Pakistan’s first institutional “National Parks Service” which will protect and conserve them as biodiversity reserves and wildlife habitats. In the initial phase, almost 5,000 direct nature jobs will be generated for the youth to become the trained guardians and custodians of these parks. This will be aided by indirect community engaged livelihoods to be generated through regulated eco-tourism in and around these protected areas. All this nature activity will also help in addressing the unexpected spike in Covid-linked unemployment across the country and, thereby, link economic activity with the preservation of nature.
Also, as already mentioned, seven of these national parks will be registered for enlistment under IUCN’s “Green List for Protected Areas” considered as the international Gold Standard for national parks management. These seven parks are being carefully designed to position as successful models for protected areas in the country and to hopefully catalyse a wider future change towards the sustainable management of all the designated protected areas in the country.
The funding line for the “Protected Areas Initiative” has been secured with Rs4 billion already earmarked by the government, of which 92% is targeted to be spent on nature jobs and increasing livelihoods through the engagement of indigenous communities living within these nature reserves. It is, thus, clearly a people centric initiative.
George Schaller, who was the pioneer of the protected areas movement in Pakistan, once remarked, “There are wonders to be found in nature and they must be protected”. Pakistan’s “Protected Areas Initiative” aims to identify and preserve these wonders and will, hopefully, prove to be a historic milestone for nature conservation in Pakistan. It will not only inspire and engage our youth in nature-based solutions but also contribute towards global efforts for preserving biodiversity as well as mitigating climate change.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2020.