The winter, every year, brings a huge number of migratory birds to Pakistan, though the number of migratory birds has declined due to various reasons, including habitat degradation, hunting, water pollution and mismanagement of wetlands. Historically, Sindh was known for its diverse habitat, ecosystems and several unique species of wildlife. In his book, Sindh ways and days, Pir Ali Mohammad Rashdi has narrated: “The landlords themselves had little to do. Life, for them, was a long holiday. They utilised it mainly in hunting.” Nothing has changed since then as influentials, both local and foreign, still indulge in hunting. Feudal landowners exploited wildlife for leisure and personal consumption. However, since they controlled the lands, few of them contributed towards the preservation of wildlife. The social and administrative changes after the 1960s have significantly altered past practices. The present state of wildlife is bleak as many species have vanished.
After 1970, Sindh pioneered in taking the initiative of drafting wildlife legislation and promulgated it as the Sindh Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1973. Kirthar National Park, covering an area of 1,192 square miles, was created in 1975 and 35 wildlife sanctuaries and 15 game reserves were brought under the wildlife enactment. The Sindh Wildlife department, established during the 1970s with the mandate to conserve wildlife, has gone through difficult times.
The death of Sindh Wildlife department conservator Hussain Bux Bhagat last year was another blow to the department. Bhagat was among the few dedicated officers left in the department.
After joining the Sindh Wildlife Management Board in Sukkur, he became interested in the Indus Dolphin, a unique species. He began to study available literature on the Indus Dolphin. He used to receive many visitors from abroad to see the dolphins. He witnessed the interest of visiting scientists and realised that there is no scientific awareness about dolphins in Sindh. This motivated him to conduct documentation through annual surveys. In 1994, the Sindh Wildlife Management Board was dissolved. In 1995, Bhagat was appointed as the deputy conservator in the Sindh Wildlife department. In 1996, the department carried out a joint survey with the WWF. The findings of the survey showed that the population of the Indus Dolphin had remained stable, but the birthrate was not increasing satisfactorily. Bhagat then involved other stakeholders in conservation efforts, including fishermen and farmers. He played a vital role in pioneering the tradition of rescuing the dolphins often stranded in the canals of the Sukkur barrage.
I had an opportunity to work closely with him during my association with the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the WWF. Till his death, he remained associated with the department, though working with the public sector is not an easy task. Institutional decay through political influence has badly affected the performance of public-sector institutions. This phenomenon is more pronounced in Sindh. Against all odds, pioneers, such as Bhagat showed that in the face of a fast eroding resource base, practical solutions can be found to conserve biodiversity as well as address the needs of people.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 22nd, 2014.