ISLAMABAD (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – For 20 years, Khunjerab National Park has been a point of tension between the Pakistani government – which made the park in 1975 a sanctuary for endangered species – and local residents who have been tending their cattle on the ground for generations.
When land disputes broke out, poachers destroyed Khunjerab’s wildlife, villagers said – until 1995, when local residents and authorities decided to work together to better protect the park.
“Our community knows that our (and) natural resource management is well organized,” said Muzaffar ud Din, a founding member of the local Shimshal Nature Trust, which contributes to members of the community-led management group formed to manage the park.
“Now I would say Khunjerab is better managed than many other parks in the country. Local people guard it. The wildlife population has increased exponentially, “he said.
In its final step to produce jobs amid the COVID-19 pandemic while increasing conservation and reducing the impact of climate change, Pakistan has announced the creation of Pakistan’s first National Park Service, modeled on US agencies.
Underneath, the country aims to involve more local people in managing national parks and earning income because they protect nearby conservation areas.
The first phase of the Protected Areas Initiative, launched on July 2, will focus on 15 national parks that make up a total of 7,300 square km (2,800 square miles), from Khunjerab in the north to the area around Astola Island in the south. .
The project aims to create up to 5,000 new jobs, especially for young people who will work as park guards and carers, and increase eco-tourism in the country, authorities said when the initiative was announced.
Malik Amin Aslam, climate change advisor for Prime Minister Imran Khan, said the park plan was in line with Pakistan’s post-coronavirus “green stimulus” vision, which also included employing thousands of unemployed daily workers to plant trees as part of the 10 Billion Tsunami Trees in the country it’s a program.
“The dual aim is to protect nature while also producing jobs for unemployed young people,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“All of this green activity will help overcome the unexpected surge in COVID unemployment across the country.”
Pakistan currently has around 30 national parks that should be protected and preserved by law.
But most are “paper parks” – areas classified as national parks but with little or no management, said Aslam, who helped design new initiatives.
Conservation expert Anis ur Rahman estimates that only about 5% of the country’s parks are well managed.
Others suffer from conflicting priorities and lack of cooperation between the government and the people who live around them and depend on them for grazing, hunting and firewood, he explained.
“In many cases, the government changed the status of the old community-managed forest area or grazing area to a national park where (suddenly) everything was prohibited by law,” said Rahman, who heads the Bukit Margalla National Park management board, one of them which is included in the new project.
“But there is weak enforcement. The government does not have the resources to pay for adequate protection, “he said.
Many state environmental experts see Khunjerab, the country’s oldest and largest national park, as a successful community-led management model.
The park was founded 45 years ago as a way to protect glaciers, alpine pastures, rivers and ravines.
Parts are closed to create undisturbed habitats for animals ranging from the rare Marco Polo sheep to snow leopards and Siberian ibber.
But the move pits the government against local farmers, who have long used the area.
Ashiq Ahmed Khan, a wildlife specialist who worked at the Pakistan Forestry Institute in the 1990s, helped develop the first management plan for the park that unites local residents and the provincial wildlife department.
Under the plan, eight villages in the park agreed not to pasture cattle in the core zone of 12 square kilometers.
Instead, other grazing areas are set on rotation which gives every time to recover after use, said Khan, who is now retired.
Community members are employed as game watchdogs and supervisors, with 80% of the job opportunities in the park given to local residents. It was also agreed that the local community would receive 75% of the revenue generated by visitor fees.
“It was truly the first national park in the country that management plans were actually implemented,” Khan said.
“Today there are 100 Marco Polo sheep in the park, more than eight or nine that I saw (in the 1990s) and there are more than 5,000 ibexes.”
So far, Pakistani authorities have revealed some details about the new Protected Areas Initiative.
Aslam, climate change advisor, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the project will be overseen by the new Pakistan National Park Service, which will be launched in September.
He said the country had allocated 4 billion rupees ($ 24 million) for the first phase of the initiative over the next three years, where at least 80% would be spent on creating green jobs and increasing community involvement.
Through this project, the amount of protected land in Pakistan will increase from 13% to 15% by 2023, Aslam added.
But environmental lawyer Rafay Ahmad Alam said that although this initiative was a positive step, it would help little to protect Pakistan’s green space without legislation to support it.
The initiative “will not make up for the fact that (the vast majority) of provincial national park laws are weak and do not provide adequate specifics for conservation, protection or law enforcement actions,” he said.
Aslam agreed that the appropriate provincial law was very important and noted that policy changes were also part of the new plan.
The shift to community-managed parks offers the opportunity to utilize the “amazing indigenous knowledge” local communities have about land, said Muzaffar ud Din.
“Local people have more information and they can manage their own natural resources better. They have a better vision, “he said.
“National parks should not be seen as separate entities, but as part of the overall socio-economic and physical landscape. That is the future of conservation. ”
Reporting by Rina Saeed Khan, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charity branch of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people throughout the world who are struggling to live free or just. Visit http://news.trust.org