Battle to protect Islamabad’s green jewel

Islamabad: Urbanisation and natural forests exist cheek by jowl in Pakistan’s national capital. Right inside the city is the enchanted Margalla Hills National Park (MHNP), a magnificent green canvas with freshwater sources and food and shelter for humans and wildlife, which is also a crucible for healthy monsoons and climate stabiliser.

Yet, this green jewel faces a host of challenges. From illegal encroachment to forest fires, a lack of resources and deforestation to a lack of robust governance, MHNP needs a concerted approach to keep its status above compromise, forest officials say. Forest fires, for example, have damaged over 200 hectares of tree cover in nearly 320 incidents in last 17 years, according to reports.

Woodcutting and wildlife poaching are also major pressures on the park’s ecosystem.

There is also the fact that Islamabad, Pakistan’s most planned and green city, is fast losing its urban forests and around a third of its green cover to road expansion and the construction of housing and commercial areas.

Too often, the forest department is blamed for the failure to protect forests but Mahmoud Nasir, inspector-general of forests in the Ministry of Environment, told Gulf News, “People are not the problem — deploying hundreds of guards will not help. The solution lies in governance which is the main pillar of forestry.”

Good governance in forestry means resources are used efficiently, sustainably, and equitably with transparency, he said.

Since last year, the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB) has been managing MHNP and finds itself facing the daunting challenge to protect the park with fewer resources and support from relevant authorities.

Talking to Gulf News, Uzma Saeed, operations manager of the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board, said, “In one year, this organisation of 20 people with only two vehicles and limited resources has achieved nearly 70 per cent improvement compared to 2016 by keeping a strict check on woodcutting, wildlife hunters and fire incidents.”

Educating the community

IWMB officers are also educating the forest community of nearly 70,000 in 29 villages in the park and in schools about the importance of preserving forests. The board also aims to introduce a scientific forest management system as a recent camera trapping study revealed 20 new mammal species including leopards.

“This proves that Margalla Hills is full of diversity and still unexplored, which makes it more important to protect its ecosystem despite the hurdles.”

And the hurdles are many.

“Our forest guards are unsung heroes who have to pay with their lives to protect the country’s natural heritage,” said Saeed.

IWMB lost a guard, Safeer Hussain, in January when he was shot and killed by unidentified people while he was on patrol duty on one of the trails.

Forest guards are often threatened by local people who are involved in illegal hunting and tree-felling.

“One of the key challenges is the absence of communication as 60 per cent of the area of the hills lacks mobile coverage. Even if we catch a hunter, we are unable to call for help,” explained Auneeb Ahmad, field supervisor and one the 16 IWMB forest guards.

The guardians of the forest go into the field without weapons or training to face well-armed criminals.

“Even a woodcutter comes with a sharp axe, we have nothing,” Ahmad said.

“We need specialised training, field kits and more guards to better protect the forest.”

The difficulties faced by the forest guards can be understood if one imagines dousing a fire without any protection. “This is how we do it. We use traditional methods of putting out the fires such as beating the fire with bushes,” Ahmad shrugged.

“Islamabad can learn from community forestry in Nepal which faced massive deforestation in 1970. It then decided to give the rights to the community [to manage it] and is now considered a world leader for forest rights where 40 per cent of the population oversee 30 per cent of the forested lands,” said Hammad Gilani, a post-doctorate researcher from the University of Illinois and GIS expert, who has been mapping the severity of this year’s forest fires in MHNP.

The biggest concern to address however in the words of Nasir is, “A tree that’s chopped down can be compensated for by planting another tree; but once residential/commercial schemes take over the place, you lose that piece of land forever.”