Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Deosai National Park Gets Going on Uncertain Feet

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Though the paper declaration in favour of DNP was signed at the end of 1993, little was done in this direction other than the manned check posts at entry points. Meanwhile, the initial funding from World Society for Protection of Animals took the project to the end of 1994. As this dried up Worldwide Fund for Nature Pakistan came ahead with aid to continue.

Pursuant to the early recognition by HWF that the project could not succeed without stake-holder communities being on board as well, the year 1995 saw increased interaction between the two. There was one snag, however. Both Zakaria and Rahman, first-class professionals in their respective fields of engineering and dentistry, were not the best of community motivators. A relationship that began with a fair degree of understanding and sympathy soon degenerated to vague distrust of these outsiders who were out to ‘make millions of dollars’ by abrogating the communities’ rights to certain areas of Deosai in favour of some mysterious foreign agenda. Besides the curbing of grazing rights in Deosai, what worried the communities most was the declaration of a complete moratorium on hunting in and around the plateau.

Policing the Park 

Until the year 2000 the check posts were manned entirely by HWF staff. From 2001 the Wildlife Department started maintaining their own presence together with that of the HWF staff. The check posts were taken over by the Department in the beginning of 2004. The check post at Satpara was conjoined to the police check post in order to save time by avoiding checking by the two agencies separately. Police presence at the check post with the Wildlife Department was seen by the public as the two working together. This proved to be an effective deterrent in reducing poaching and went entirely to the advantage of the Wildlife Department.

For a people who had heard of NGOs being normally associated with development interventions, but lacked the gumption to tell the difference between a development NGO and one engaged in conservation, there arose another contention. Why couldn’t HWF endow its partner communities with infra-structure schemes like other NGOs, it was frequently asked. In the absence of an experienced community motivator who could have easily put such matters to rest, the answer arising spontaneously in the ignorant mind was that this particular NGO while making millions of dollars was averse to letting the benefits trickle down to the communities. Infrequent and rushed visits by the Islamabad duo did little to allay these fears.

At the same time, the HWF team that had first gone out to Deosai in the summer of 1993 had, in their eagerness to garner support, expressed the capacity of the project to address the communities’ education and infra-structure problems. The communities perceived they would be paid compensation by park authorities in the event of damage to their livestock from wild animals – provided the wild animal was not killed. This was no case of outright mendacity to make sympathetic people even more agreeable. It was partly a misreading by the communities of the several rounds of Participatory Rural Assessment carried out in the villages and partly an innocent and well-meaning over-stretching of the mandate by the project staff. It had been envisaged that such cases could be dealt with either in part or in full from the share of entry fees of the respective community.

Meanwhile, HWF was hiring staff for field work and most, if not all, communities around the plateau thought it an inalienable right to get a slice of this pie. But not everyone could be satisfied and yet another contention began to fester. Although a pro-rata distribution of jobs was worked out in relation to the usage each community enjoyed over Deosai, the communities began to quibble. Each community from Katicho, Dhappa and Shila in the east to Satpara in the north and Khirim and Sher Kuli in the west began to claim the maximum right over the plateau.

It is interesting that according to available records of the 1919 Settlement, those in the east were until that time (1919) restricted to the Shoonaythung valley well out of Deosai. The Settlement Record states that of the five villages of Satpara, only Bara Gaon and Munkhor had rights over a great chunk of Deosai. Indeed, it gives them ‘ownership’ over a good portion of the plateau.* As for the villages on the Khirim side as well as remote Karabos in the southeast, no record was available for consultation. It is likely, however, that as the communities in the east, these also kept to the fringes.

The fuss built up. Community handling by HWF staff was incompetent and Islamabad a long way from Deosai Plateau. With their own professional commitments paramount, Rahman and Zakaria could not be available whenever needed. In the absence of a regular social mobiliser working on the staff, the field workers found it handy to extricate themselves from contentious situations with vague promises of the good times to come. These good times, the communities were told (and not wrongly), would come when the national park would be working in full form with plenty of opportunities arising out of it. There was the possibility of any number of men being trained as eco-tourist guides to assist visitors against reasonable wages. There was also the prospect of operating restaurants along the roads leading into the plateau as well as the proceeds from entry fees to be collected at the check posts. In theory all this was entirely do-able, but, so far as the communities were concerned, still in the unseen and distant future.

Meanwhile, the water supply schemes in villages Sher Kuli and Das were a direct spin-off of the HWF presence in the area and the NGO’s goodwill and connections in the right places. Provided by the World Bank-funded, government-run Social Action Programme (Phase I), both schemes, working successfully, have brought a good deal of ease and time saving to the women of these villages. This was a good beginning with promise for more. Sadly however Phase II of the programme never took off because of withdrawal of World Bank funding. The reason cited for this abrupt pulling out was, not surprisingly, gross corruption and mismanagement by the government.

On the communities’ front, the first thing to fall foul of human avarice was the division of the entry fees which were being collected from the day the check posts had been set up back in 1993. As with the jobs, the division of these monies was to be in consonance with the amount of land use each community enjoyed over Deosai.** It was only human nature for the communities to greatly exaggerate their rights in order to get a bigger piece of the cake. With Satpara clamouring the loudest for the major part of the spoils, HWF insisted on a somewhat less share for them so that all other communities also benefited. Meeting after community meeting turned into shouting match with little being resolved. The attitude was evident: the Satpara community wished to hog Deosai to the exclusion of all others. The result is that to this day the monies sit in the bank without a single rupee having been distributed to those who deserve it.

All was not only unfavourable, however, and a taste of the economic benefits to be accrued could be seen from early on. The HWF field staff had hands-on training in tracking bears as well as extensive knowledge of the terrain, trails and bear sighting localities. They could also speak with a fair degree of authority on bear behaviour, were conversant with park rules and so they nicely fitted into the slot of eco-tourist guide. By 1997 a number of newspaper articles had brought DNP into public domain and a slowly increasing trickle of informed people was making its way to the plateau for a taste of a proper wilderness park. Though there was no laid down scale of remuneration for the guides, they were free to collect a small honorarium from visitors.

By the middle of the first decade of the century, with DNP securely under control of park authorities, this system changed. With free lance guides available, DNP guides became redundant and were offered free of charge if asked for.

Satpara villagers were quick to take advantage of permission to start camping sites (a.k.a. hotels) on the plateau. The first one to open was at Shatung La in 1995. Very basic, it served mainly as a restaurant for day-trippers until 1998 saw the establishment of a better one by the bridge on Bara Pani that offered reasonably neat overnight tent facility with steel-and-webbing charpoys. One advantage of these establishments was that public toilets, already a part of the plan, were set up in the facility and run by the hotel management.

It was not always the trekker, generally sympathetic to the environment, or the enlightened and informed tourist that came to view the wildlife in DNP. Deosai was, more often than not, the target of semi-literate vandals, both locals and far-ranging tourists. Fed on an unhealthy diet of rubbish churned out by uninformed vernacular ‘travel writers’ they had no respect for the norms of a national park. There were examples of wild driving off the designated trails trampling birds’ nests and precious flora, careless dumping of non-biodegradable picnic detritus and polluting of the waterways by washing of vehicles.

Strangely enough, tourists from Astore and Skardu were generally the worst offenders. They behaved as though they owned Deosai and it was incumbent upon them to break every park rule and do what they please. Indeed, even their vocabulary employed phrases to express this sense of ownership. ‘Deosai belongs to us’ and ‘It is ours’ were commonly heard assertions. Yet this ownership brought no wish to understand this unique eco-system or aspiration to cherish and protect it for their children. There was no empathy with Deosai, there was but the single over-riding non-human instinct to get whatever benefit they could out of the place. But time passed, and thankfully attitudes changed.

For most visitors Deosai was a limitless wilderness where nothing could ever go wrong: the rivers could never be polluted, the fish never depleted nor too the inorganic waste they left behind ever become an eyesore or cause environmental degradation. It was believed this is simply too great an area for humans to despoil. Sadly, this was the mindset of the better educated among local people. One such was a school headmaster of Das (Astore) who drove in non-driving areas to dynamite fish downstream of the HWF camp on Bara Pani. Confronted by the project staff, the man threatened to involve them in a police case.

After a round of letter-writing from Islamabad brought official pressure on the man, he threatened to call a strike in his school because, he claimed, he had been humiliated. But when the pressure did not subside and with police officers visiting to help him change his mind, he tendered a formal apology to HWF. This was as recently as 2000, seven years after the national park had been notified. And this man was a teacher supposed to be a man of sense and perspicacity and a maker of tomorrow’s leaders.

Get Them Every Which Way You Can

Dynamiting of rivers was a common enough practice for meat-greedy picnickers. In an instant the shock waves killed scores of fish that then floated to the surface for collection. It certainly beat long hours with a rod and reel. Offenders were not only local picnickers but down-country tourists as well.

Others came with their nets to dredge out large numbers of fish. Nets and fish were confiscated and cases registered and only now have these incidents become scarce. It is difficult to say when these offences will finally come to an end, either through coercion or an understanding of and sympathy for the unique eco-system of Deosai.

Again, despite government notification of the national park and checks in place against use of its resources, illegal activity flourished. Falcon trapping continued under the patronage of a politician from Balochistan well-known as a supplier of the birds to the Arabs. The man’s tactic was simple: he hired Pakhtun trappers in possession of permits to trap in some areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa to overstep into Deosai. The poachingpolitician well knew that falcon trapping being banned all over Gilgit-Baltistan, here was the largest concentration of the birds and therefore trapping the easiest of all. A great deal of money was to be made and the shorter the time spent in trapping the most birds, the more viable the project. The man’s position as Minister for Northern Areas under the Pakistan People’s Party government (1993-96), moreover, placed him well above the pale of every law in the land. And so he sent his minions to Deosai, national park or not.

A number of confrontations between the minister’s men and HWF personnel led to a grand finale between Vaqar Zakaria and the minister. The result was a blatant threat to Zakaria in consequence of which he was constrained to place round-the-clock guards at his residence. It was perhaps divine justice that shortly after this episode the PPP government was sacked and the minister withdrew to his native Balochistan to cool his heels and enjoy the proceeds of past falcon sales.

But that wasn’t the last of the falcon trappers. In August 2003 a group of Pakhtun trappers was apprehended together with its handler, a man called Farooq from Gurikot near Astore. Their equipment was confiscated and together with the registered police case was passed on to the concerned authorities of the Wildlife Department. A year later the case had not gone anywhere.

It is no gainsay that laws concerning conservation-related crime are weak. To begin with, the limit of the fine on conviction is ridiculously low. There is simply no proportion between the paltry fine and the hefty spoils to be reaped off a dead bear or a living falcon. Registration of a case against an offender is no easy business either, even in the rare case of the offender enjoying no political backing. And even when registration is achieved and the offender arrested, bail can be posted for as little as Rs 3000 (US$ 35 at 2011 exchange rate). Consequently, the offender loses just one day in police lock-up and is out the next trapping with the spare equipment they never forget to bring.

It is a sad reflection on the law and those entrusted with upholding it that of all registered cases of illegal hunting, fishing or trapping in the eleven years since the paper declaration for DNP, not a single one has been closed. Worse still, wilderness conservation is a remote and abstract notion for most people, all the more so for those possessed of the power to do something for it. Little succour can be expected in a society where the topmost lawmakers are very likely to have never heard the name of Deosai – or indeed of any other national park. Little succour indeed from folks who, upon being reminded of their responsibility to the environment, mouth the vain platitude that the plight of the country’s poor and not that of wild beasts, is their primary concern.

Oddly enough, support came from the unlikeliest of quarters. For its understanding and sympathy with respect to DNP and the greater picture of the conservation issue, the Pakistan Army deserves kudos. From the corps commander in Rawalpindi under whose jurisdiction Deosai falls, to the Force Commander Northern Areas at Gilgit and the brigade commander at Skardu, there has never been any lack of support. Whether it was permitting use of army helicopters for bear immobilisation during the eight-year period from 1996 to 2004 or lending a sympathetic ear to the impassioned ravings of Vaqar Zakaria and the solemn pleas of Anis ur Rahman, senior officers were never wanting in indulgence. Indeed, many an obstructive bureaucrat or police officer was rendered pliant by a phone call from the concerned army headquarter.

Great credit goes to Brigadier Shahid Lone of the Skardu brigade for showing the way conservation-related crime ought to be handled. In 1998 a mature female bear was shot and killed near Gultari in an area south of the core zone of DNP. The culprits were two soldiers presumably thinking of making some money by selling the animal’s parts. The matter was reported to the Brigade Commander. Within no time, the men were arrested, tried by court-martial and dishonourably discharged from the army. All this taking just a couple of months, as opposed to the decades such cases can take in civil courts. If anyone else in uniform had harboured errant thoughts concerning the park’s wildlife, they were laid low once and for all.

The case of the illegal hunt of November 2003 is in sorry contrast to this. Mohammed Ibrahim, a native of Karabos village who has worked with HWF since 1996 was on routine patrol. Several kilometres downstream of the HWF camp on Bara Pani he stumbled upon a group of six armed hunters on horses. With them they had the butchered remains and horns of an ibex as well as a bear hide. Upon being told by Ibrahim that they had committed an unlawful act and were liable to legal action, the hunters became abusive: being from the Shingoshigar-Thalle area, they were owners of that part of Deosai and Ibrahim had no right to question what they did.

Subsequent to a heated argument and their refusal to hand over the animal remains, the men, emboldened by their seclusion and the fact that Ibrahim was alone, threatened to kill him and dump his body in the river. In a chilling reminder of the death of the explorer George Hayward who was led to a small hill to be beheaded,*** the felons dragged Ibrahim to the river’s edge. They might well have carried out their horrible threat when luck brought six young men from Dhudial (near Ibrahim’s native Karabos) upon the scene. Asking them to be his witnesses, Ibrahim explained how he was being taken to the river to be murdered and also pointed out the animal remains the men’s horses bore.

The hunters turned tail and fled with their spoils. After the Dhudial visitors were gone, Ibrahim resumed his patrol along the side valley he had seen the hunters emerge from. Not far from the site of his frightful escapade he found the recently removed entrails of the ibex, which he photographed to be used as evidence. But just as he had feared, because of the influence he knew the hunters wielded, the police in Skardu refused to register the case. One of the relatives of the offending party was the Station House Officer at the Gultari police station and the telephone lines had hummed.

As days passed and all efforts of HWF and the Wildlife Department remained futile, Vaqar Zakaria was asked to speak with army authorities. Once again word from the brigade commander at Skardu oiled the rusty machinery of the local police station and the case was registered. One of the hunters was arrested, stayed overnight at the police station, posted bail the next morning and was a free man again. That was signal for the outbreak of open hostilities. Ibrahim was kidnapped and taken to the deserted college building in Skardu. Word got out in time, however, and some men from his village rescued him. At the same time, pressure bore down on the six men who had witnessed the episode in Deosai to withdraw.

Until well into 2005, the case proceeded at snail’s pace. Whispers abounded among illegal hunters concerning the weakness of the law. If the offenders in this case are not persecuted, those inclined to crime against nature will be emboldened. Already, because of weaknesses inherent in the law, offenders have taken courage and opposition to the national park has increased. Coupled with the confidence miscreants have of laid-back law enforcement, this could only mean added peril to the park’s wildlife. And sure enough, that was what eventually occurred: the case simply petered out without a conviction.

Ibrahim, it seems, attracts miscreants as flowers do bees. In September 2011, he was once again at the receiving end of poachers’ wrath. Confronting a group of six men preparing to dynamite fish, he was told to make himself scarce. When he persisted, the men set upon him thrashing him until he fell unconscious. Fearing them may have killed him; the party fled leaving him to his fate. Ibrahim fortunately came to and made it back to Skardu where he had to be hospitalised.

Subsequent to registration of the case with the police, the culprits paid Rs 10,000 as compensation to Ibrahim and the case was resolved. This was possible only because of the determination of the man in charge at DNP. A weaker man may not have been able to force such an outcome. However, it is hoped that this will prove a sufficient enough deterrent to future poachers.

* It would be useful to know that Settlement Records are sometimes liable to tampering.
* *Twenty percent of the collected sum was to be remitted in favour of the government. The remaining 80 percent was the communities’ share.
*** Hayward’s murder, an abiding mystery of the Great Game, took place just outside Darkot village north of Yasin in July 1870. The perpetrators were the men of the Yasin raja, instigated perhaps by the Maharaja of Kashmir.

DEOSAI: THE LAND OF THE GIANT by Salman Rashid, with photographs by Nadeem Khawar, (Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore, 2013), pp. 176. Price Rs 2,000

Related: Deosai Truths - Book Review by F. S. Aijazuddin, Deosai - Book Review by S A J Shirazi, Special talk on BBC Radio. Previous: ... and so they stayed 

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 6 June 2014 at 13:13, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very well researched. Thanks

At 7 June 2014 at 18:35, Blogger Unknown said...

Nomadic gujjars have a knack of creating masterpieces and then wearing them every day. The head gear of the girl n the saddel speak of their intricate sense of color n beauty.

At 8 June 2014 at 14:39, Anonymous muhammad athar said...

An article with deep recerch of custums & tradations. Well done sir

At 23 September 2014 at 14:31, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What could have been an ode to the majestic Deosai, sadly turned out to be a eulogy to 'the ability to appreciate and preserve nature'. The issues were aptly covered and beautifully highlighted in your signature way, sir, but the question is who to take responsibility to implement? Not us, definitely not us! it so happens that we are just not the breed!!!


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days