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Jennifer McKay

The writer is Australian Disaster Management and Civil-Military Relations Consultant, based in Islamabad where she consults for Government and UN agencies. She has also worked with ERRA and NDMA.

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Hilal English

National Parks–Natural Assets

March 2024

Pakistan's national parks, spanning from the majestic mountains to the coastal beauty, are crucial for conserving biodiversity and providing economic benefits through tourism. With UNESCO nominations for Central Karakoram, Deosai, and Ziarat, these areas are vital national assets. While challenges like pollution and climate change persist, the 398 protected areas, including 31 national parks, play a significant role in sustainable environmental preservation and economic growth.  



Pakistan's national parks and protected areas are amongst the most spectacular on earth. From the majestic Himalaya, Karakoram, and Hindu Kush mountains, glaciers and alpine plains of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the plains, hills, and deserts in Punjab and Sindh to the spectacular coast and arid deserts of Balochistan in the west, Pakistan is endowed with a rich and diverse natural heritage. These extraordinary spaces are our national assets and must be protected for future generations.
More than 6,500 national parks can be found across the world. Some, like Yellowstone in the United States, has existed since 1872, and Bogd Khan Uul in Mongolia, a century before that, though it has been a protected sacred site since the 12th century. Pakistan's designated parks are relatively new in comparison. The oldest, Lal Suhanra, nestled in the Cholistan Desert east of Bahawalpur in Punjab Province, was established in 1972. 
Since then, the understanding of the value of establishing parks to protect and enjoy significant wilderness areas has grown. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and other sources, Pakistan has designated 398 notified protected areas as of 2020, including 31 national parks, 92 wildlife sanctuaries, 97 game reserves, 19 wetland reserves, and 160 community reserves.


According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and other sources, Pakistan has designated 398 notified protected areas as of 2020, including 31 national parks, 92 wildlife sanctuaries, 97 game reserves, 19 wetland reserves, and 160 community reserves.



Some names always crop up among the most famous and often visited of Pakistan's national parks, though they are just a few incredible 'must-see' places. The awe-inspiring mountains of the Karakoram, Himalayas, and Hindu Kush in the north and northwest are home to some of the highest mountains in the world, including five of the fourteen highest over 8,000 meters, glaciers, and glacial lakes, wildlife including the elusive snow leopards, brown bears, the markhor, ibex and hundreds of smaller animals, rare plants and unique biospheres. 
Better air services to Gilgit, new international flights to Skardu, and better tourism facilities have made visiting these remote areas much more accessible. Khunjerab, Central Karakoram, Hundrap Shandur, Qurambar, Nanga Parbat, Himalaya, and Deosai National Parks are all located in GB and are always high on every traveler's list. Traveling the 274 km stretch of the legendary Karakoram Highway from Gilgit through the Hunza Valley to the Pakistan-China Border is a truly memorable journey and one of the world's great road trips. Engaging local guides with 4 x 4 vehicles is advisable for side trips to explore some of the more remote locations and travel across from the Karakoram Highway to Deosai and Skardu.
In KP, the remote Broghil Valley bordering the Wakhan Corridor, though not easy to access without a 4-wheel drive and some experience, is extraordinarily beautiful. The exquisite Chitral Gol is also worth the adventure, although it is not easily done without a 4-wheel drive. Saiful Muluk National Park, with its magical Lake Saiful Muluk, surrounded by snow-capped peaks, is a popular destination.
It is not only the parks in the north that are attracting a new generation of travelers. Margalla Hills National Park (Islamabad), on the doorstep of the national capital, is a popular destination for locals and visitors to enjoy hiking and birdwatching. The Margallas are home to numerous mammals, including barking deer, red fox, grey goral, and leopards.
Heading south into Punjab, Lal Suhanra, located 35 km from Bahawalpur in the Cholistan Desert, is Pakistan's oldest park known for its diverse landscapes, wildlife, and 160 bird species, including honey buzzard, hen harrier, marsh harrier, Indian sparrow hawk, wheatear, griffon vulture, and barn owl.
In Sindh, Kirthar is richly rewarding for a vastly different wilderness experience. Spans over a vast area and features rugged terrain near Jamshoro, the park is the home of leopards, wolves, striped hyenas, Chinkara gazelles, Urial sheep, and the Sindh ibex. Located within the park is also the Ranikot Fort, a Talpur-era structure dating from the 19th century. The Fort has a circumference of 32 kilometers and has been nominated as a World Heritage Site for cultural importance.
For a complete change of scenery, drive from Karachi to Gwadar along the beautiful Makran Coast of the Arabian Sea in Balochistan. The wildly spectacular Hingol National Park, with its astounding rocky cliffs and canyons, mud volcanoes, strange rock formations, and diverse environment, is another memorable drive. Bordered by a dense forest to the north, a barren mountain range to the south, and the Hangul River tributary, which hosts thousands of migratory birds and marsh crocodiles, Hingol includes caves, religious sites, pristine beaches, and a marine ecological zone with thriving mangroves, dolphins, turtles, and other sea life.


Traveling the 274 km stretch of the legendary Karakoram Highway from Gilgit through the Hunza Valley to the Pakistan-China Border is a truly memorable journey and one of the world's great road trips.


Balochistan is also home to the Hazarganji Chiltan National Park (Balochistan), known for its unique juniper forests and diverse wildlife, and the Ziarat Juniper Forest (Balochistan), the home of one of the world's oldest juniper forests, with some trees believed to be thousands of years old.
Amongst the existing protected areas, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has designated four biosphere reserves in Garamchashma in Chitral and the Gallies (Galiyat), both located in KP, Lal Suhanra in Punjab, and Ziarat Juniper Forest in Balochistan. Several national parks—Central Karakoram, Deosai, and Ziarat—are on UNESCO's tentative list of nominees for designation as World Heritage Sites as natural treasures. If approved, they will join six existing and 26 tentative cultural sites across Pakistan on the World Heritage list.


Margalla Hills National Park (Islamabad), on the doorstep of the national capital, is a popular destination for locals and visitors to enjoy hiking and birdwatching.


National parks and protected areas are pivotal in conserving species, ecosystems, and natural resources, preserving biodiversity, providing wildlife sanctuaries, and providing enjoyment and education for visitors. The total protected area represents approximately 13 percent of Pakistan's territory as of 2020. Although governments have discussed the need for increasing coverage to 17 percent by 2030 to align with the UN Convention on Biological Diversity's ambitious goal for long-term nature conservation, there seems little likelihood of that happening without committing significant funding and will at all levels of government, as well as also community support to find workable and sustainable solutions. 
Unfortunately, many notified protected areas are not yet adequately protected. Some can be described as 'paper parks,' a terminology first described in a report by Dudley and Stolton and subsequently referenced in a 1999 World Wide Fund for Nature-World Bank (WWF-WB) report to describe "a legally established protected area where experts believe current protection activities are insufficient to halt degradation." The well-meaning intent is there, but not the ability to adequately meet the requirements to meet IUCN global standards. New areas are under consideration for designation by governments, with the encouragement of environmental and wildlife organizations and community groups. However, when establishing new national parks and protected areas, countries have different but very similar processes that must be considered. Working closely with relevant authorities, environmental experts, and local communities is essential to ensure successful establishment and sustainability. The following steps must be considered:
Resource Evaluation. Determine if the proposed area possesses nationally significant natural, cultural, or recreational resources. Assess the environmental suitability and financial feasibility of adding the area to the national park system.
Public Consultation and Engagement. Engage with local communities, stakeholders, and the public to gather input and address concerns. Public consultation helps build support and ensures transparency in the decision-making process.
Responsibility. The area should be under the direct responsibility of a Provincial or, perhaps in the future, a National Park Department, with support and advice of other relevant government ministries or departments (e.g., Forestry and Wildlife, Climate Change, Environment).
Land Acquisition. Acquire the necessary land to establish the new park or expand an existing one. This land may be added to an existing reserve or used to create an entirely new national park. However, land acquisition can be contentious as the area may be held by public and private interests. Often, private owners are hesitant to part with land that may have been in their family for years or centuries. Local communities fear displacement and loss of livelihood and cultural practices and often resist. The acquisition process tends to be lengthy, and complex negotiations to ensure a harmonious outcome can take years.


The wildly spectacular Hingol National Park, with its astounding rocky cliffs and canyons, mud volcanoes, strange rock formations, and diverse environment, is another memorable drive.


Gazettal and Legal Process. Once the land is secured, it must be officially gazetted as part of the national park system. Legal processes must be followed to ensure that the area is recognized and protected under relevant laws.
Infrastructure and Facilities. Develop the necessary infrastructure, such as tourism, visitor centers, trails, and access points. Consider facilities for education, conservation, and recreation.
Funding and Management Plans. Create a comprehensive funding and management plan that outlines how the park will be funded, operated, maintained, and protected. These plans address conservation, staffing with park rangers and maintenance workers, visitor experience, and cultural heritage aspects.


Heading south into Punjab, Lal Suhanra, located 35 km from Bahawalpur in the Cholistan Desert, is Pakistan's oldest park known for its diverse landscapes, wildlife, and 160 bird species, including honey buzzard, hen harrier, marsh harrier, Indian sparrow hawk, wheatear, griffon vulture, and barn owl.


Official Declaration. Once all steps are completed, the new national park or protected area can be officially declared, recognized nationally and internationally, supported, and promoted as areas of natural significance.


Balochistan is also home to the Hazarganji Chiltan National Park (Balochistan), known for its unique juniper forests and diverse wildlife, and the Ziarat Juniper Forest (Balochistan), the home of one of the world's oldest juniper forests, with some trees believed to be thousands of years old.


However appealing the idea of new national parks and protecting more significant areas of natural significance can be, globally, including in Pakistan, existing national parks and protected areas are facing increasing challenges that threaten their sustainability. Environmental threats, climate change, human encroachment, unmanaged tourism, logging in protected wilderness, development, mining, insufficient funding, and poor infrastructure are some of the multi-faceted challenges.
National Parks in Pakistan are a provincial responsibility, mostly managed through their forestry and wildlife departments. There is no National Parks Ministry or Department at the Federal level similar to those in other countries, such as the United States, responsible for all parks and protected areas, environmental protection, and legislation, and which partners with provincial/state governments and other stakeholders to ensure a cohesive parks strategy. Hopefully, given the growing complexities and cross-cutting issues related to protecting these precious environments, this could be on the federal government's agenda in the near future, which would work closely with the provinces to provide a whole-of-government approach.
The problems facing Pakistan's parks and protected areas are not unique to Pakistan. Research indicates that the same issues are raised globally.
Air and Water Pollution. Pollution from nearby urban areas, industrial activities, and transportation can negatively impact air and water quality within national parks. This pollution can harm wildlife, vegetation, and overall ecosystem health.
Climate Change. Climate change poses a significant threat to national parks, affecting ecosystems, wildlife habitats, and weather patterns. Rising temperatures, altered precipitation patterns, and extreme weather events can impact biodiversity and the overall health of park ecosystems. Pakistan has one of the lowest forest covers in the region, with only 5 percent forest cover compared to a global average of 31 percent. This discrepancy puts Pakistan at increased risk from environmental dangers such as flooding, melting glaciers, and droughts. Melting glaciers and glacial lake outburst floods in the north indicate the threat climate change poses.
Human-Wildlife Conflict. As human populations encroach upon wildlife habitats, conflicts between people and animals can arise. Issues such as wildlife poaching, habitat destruction, and encounters with wild animals can threaten human safety and wildlife conservation efforts. Reports of villagers killing rare leopards in Pakistan because they fear for their families and livestock are far too frequent. More effort must be made to work with communities to find workable solutions for the safety of villagers and the protection of wild animals. 
Housing and Resort Construction. Construction in or adjacent to national parks for new developments is a contentious issue as it can seriously affect pristine environments and disturb or drive out wildlife, water sources, and forest cover. Although encroachment within park boundaries is forbidden through local laws, many challenges are starting to arise in protected areas to bypass or change regulations.


National parks and protected areas are pivotal in conserving species, ecosystems, and natural resources, preserving biodiversity, providing wildlife sanctuaries, and providing enjoyment and education for visitors. The total protected area represents approximately 13 percent of Pakistan's territory as of 2020. 


Infrastructure Maintenance. Many national parks suffer from a deferred maintenance backlog due to inadequate funding. This gap can result in deteriorating infrastructure, including roads, trails, visitor centers, and other facilities.
Invasive Species. Introducing and spreading invasive species can disrupt native ecosystems, outcompeting or preying upon local flora and fauna, leading to declining biodiversity and altering the natural balance within national parks.
Lack of Funding. National parks often struggle with insufficient funding for day-to-day operations, conservation efforts, and infrastructure maintenance, hindering the ability to address other challenges effectively.
Loss of Dark Skies. Light pollution from nearby urban areas can impact the natural darkness of night skies within national parks, affecting the visibility of stars and other celestial phenomena and affecting behavioral patterns of nocturnal wildlife.


Educating actual and virtual visitors about national parks–the environment, ecology, history, wildlife, local cultures, information for travelers, and much more-fosters a deeper connection to nature and encourages responsible actions to preserve these precious environments. 


Overcrowding. Many popular national parks experience high visitation levels, leading to overcrowding, strain on infrastructure, and increased vehicle emissions, resulting in environmental degradation, trail damage, and increased pollution. Water and waste management facilities in Pakistan's parks are generally relatively poor and inadequate for growing visitor numbers; improper waste management within or near national parks can result in litter, plastic pollution, and other human waste contaminating waterways and harming the environment. 


Pakistan has one of the lowest forest covers in the region, with only 5 percent forest cover compared to a global average of 31 percent. This discrepancy puts Pakistan at increased risk from environmental dangers such as flooding, melting glaciers, and droughts. 


Public Information and Education. Educating actual and virtual visitors about national parks–the environment, ecology, history, wildlife, local cultures, information for travelers, and much more—fosters a deeper connection to nature and encourages responsible actions to preserve these precious environments. Ensuring that detailed, user-friendly public information is easily accessible online and at information centers onsite is a responsibility of relevant government departments. It is noticeable that it takes a lot of research to find all this information on any one site for Pakistan.
Resource Extraction and Development. Pressure for resource extraction, such as mining, logging, and energy development, can encroach on national park boundaries. Balancing conservation with economic interests is a constant challenge. 
Wildfire Management. The increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires in some regions can threaten park ecosystems, wildlife habitats, and visitor safety. Effective wildfire management strategies are crucial for maintaining the health of national parks. 
Protecting and expanding Pakistan's precious national parks and other protected areas is not easy for governments and communities. But there must be a greater focus on how this can be achieved, not as an afterthought in planning. Other countries are facing the same challenges, and we can learn from each other, not only about the threats but also the ways and means to address them and find new sustainable solutions. 
The value of national parks needs to be understood in the overall context. They are not only environmental and cultural national assets. They also play a valuable role in local and national economies by providing jobs, income for tourism operators, local businesses, and other economic benefits to the country. Sufficient focus, core funding and environmental controls by governments, the support of communities and other partners, and responsible tourism will ensure that this treasury of national assets can be conserved and thrive for future generations to enjoy.


The writer is an Australian Disaster Management and Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Advisor who lives in Islamabad. She consults for Government and UN agencies and has previously worked at both ERRA and NDMA.
E-mail: [email protected]

 

Jennifer McKay

The writer is Australian Disaster Management and Civil-Military Relations Consultant, based in Islamabad where she consults for Government and UN agencies. She has also worked with ERRA and NDMA.

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