The Margalla Hills National Park (MHNP) is situated in the north of the Federal Capital of Islamabad in the foothills of the Himalayan Range. Despite being declared as a protected area, the environment and biodiversity of the Margalla Hills National Park face a number of threats. Safety & Security Today talked to Ms. Rina Saeed Khan who is the Chairperson of the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board, the legal custodian of the Park that is mandated to protect, conserve and manage the national park to talk about the efforts being made to protect the Park.
Safety & Security Today: You have had a stellar career as an environment journalist in Pakistan, how and when did it all start?
Rina Saeed Khan: I pursued by career in the field of journalism with Friday Times soon after returning from College in the US. While I was working at Friday Times, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) asked me to cover some of the projects they were working on. One of the projects was the Blind Dolphin project the UNDP was working on in Sukkur in cooperation with Sindh Wildlife Department. I spent a few days in Sukkur and saw how the dolphins were being rescued and loved working on the story. Working on the story made me realize that how there is very little reporting on environmental issues and I decided that I will focus on such issues.
S&ST: The Islamabad Wildlife Management Board was set up in 2015, since its inception, what role has IWMB played in the protection of Margalla Hills National Park (MHNP)?
RSK: Our mission is to protect and conserve the wildlife of the Margalla Hills National Park (MHNP) and the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT). In addition we are mandated to stop poaching and protect the forests within the Park. We have been protecting the Park borders and have been very successful in stopping the rampant woodcutting within the park be it from the locals or the timber mafia. We have around fifty forest rangers that patrol the Park to ensure that no illegal activities take place. We have also been doing regular cleaning and awareness activities to stop littering in the Park which has become a big issue.
S&ST: You have been the Chairperson of the IWMB since late last year, how challenging it this role?
RSK: It is a very challenging role and a lot of work is required to deal with the issues. We have recently passed the fire season and it was a huge challenge. During the month of May there were a lot of fires and we had to put all our resources to control them. However, we successfully controlled the fires by the month of June. We adopted a strategy to prevent the fires and we did this by increasing the patrolling in the hills. Since 90% of the fires were not natural we also took the local communities on board and educated them that manmade fires can result in legal action. These steps were successful and now we are past the fire season with the arrival of the Monsoon.
S&ST: How many species of animals and plants is the MHNP home to?
RSK: There are around 350 bird species in the Park. In addition we have 38 different species of mammals including the common leopard which is the apex predator of the Park. There are also 32 species of reptiles and 9 species of amphibians.
S&ST: There are quite a few commercial establishments (mostly restaurants), aren’t this a violation of the Islamabad Wildlife (Protection, Preservation, Conservation and Management) Ordinance 1979?
RSK: Most of these commercial establishments were set up without an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and are illegal. Some of them are even dumping their sewerage and solid waste in the park which is causing serious environmental damage to the Park. A few of the establishments were set up way before the IWMB was formed in 2015. We have raised the issue with the Capital Development Authority (CDA) but they contend that the land comes under them and there is no illegality. However, the IWMB has clear stance on the issue that even if the land comes under CDA, they cannot change the land use. Moreover, the Islamabad Wildlife (Protection, Preservation, Conservation and Management) Ordinance 1979 is weak and we are trying to get the Islamabad Nature and Wildlife Management Act passed from the parliament. If the new Act is passed by the parliament the IWMB would become an Authority and we will have more powers to enforce the regulations. Apart from the commercial entities, the construction of new roads and the unregulated construction in the villages that fall within the park are also eating away its habitat.
S&ST: The hiking trails in MHNP and the restaurants both attract thousands of visitors on weekends. Do you think the flow of visitors should be curtailed?
RSK: I am not in favor of limiting the number of visitors in the park but we are opening up new hiking trails to ease the stress on some of the existing trails. We will be developing trails in Shah Allah Ditta and near the Quaid-e-Azam University that will divert some of the hikers from Trail 3 and Trail 5 to these trails.
S&ST: How has the flow of visitors and growing commercial activities impacted the wildlife in the park?
RSK: Wildlife is certainly affected by the flow of visitors. There is almost no wildlife on Trail 3 which is the most frequented trail in the MHNP. The same is the case with the pristine Trail 5 and you can only occasionally spot a pheasant or a barking deer. We recently shut down the Trail 6 because the wildlife there was being severely affected by the influx of visitors. However, after the closure of the trail within a period of few months the plant and animal life has flourished in the area. The forest around the trail has grown dense and animals that had once left the trail have started to reappear. We are also trying to educate the visitors to enjoy the park but ensure that they don’t cause any disturbance.
S&ST: What are some of the initiatives you have taken since assuming the position as the Chairperson of IWMB?
RSK: One of the first thing I did after assuming this position was to carry out a leopard study in the Park on scientific grounds. The study was needed as no one knew the exact number of leopards that roam the park. The study is now almost compete and results of the study will soon be shared with the media and the general public. We have also recently opened the Trail 4, which was closed for quite some time. This was done to lessen the stress on other trails. We have also upgraded other trails by updating the helping signs and maps which will help visitors. We also completed the documentation for the PKR 1.68 billion PC-I for the development and upgradation of the park. The funding will also help the new initiatives in the pipeline that includes the conversion of the now defunct zoo to a wildlife conservation center. We have prepared multiple designs for the proposed conservation center but there are still a few hurdles which will be sorted out soon. We have also drafted the Islamabad Nature and Wildlife Management Act which, if passed, will strengthen the IWMB.
S&ST: Islamabad Zoo has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons in recent years. Soon after Kaavan was moved to a sanctuary in Cambodia, the Capital Development Authority handed over Marghazar Zoo assets to IWMB. What are IWMB plans for the Zoo now?
RSK: The zoo was shut down on the orders of the Islamabad High Court because animals were being mistreated. Kaavan was moved to a sanctuary in Cambodia and the two bears, Bubloo and Suzie, were moved to a sanctuary in Jordan. We now intend to convert the zoo into a wildlife conservation center. We also plan to set up an animal rescue facility to help injured animals and those recovered from poachers. IWMB recently helped in the rescue of the Asiatic Black Bear cub called Daboo that was poached from a forest in Azad Kashmir. We are taking care of Daboo and we plan to release it back into the wild in Azad Kashmir.
S&ST: Moving on, taking advantage of your expertise when it comes to environmental issues, how do you see the efforts being made by Pakistan when it comes to climate change?
RSK: I think the present government has done a really good job. The Ten Billion Tree Tsunami project is being replicated by many countries around the world because of its success. The Prime Minister has given the country a vision when it comes to environment related initiatives but I must say that there are still a lot of bureaucratic hurdles that are hampering our progress.
S&ST: Are there any particular climate change related initiatives being undertaken by Pakistan in recent years that have caught your eye and what more can be done?
RSK: The Billion Tree Tsunami and the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami are both excellent initiatives. Both initiatives have won international acclaim because of their success.
S&ST: Do you think environmental issues should be made part of the curriculum so our future generation is more aware of the bleak future the world faces due to climate change?
RSK: Yes, I think environmental issues should be made part of the curriculum. We had also planned to bring students from various schools from Islamabad and educate them through documentaries and trainings regarding the importance of environment. However, we couldn’t do it due to the coronavirus pandemic. Once the coronavirus cases subside we plan to engage students.
S&ST: Any message for the readers?
RSK: We are living through a climate emergency and every one can play a part in this regard. We also have a volunteer program and we would like young people to join us and take ownership of the Park. I also think people should raise their voices against unregulated development that is causing irreparable damage to the environment. With the help of citizens of Islamabad our job of protecting the park and implanting the Prime Minister’s vision will be made a lot easier.