The openness of the wilderness engulfs you here. The sky appears higher, the stars shine brighter, the air smells fresher and the lakes with its azure blue water shimmers with a magical gleam. With tall mountains all around, the vegetation here seems grand. The thunder roars through the broad plains with godly tenacity making the lightning more vivid. This is the seductive grandeur of the Deosai plateau that has mesmerised humans for hundreds of years.
Declared as a national park in 1993 under the Northern Areas Wildlife Preservation Act of 1975, Deosai is an unusual example of highlands ecosystems. Stretching over more than 2000 square kilometres, this exceptionally beautiful park is home to more than 460 plant species, including almost 45 families and over 130 genera.
Home to endangered animal species, including what is probably the most stable population of the Himalayan brown bears in Asia — an important indicator of overall ecosystem health — it is the centre of diversity for many species. Situated at the confluence of three distinct mountain ranges: western Himalaya, the Ladakh, and the Zanskar, the plains of Deosai is also home to a variety of large “heroic megafauna” such as the snow leopard, grey wolf, Siberian ibex, red fox alongside thirteen species of small mammals and a reasonably good number of birds of prey. Its water bodies support significant fisheries including the Indus snow trout, Tibetan snow trout and Tibetan stone loach.
Recently, the serene sanctuary is in the crosshairs, caught between opposing views on a proposed three-day long festival to be held under the aegis of the Tourism Department Gilgit-Baltistan next month. The Deosai festival aimed at boosting tourism in the region has attracted scorn from environmentalists and nature lovers believing that the festival’s large footprint could be harmful to the wildlife reserve.
Conservation organisations are of the opinion that the Deosai national park is protected by law and any activity that threatens the biodiversity of the park will be considered illegitimate and unlawful. But Jehanzaib Awan, Secretary Tourism Gilgit Baltistan, says that the concerns of nature lovers and conservation organisations are “based on information that is not correct.”
“I felt blindness descending upon the people at the helm of affairs in Gilgit-Baltistan,” says an official, requesting anonymity, who was privy to a meeting called by the Secretary Wildlife and Forrest Department Gilgit-Baltistan in connection with the Deosai festival. “I saw cash sign in their eyes ignorant of the impact the festival will bring to the wildlife reserve,” he added further.
Originally, elevating the status of the Deosai plains to that of a national park and a protected area was meant to protect the valuable natural landscape and the habitat of the endangered Himalayan brown bear. However, it has long become apparent that for long term protection and for an increased acceptance of the reserve, generating economic and socio-cultural benefits for the rural communities living within and around the vicinity of the park is vital. Estimates suggests that mountain areas comprise more than 25 per cent of all protected areas worldwide and due to the opulence these highlands radiate, tourism demand for such areas has expanded to 20 per cent of global tourist flow.
“Protected areas like the Deosai National Park can contribute significantly to the livelihoods and food security of mountain peoples while conserving universally important environmental services such as clean water and biodiversity resources,” says Rab Nawaz, Senior Director Programmes, WWF-Pakistan. The organisation believes that the success of tourist activities in protected areas depends on various factors and that a sound and integrated management policy should be in place well in advance before carrying out a festival that might threaten the unique biodiversity of the national park.
“The original idea behind protected areas is strongly linked to motivations to conserve biodiversity and landscapes and we, as an organisation, support sustainable tourism and ecotourism. Why are concerned people in Pakistan finding it hard to comprehend the idea of sustainable tourism which is also now part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations?” questions Rab Nawaz.
But Sajjad Haider, Secretary Wildlife and Forests Gilgit-Baltistan, is of the opinion that people are jumping to conclusions based on limited and inaccurate information about the scope of the festival and the idea behind it. “The festival will take place within a five square kilometre radius of the park designated for recreational activity and is at a distance of 35-40 kilometres from the core zone of the park. We are expecting huge crowds of tourists and will make sure that all measures are in place to contain crowds within the five square kilometre diameter,” Sajjad Haider says.
Haider further notes that the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) Gilgit-Baltistan is also onboard and is part of the environment committee of the festival that will overlook the pre and post-cleanup of the event site. Haider’s claim is contradicted by the secretary tourism who says that though the EPA is part of the event, it has yet to conduct an environment impact survey of the mega event. “We have already requested them (Wildlife Department) for an assessment report and have yet to receive a reply from them,” says Jehanzaib Awan.
The feasibility of the Deosai Festival is not just a debate between environmentalists and the authorities concerned. In the context of protected area management, it is a challenge to strive simultaneously to conserve nature, develop tourism and improve the livelihoods of local people. Ultimately, the biggest contribution will be made by the festival-goers, both on site and — most crucially — before they even arrive.
Both organisers and conservation organisations are expected to do as much as they can to minimise the environmental impact of the festival, but it’s the tourists who are expected to make the difference. Images of lake Saif-ul-Malook turned into a garbage dump by tourists celebrating a week long Eid vacation are still doing rounds on the internet. Therefore, the festival’s carbon footprint will be accessed by the people travelling to the festival.