Wildlife in the world is threatened due to different factors. These include loss of its natural forest habitat to expanding human settlements and infrastructural development, poaching and illegal hunting for recreation or illicit trade, conflict with communities sharing the same living spaces, changes in living conditions for environmental reasons and so on.
Over the years, many species of animals, reptiles and amphibians have come to the verge of extinction whereas populations of others are dwindling. Some have even become extinct and can only be found in pictures.
The alarming situation has caught the attention of environmentalists, conservationists, biologists and international bodies, including the United Nations (UN), that have called for corrective actions by respective countries. Even the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) drafted by the UN talk about putting a plug on biodiversity loss by 2030.
According to reports, Pakistan has a long way to go to even set its targets about wildlife conservation, work out an action plan and put a system in place to implement it. Pakistan has signed and ratified international conventions in this regard but the level of compliance is very week. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Fauna and Flora are some of these and their compliance is also mandatory for Pakistan in case it wants to retain its General System of Preferences (GSP) Plus status granted by the European Union (EU).
Under these conventions, it is acknowledged that wild fauna and flora in their varied forms are an irreplaceable part of the natural systems of the earth which must be protected. The stress is also on the fact that people and States are and should be the best protectors of their own wild fauna and flora and that international co-operation is essential for the protection of certain species of wild fauna and flora against over-exploitation through international trade. These priorities were also the focus of discussions, sessions and presentations at the International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB) held in Cartagena, Colombia in July.
Hammad Naqi Khan, Director General (DG), World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Pakistan points out that compliance with these conventions has become quite challenging in Pakistan as wildlife, forestry, etc, have become purely provincial subjects after the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan. The provinces lack capacity issues and for this very reason the biodiversity rich Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) announced post of a private consultant to help it out.
Khan says to conserve biodiversity, there is an urgent need to carry out surveys of all the existing species of plants and animals in the country and this is where technology can help. The WWF, he says, has done project-based work on a limited level and it’s only the state that can cover the whole expanse of the country. For example, he says, the fund has done a population survey of Indus dolphins and studied migration patterns of houbara bustards.
Leading scientific firms are coming up with new conservation technologies that can help conservationists and states to achieve biological diversity targets. Some of these are too expensive, making them non-viable for use in countries like Pakistan. “Work is in progress to make these technologies affordable by introducing open source solutions and reducing dependence on branded ones,” says Jose Lahoz-Monfort, an expert in Conservation Technology with the US-based Society for Conservation Biology (SCB).
He says terabytes of data can be collected through placement of camera traps and acoustic devices in forests and other places for the purpose of confirming presence or lack of certain species. The images and sounds recorded thus are matched with those already available with the researchers to work out numbers of animals and birds and the species present in a particular area. This work is not manually done because analysing terabytes of data is humanly impossible so Artificial Intelligence (AI) is used for this purpose, says Monfort.
Then, he says, there are thermal cameras that can detect animals or birds otherwise not visible in certain settings. “Many communities that would once feel threatened by the intrusion of wild animals are now using geo-fencing-a technology that helps raise alarm when a charging animal is spotted near their settlements. This way they can take precautionary measures well in time,” he adds.
This solution seems quite workable in northern parts of Pakistan, including KP where livestock becomes prey to common leopards quite often. By employing this technique, communities can save their livestock by moving them to the pens in such a situation and protect themselves by moving inside. This will also help save these rare animals from dying as the disgruntled villagers often kill them in retaliation to the loss of animal stock. The KP government has already passed a law under which it will compensate the loss of livestock caused by wild animals, in a bid to protect these from the wrath of farmers.
Rizwan Mahboob, Focal Person, Prime Minister’s Green Pakistan Programme, says that an action plan has been worked out and approved by the federal cabinet. The provinces have also been taken on board as they are the ones doing work on ground. He adds that there are seven different types of landscapes in the country where different technologies have been deployed to count species and their respective numbers. “For example, camera traps have been placed in Gilgit Baltistan region to count the number of snow leopards,” he adds. He says a positive development that has taken place recently is that the zoological survey has been restored after some year’s suspension. Funds have also been released for this activity under which numerical survey of animal species will be carried out.
In this context, the method known as the Footprint Identification Technique, developed by a nonprofit called WildTrack, can be very helpful. The technique identifies species, including the endangered ones, using digital images of their footprints, without even the need to fit tracking devices to the animals.
Khan, the WWF DG, is of the opinion that international cooperation is a must to root out illegal trade of wildlife species. A positive development in this context is that China — the destination of most of these products — has banned import of ivory, which will automatically take care of the supply side. “Fresh water turtles, black scorpions, pangolins, etc, are being trafficked illegally to China and the Far East and there is a need to convince destination countries to declare it illegal as well,” says Khan who is leaving for China to attend a Supreme Court (SC) discussion on this topic.
There are experts that reject claims that not much is being done on this front. Uzma Khan, a conservationist and advisor to WWF, says “the details about species are there and there is no need to have the exact count of every one of these,” she adds. She says priority is given to endangered species and their number is counted to infer whether there is an increase/decrease in their populations.
Citing an example, she says, the number of snow leopards in Pakistan has been found to be between 250 and 400. “This estimate has been reached by placing camera traps in their habitats and scientifically analysing their scat.”