An ecological disaster averted

Syed Muhammad Abubakar describes how pressure from civil society and environmentalists compelled the Gilgit-Baltistan authorities to reschedule the Deosai festival

An ecological disaster averted
It was nothing short of a nightmare when the government of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) unveiled its plans to hold Deosai Festival in Deosai National Park (DNP) in August this year. The festival included activities such as jeep racing, a musical night, a polo competition, fishing and traditional boat-racing competitions, etc.

The Deosai plateau is the second highest plateau in the world after Chang Tang in Tibet, China. The Deosai plateau lies at an elevation of 13,497 ft (4,114 metres) above sea level and is famously known as ‘the land of giants’, as it is the last remaining habitat of the Himalayan brown bear in Pakistan.

Despite the fact that it is an ecologically sensitive zone, hosts precious biodiversity and serves as a watershed in the region, the Tourism Department of GB ignored its environmental importance and went on preparing for Deosai festival. Despite the concerns of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), GB, the government continued making preparations but landed in trouble when environmentalists and the media opposed it and a strong campaign was initiated to stop it.
"The decision to move the festival venue reflects the power of the social media and pre-emptive environmental activism"

It was only after receiving criticism within its own departments - and from civil society, environmentalists and media - that the government finally decided not to hold the festival in DNP and changed the venue to the Rama valley in Astore district of GB. The dates of the festival have not been announced as yet.

Previously, when the tussle between the Tourism Department and environment activists was all time high, the World Wide Fund for Nature Pakistan (WWF) expressed serious concerns over the festival. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) also opposed the festival, citing as reasons the fact that it will have a serious impact on the biodiversity and ecosystem of the national park.

Besides NGOs, sections within the GB government also expressed resentment over this controversial festival. Shahzad Hassan Shigri, Director EPA, GB, regarding this issue said, “Previously, activities such as jeep racing, musical night and polo competitions were on the cards which could have been detrimental for DNP. Therefore we advised the Tourism Department to only organise controlled fishing and traditional boat racing competitions, which they accepted. We suggested these so that the damage to the ecosystem is negligible or minimum.”

Shahzad Hassan Shigri further stated that it was already becoming impossible to hold the festival, as 15 July to 15 August was the only suitable time period for this purpose, after which excessive snowfall blocks the pathway to DNP. “We didn’t foresee it happening!” he said.

The Deosai National Park, Skardu, northern Pakistan
The Deosai National Park, Skardu, northern Pakistan

“The EPA was against the festival, as according to the Wildlife Preservation Act of 1975, no such activity can take place in a national park” Shahzad Shigri further added.

The Deosai plateau was declared a national park in 1993, which helped to increase the number of Himalayan brown bears from 19 in 1993 to 60 in 2012, showing a five per cent annual increase in population. Since DNP enjoys the highest protected category, it is illegal to conduct any activity that may threaten its ecosystem.

According to Hammad Naqi Khan, Director General WWF-Pakistan, “We appreciate and thank the GB government and request them to ensure compliance of their own policy and regulatory framework and also take such decisions in consultation with stakeholders in a transparent manner.”

When asked how serious the ecological consequences of the festival could have been for DNP, Hammad said, “DNP harbours a rich selection of wildlife and birds, aside from possessing important botanical significance. The dates of the proposed festival coincided with a time when brown bears will be roaming the Deosai plains, foraging for food. The festival could have led to further shrinkage of that habitat.”

The Himalayan brown bear is listed as critically endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in Pakistan and small isolated populations of brown bears exist in remote mountainous areas.

Commenting on the issue, Malik Amin Aslam - Global Vice President (VP), IUCN, and Chair of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s Green Growth Initiative - said, “The festival could have led to irreversible destruction in this area of unique high altitude biodiversity and threaten the existence of the Himalayan brown bear. The decision to shift the venue of the festival reflects the power of the social media and is a positive example of pre-emptive environmental activism.”

DNP is home to the majestic snow leopard, grey wolf, Siberian ibex, red fox and golden marmot. Its water bodies support significant fisheries, including the Indus snow trout, Tibetan snow trout and Tibetan stone loach.

The Inspector General Forests (IGF), Syed Mahmood Nasir, who was also concerned about holding Deosai festival in such an ecologically significant area, later thanked the GB government for taking step in the right direction.

Last year too, the GB Tourism Department announced a similar festival in DNP, but later cancelled it due to logistical issues.

According to an ecological baseline study of DNP by the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation (HWF), brown bears are potentially threatened by the impact of climate change. Other threats the species face includes loss of habitat, decline in food supply, habitat shift to non-protected areas and increased competition with humans. Deosai festival could have exacerbated the problems of the brown bears in the area.

We as Pakistanis are unfamiliar with the concept of ‘sustainable tourism’. The latest tourism spree in GB has already led to intensive land and water pollution in the region and holding the festival in DNP to attract tourists would have further contributed to that. The state’s legislation on the environment has always been unable to fully tackle the issue of conservation of protected areas, and in the past the over-use of protected areas was witnessed.

DNP escaped a possible collapse, thanks to the robust lobbying by various environment activist groups which convinced the government to change their plans - otherwise the damage would have been irreversible. Better late than never: the government of GB took a step in the right direction, and it should always uphold the sanctity of the national parks.

Syed Muhammad Abubakar is an award-winning writer with an interest in climate change, deforestation, food security, sustainable development and biodiversity conservation. He tweets @SyedMAbubakar and can be reached via email at