On the brink

Samyra Rashid reports on Nisar Malik's efforts to protect biodiversity in Pakistan through the classic medium of wildlife films

On the brink
In October 2015, a Pakistani film won an award at a prestigious French film festival. Most likely you didn’t hear about it because it wasn’t an Emmy or an Oscar and the film wasn’t a drama. Neither did it sensationalise the worst of Pakistan’s social issues, thereby appealing to Western awards panels and press.

Instead it was a stunning natural history film about the endangered Himalayan Brown Bears in the Deosai Plateau (Gilgit –Baltistan), showcasing the most beautiful landscapes and wildlife that this part of the world has to offer. Made by veteran conservationist and wildlife documentary filmmaker Nisar Malik, ‘Deosai – The Last Sanctuary’ is part of a series on the National Parks of Pakistan, under a CSR project founded by Malik about 3 years ago, The Give Back Project.

Nisar Malik began his career in hard news-gathering but made his first foray into wildlife filmmaking when working with the BBC Natural History Unit on Planet Earth. He went on to make the most iconic film on the snow leopard to date, Snow Leopard – Beyond the Myth, narrated by Sir David Attenborough.

Malik captured footage that Sir David Attenborough described as 'one of the greatest moments of wildlife television'

Nisar Malik succeeded in capturing footage that Sir David Attenborough described as ‘one of the greatest moments of wildlife television’.

Despite all the wonderful footage captured in Pakistan, no one in this country ever saw the films, and conservation of the places and animals featured remained entirely unaffected by their amazing stories. No Pakistani broadcaster could afford to buy the transmission rights and the copyright holders wouldn’t give permission for widespread screenings to take place in local communities.

Darkot Glacier
Darkot Glacier

Nisar firmly believes that the fight for conserving Pakistan’s wilderness - and the biodiversity therein - has to include those who live on the frontlines, the local communities. Conducting a few screenings, he witnessed firsthand their immense impact, particularly on young people. So The Give Back Project was born, for sponsors to ‘give back’ to Pakistan by helping conservation.

Malik uses the magical medium of film to demonstrate how degrading the environment will eventually destroy the livelihoods of local people. With this awareness the communities are more open to engaging with local conservation efforts, for the first time realising how important it is for their own survival.

Khaleej Pheasants in the Margalla Hills National Park
Khaleej Pheasants in the Margalla Hills National Park

If you think conservation is a luxury that only rich countries can afford to focus on, while Pakistan has more urgent and pressing problems, consider this. The periodic flooding that has afflicted the country over the last few years can partly be attributed to deforestation in the northern areas.

These are Pakistan’s watershed areas and the precipitation that falls there (rain or snow), needs to be absorbed by the earth. As our forests are cut down, the undergrowth dies and the soil runs off into streams and rivers, often causing landslides along the way. The barren rocky ground that is left can no longer absorb water. At the same time, the soil causes the rivers to silt up, raising water levels and flooding villages along the banks. As the raging rivers gather momentum, we eventually end up with massive flooding downstream, devastating millions of lives.

Most countries globally try to retain at least 20% forest cover on their landmass. Pakistan is down to just 3%, and that is being cut down fast. We are feared to have the second highest deforestation rate in the world, according to a 1999 GOP report ‘Biodiversity Action Plan Pakistan’ prepared with support of IUCN/WWF and financed by World Bank/GEF:

“…processes such as deforestation, overgrazing, soil erosion, salinity and waterlogging have become major threats to the remaining biodiversity in Pakistan.  It is now feared that Pakistan has the world’s second highest rate of deforestation. The continuing loss of this forest habitat with its associated fauna and flora will have serious implications for the nation’s other natural and agro-ecosystems.”
The films are screened in local languages for communities on the frontline of conservation efforts

Pakistan has also been identified as one of the countries that will be most affected by climate change. Our northern areas are the most glaciated areas on the planet outside the North and South polar regions. Pakistan is home to over 5,000 glaciers…and they are melting.

If you are sitting comfortably in your armchair in Lahore, or Karachi, or Faisalabad, thinking you will be insulated from the impact of all this, think again. Once these remote areas can no longer support the local communities that have lived there for generations, they will have no choice but to pour into the already overburdened towns and cities. It is estimated that by mid-century, over 70% of Pakistan’s population will have moved to urban centers. Now consider how that will affect the quality of life for future urban centres in Pakistan.

So, can films really impact any of this? Nisar Malik believes they are a critical part of the battle. In a country with such a high percentage of illiteracy, film is an effective tool for bringing awareness to millions. Thanks to boosters, PTV now reaches most of the country and is media partner to the Give Back Project. The films are shown nationally and regionally, in multiple languages.

Kashmir Markhor in Chitral Gol National Park
Kashmir Markhor in Chitral Gol National Park

They are shared with schools to bring awareness to the youth of Pakistan about the amazing natural heritage that is theirs. Tell a child about a beautiful forest and, in this day of technology and social media, you probably won’t hold their attention for more than a minute, but transport the child there by way of film and you’ve got all their attention. Most importantly, the films are screened in local communities, in local languages.

So far, four film projects have been completed, all funded by sponsors. The first two are ‘Leopards Amongst Us’,set in Ayubia National Park, and ‘Deosai - The Last Santuary’. The next two, ‘Cliffwalkers’ (Chitral Gol National Park), and Margalla - Urban Wilderness’, were generously funded by The Dawood Foundation. They are all available to view, free of charge on www.thegivebackproject.org. Also on the website are educational short films for each project, which can be downloaded, along with classroom resource material for schools to use, also free of charge.

Only with sponsor funding can the Give Back Project continue its work, and Malik is hopeful that large corporations in Pakistan will recognize the importance of taking up this challenge and will come forward with funding.

“It’s a way for corporations to demonstrate their commitment to the welfare of the country, its future and its people,” says Nisar Malik.

The first two films will soon air on National Geographic (Middle East) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the United States. For the first time an international audience will see a different side to Pakistan, moving the narrative away from one centred purely around terrorism and instead showing the world that Pakistan is a multi-dimensional country with a great deal of beauty also.

Photo Credit: all photos courtesy of Walkabout Films Pvt. Ltd.