Contextual Conservation Conversations

Written by Maria Hashmi, Pakistan.

What’s conservation like in a 3rd world country? With 24.3% of the population living below the national poverty line, how does the government manage to fund four different wildlife departments, one for each province of Pakistan?  

The highest incidences of human-wildlife conflict are in the rural areas of Pakistan, which are so underdeveloped that one could argue they still lead a primitive life – men live in mud huts, farm to feed their families and collect firewood for warmth or cooking. Such is the unfortunate case of the Mugger crocodile that once thrived in the rivers of Sindh. It all started in the 1990’s when wetlands were drained to channel water into rivers. Wetlands being the muggers’ primary habitat, the reptiles saw no option than to make their way into the rivers. Local communities settled on the riverbanks found themselves at the centre of this human-crocodile conflict, as bathing children were snatched from banks and villagers began to disappear into the murky waters of the mighty river Indus. In an act of fear, the locals began to kill any crocodile they would see in the name of honor – in one particular culture, tribal lords held a belief that if one saw a crocodilian and did not kill it, he should consider his wife divorced (women were the primary targets as they spent time on the banks washing clothes or bathing children). Fishermen also killed the crocodiles because they saw them as competition. A newfound hatred was born, and now, mugger crocodiles are confined to a single reserve and one lake, with an estimated population of 2000 individuals only. The Indian leopard met the same fate as villages took over more and more wild areas in the north of Pakistan. 

As predators were antagonized and killed, you would expect the prey to thrive, but this is not the case in Pakistan. Native deer and antelope are mercilessly hunted for food by the villagers, and the rich often bribe game wardens to turn a blind eye to their brutality – a single man often hunting as many as 400 partridges in one night as a show of status.  

So what works then? Where do we draw the lines?  

There’s no denying that working with natives is the secret to successful conservation conversations, but how do you talk about conservation with someone whose kids are going hungry? You talk about compromise.  

 Trophy hunting is a controversial topic amongst conservationists around the world with most arguing against it, though conservationists in Pakistan would certainly argue that it is the only practice in Pakistan which is actually beneficial for certain native species. Let me tell you about a conservation success story currently in the works; at the centre of this success story is none other than the national animal of Pakistan, the Markhor.  

The Markhor is a species of large, wild goat that is native to the mountains and high-altitude monsoon forests of western and central Asia – this species is listed as near threatened by IUCN. The Markhor population has now increased to 3,500-4,000 in the country as compared to 1,500-2,000 in 2001 – I know what you’re thinking: how?! 

The government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province home to the Markhor, developed a trophy hunting program whereby hunting licenses are auctioned, and 80% of the license fee is given to the local communities of the area while the wildlife department receives the remaining amount.  Only old male individuals are offered to hunters as trophies, so the younger individuals have less competition for successful mating.  The highest bid for hunting season 2021-2022 was $160,250, with the second, third and fourth permits going for $155,100, $135,150, and $125,100  respectively.  The program is a huge success and a big victory for biodiversity and conservation in Pakistan.  

The incentives offered by the trophy hunting program have introduced a new perspective among local communities that now protect their wild game species as an economic asset. This is a brilliant example of compromise between local communities and government bodies to protect a dwindling species. 

Perhaps something like this would be frowned upon by conservationists from developed countries, perhaps it would not be the preferred conservation technique, but controversial or not, it is the only one that has proven successful in Pakistan. Notice how different the context is, I’m near certain that park rangers in the US cannot be bribed with $5, while in Pakistan, $5 is more than enough to have your pick at whatever animal you would like to poach.  

People are often quick to pass judgments without taking into consideration the context of different geographical locations, religions and cultures. In a country where there is not enough funding for basic necessities like gas and electricity, you cannot and should not expect first world standard conservation techniques and outcomes. At the end of the day, we’re all doing the best we can with what we have and within our capacities. As conservationists, we ought to have a more open mind to the struggles of other fellow conservationists fighting to make a difference in this largely indifferent world. 

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