Gilgit-Baltistan has a unique ecosystem being home to some of the world’s highest mountain peaks and longest glaciers. The snow capped mountains and glaciers of Gilgit-Baltistan are major sources of water for the Indus River. Small and large lakes also benefit from the water generated by the melting snow in this region. These lakes constitute high altitude wetlands of the region.
Wetlands are ecologically important because they lie along the migratory route known as the Indus Flyway and provide habitat for many resident and migratory waterfowl and other birds. Many rare and endangered mammals also depend on the food web of these wetlands. Furthermore, various medicinal plants and trees grow in these areas.
Sustainability of high altitude wetlands ecosystem in Gilgit-Baltistan has been negatively affected by a number of short and long term threats, including illegal hunting, poaching and shooting of birds, usually for meat and sale; excessive cutting of forests for firewood and timber and over grazing of pasture by livestock.
Contamination of waters with chemicals and toxic wastes, unmanaged tourism, accelerated flash floods, glacial failure, landslides and river band erosion. Increasing population and uncoordinated development has tremendous pressure on these wetlands. Other causative factors are extreme poverty, lack of alternatives, weak law enforcement and lack of awareness, education and most prominently climate change.
Initiated in July 2007 in Pakistan, the Saving Wetlands Sky High Programme is being implemented in five countries including Bhutan, Nepal, India and China. It is a WWF network regional programme to conserve and manage threatened high altitude wetlands ecosystem and associated biodiversity and livelihoods by engaging local partners in culturally amicable ways.
The WWF-Pakistan works in close collaboration with GB Forest and Fisheries Departments. Non-governmental organisations like Aga Khan Rural Support Programmeme (AKRSP), Programme for Mountain Area Conservation (PMAC) and communities through their representative bodies i.e. the Proper Ishkoman Development Organisation (PIDO) and Shandur Local Support Organisation (SLSO) are amongst key partners in implementing this project.
The lack of appreciation for conservation, weaker understanding of conservation and the lack of information, awareness and skills were the major hurdles for implementation of the project since its inception. Consistent efforts of the project team have, however, improved awareness level among the locals.
Since the beginning, the project imparts conservation values about high altitude wetlands to villagers and other target groups through various awareness raising activities using different tools and techniques. Local communities, school children and teachers are specifically informed about wetlands, their ecology, functions and conservation issues. As a result, almost all of the 18 project area schools have started conservation activities and nature clubs have been formed which play an active role in the conservation of HAWs.
It is the result of project awareness raising activities that HAWs are important on the agenda in village forums and villagers actively participate in solid waste campaigns around the lake of Shandur Handrap and Utter. Majority of the local women are well aware of basic health, hygiene and conservation issues. Climate change has appeared as one of the most important concerns for communities.
Majority of the inhabitants of HAWs, now, are well aware of climate change and its negative impacts. In order to cope with adaptation related climate change impacts, the project team has developed community action plans for Handrap and Ishkoman valleys and implementation is in progress.
Another achievement of the project team is that illegal hunting, fishing and cutting of green forest trees has been restricted. No illegal hunting, or shooting of birds has been reported since 2007. Population of threatened animals and birds seems to have increased. The latest Wildlife census reveals a considerable increase in birdlife population in project sites. GB Forest and Wildlife Department has notified Ishkoman valley as Community Managed Conservation Area and provided two Ibex Trophy Hunting permits to communities working successfully in this regard
The project team has completed the tourist centre in Ishkoman with all promotional and awareness material available. The second tourist centre in Handrap is under construction.
Another notable achievement of the project team is that two high altitude wetlands have been proposed for Ramsar designation after conducting detailed surveys of different high altitude wetlands in the region.
Though the project is about to end but its long term effects are already visible. There is still need for more awareness raising activities and conservation efforts.
Scientific research and updated knowledge is key to science based conservation and management of natural resources.