The Cholistan Desert in the (West) Punjab province of Pakistan covers an area of 26,300 km². It is part of the Greater Thar Desert, one of Pakistan’s two big deserts, the main part of which is located in India. Here, the Punjab Wildlife Department fights a great battle to protect Cholistan’s fast declining populations of chinkara gazelles and migratory birds from poaching. A battle that sheds light on a deeper problem of how Pakistani political leaders treat the country’s natural resources driven by economic and political interests.
As we arrive at Bahawalpur, we meet Syed Ali Usman Bukhari, Deputy Director of the Punjab Wildlife Department Bahawalpur division, responsible for protected areas in the Cholistan desert. With him and his team, we prepare to embark on a two-day journey into the desert, learning about Cholistan, its people, wildlife and threats. By the end, we find out more about its guardians, the team of the Punjab Wildlife Department than ever expected. They patrol, read tracks and risk their lives hunting down poachers to protect the vast desert’s fragile wildlife.
Life in the Cholistan desert
In ancient times, Cholistan was a fertile region with the large river Hakra running through it, fed by Himalayan meltwater. Along it, many settlements were found from the Indus valley civilization dating back to 4000 BCE. But since then, the area has gone through a process of natural desertification and all rivers have dried up. Nowadays, the local people of Cholistan lead a semi-nomadic life. In search of increasingly scarce water and fodder for their livestock, shepherds have no other choice but to migrate from one place to another. The soil is generally saline and thus unsuitable for agriculture, as Cholistan is mostly composed of sand dunes and clay lands.
Life is harsh for communities living in the Cholistan desert. Water scarcity, nutrient-poor soil and the lack of healthcare and sufficient education facilities pose a challenge for their future. Nevertheless, they cannot imagine living anywhere else then here.
As we drive into the desert, we pass the canal systems built since the British era that irrigate the northern part of Cholistan. Despite the irrigation, the nutrient storage of the soil depletes fast here, wells for irrigation empty the groundwater reservoir lowering groundwater levels. Instead of accepting these conditions, people react by creating fields in new areas that turn back into desert after a few years. What once was a fertile land of a flourishing civilisation has now become a harsh region to be populated by humans.
Two faces of the desert – one under human control and heavily irrigated, and the other in the hands of nature.
Wildlife protection force set up for Cholistan
However, when it comes to wildlife, Cholistan hosts some exciting creatures. Desert fox and hare, Bengal fox, small Indian civet and caracal, Indian crested porcupine, as well as the Chinkara gazelle, Black buck, Blue Bull and the endangered Houbara bustard and Great Indian Bustard are all native to this place.
The part of the Thar desert located in Pakistani Punjab is about 430-kilometres-long and 230-kilometres-wide, and the Punjab Wildlife Department has to keep a close eye on all of it. Over time, hunting pressure has been increasing in all of Pakistan, pushing several species towards extinction. In 1972, Lal Suhanra National Park on the edge of the Cholistan desert was among the first national parks established in Pakistan, but it was already too late to prevent the extinction of black bucks from the region and thus their total vanishing from the wild in Pakistan.
Things needed to change. During the late 1970s and early 80s small populations of blackbuck, previously gifted by Pakistan, were brought back from the US to start a reintroduction program. On the other side of the border, India has a healthy black buck population, but as the Indo-Pakistan border is fenced all along Punjab, natural migration is impossible. Now there are over 500 black bucks in the breeding centre within Lal Suhanra National Park, waiting to be released. But how can their survival in the wild be successful when poaching is still common?
Over 500 blackbucks live in the Blackbuck enclosure of Lal Suhanra National Park, while they went extinct in the wild.
As a response, in 2008, a wildlife protection force was established for Cholistan. There were 24 checkposts built within the desert, and 150 personnel are stationed here by the Punjab Wildlife Department. Their main role: to protect wildlife through law enforcement.
However, there are many challenges to this. Patrolling 26,300 km² of desert during day and night, and prosecuting poaching cases one by one comes with several, even life-threatening risks.
Only the elite can afford hunting
Chinkaras are the main target of illegal trafficking. There are about 1500 individuals in Cholistan, but their numbers are threatened. Hunters come into the desert in the dark or early morning, using sand roads, by 4×4 vehicles, but often only by motorbikes, which makes it very difficult to catch them. The Wildlife Department has 14 vehicles in service all the time. Nevertheless, Ali Usman explains that the success ratio of catching poachers is very low as they have informants in local communities or even the department. Poachers often spread fake news of a poaching event, and while the wildlife protection force would be ready to catch them, the real hunt is happening in another location or another time.
Chinkaras and their protectors.
The fine for poaching a chinkara is 0.1 to 1 million PKR or 322 to 3215€. Poachers can even be prosecuted for just carrying weapons through the protected area. These fines are a lot for locals, and they would not risk paying such amounts from their own pocket,” explains Ali Usman. “Only the elite class can afford hunting. The elites serve chinkara meat at parties, and they sponsor the poaching missions executed by local bike hunters. A chinkara sells for about 0.1 million PKR (320€), The elites are also the ones who pay the fine in case the poacher gets caught.” And their hands reach far.
The clash of conservation duties and the political agenda
Ali Usman tells us that as Deputy Director, he often faces a lot of pressure from higher up to release hunters. He has never given in, but with each refusal of such requests, he comes closer to being transferred. As we visit several division offices of the Punjab Wildlife Department and observe the list of Deputy Directors up till now, we notice fast turnover. In five years, this is Ali Usman’s 12th posting. “If I only spend a few months in a position, how can the government assess my and my team’s performance? Then I’m transferred to a different ecosystem, different scenario again, how could I deliver a good, sustainable outcome?” he adds.
At the same time, Arab dignitaries also have their hands in the Cholistan desert. The politics of Houbara bustard hunting in Pakistan has shaped the country’s politics to a large extent. The Houbara bustard is a migratory bird species vulnerable according to IUCN. While Pakistanis are not allowed to hunt the bird and its hunting is officially banned, the government invites selected Arab royals to hunt it every year. Arab princes and their wealthy friends like to hunt Houbara bustards both as a sport and because the meat is considered an aphrodisiac. Despite the hunting ban, the government issues special permits annually to wealthy sheikhs, allowing them to hunt the bird in its winter habitat in Cholistan, as well as in the Balochistan and Sindh provinces. A large part of Cholistan, criss-crossed by Qatar and Abu Dhabi-built roads with milestones and signposts in Arabic, becomes off limits for locals during the houbara-hunting season. In the meantime, the government has not conducted any population surveys for the Houbara bustard to ensure that its hunting is sustainable. They rely on the periodical release of captive-bred houbaras by Gulf states, which claim to have the restoration of Cholistan’s ecosystem, but in reality provide an easy target for wealthy Arab princes and their relatives.
The most hunted bird of Arab dignitaries: the Houbara bustard, a shy and rare bird, as seen in a breeding centre established by the Arab Houbara foundation, and in the wild.
By now a large part of the desert, including the Indian great bustard sanctuary, are kind of ‘rented out’ to the sheikhs of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. They built whole tent complexes and new checkposts, and even new sand roads through the desert that make it ever more accessible for poachers. On the other hand, as a conservation effort, they also created the Houbara foundation that has set up a black buck, blue bull (nilgai), chinkara and houbara bustard breeding centre within Cholistan, all of which live within the enclosure.
These secretive and controversial private hunting expeditions by Arab sheikhs date back over four decades, and the Pakistani government has argued they bring investment to under-developed areas. These powerful relations with Gulf states reach a political level, so that the hands of people like Ali Usman and his team are completely tied on this matter.
Risky work, fierce leader
Patrolling the desert is no joke. There have been times when hunters retaliated and fired on officials. Some have been threatened through telephone calls and experienced shootings first-hand. Officers have gotten injured and even died. Nevertheless, there is no risk allowance by the government, the officers get paid as much as for desk work.
“This work is risky. but we don’t get a risk allowance. Judges, all police get risk allowance, but not us,” an officer tells us. Risks can also be fatal snake bites, as there are venomous vipers, rattlesnakes and cobras in the desert, not to mention possible car accidents through the high-speed chasing of poachers through the sand dunes. While we are traveling together in the desert, we are astonished by the navigation and driving skills of the drivers. Without any signage or any paved roads, they know their way throughout the desert. And they have some skills and tricks up their sleeve to catch poachers as well. One of them is the incredible ability to read tire tracks in the sand: what car, when, in which direction it passed in the area – they are able to read it all.
As we also learn, Wildlife Department officers are not allowed to fire back at poachers. “In the eyes of law, criminal procedures are bound to actions against humans or property. To harm wildlife is not of such impact that would allow a wildlife official to shoot at a poacher,” explains Ali Usman.
Ali Usman, Deputy Director of the Bahawalpur Wildlife Department spends almost his waking hours with his staff.
In such a system, the fact that Ali Usman takes his job as Deputy Director so seriously matters very much. He sacrifices his weekends and his time off to be out on patrol with his staff. “Without me out here, there is no will to face poachers,” he notes. “If the staff is local and the hunters are local, the hunters can make problems for them also back home in their private life. This is why I’m here, to hold my team together, keep up their motivation and support them with the difficulties of this work.”
In the meantime, Ali Usman is also eager to put an end to the corruption in his office. In the first three months as deputy director, he already fired two people for corruption, and started a case against three more people. “These informants are the biggest challenge for my work. Until we haven’t removed them completely from the team, we will always be a step behind poachers.” He makes use of the current political climate, as there is no provincial government in place in Punjab right now, so Ali Usman can seize the opportunity to find the black sheep without political interference. This will be possible until the elections in October.
“My goal for Cholistan is the following. I want to achieve pockets of good conservation, where there is no human interference. Unfortunately it is currently not the case, but that’s the dream I am working towards every day.”Ali Usman, Deputy Director Punjab Wildlife Department Bahawalpur division