Mat-making replaces illegal wildlife trade in northern Pakistan

22 Apr 2010

By Rehan Rafay Jamil

20 April 2010, Islamabad, Pakistan — Faizallah, known as Faizo among his friends and family, catches turtles for living.  It is an unusual profession in Pakistan, a country where turtle meat is considered to be against Islamic dietary restrictions. 

In the Dera Ismail Khan district, turtle traders offer a handsome sum to impoverished fishermen to catch soft-shell turtles. (Photo by the Pakistan Wetlands Programme)

Faizo comes from the nomadic Kail community in the district of Dera Ismail Khan in the northern province of Khyber-Paktoonkhwa.  Faizo and his family live in tents along the banks of the Indus River in the village of Toya Siyal.  The village has a population of 1,200, no electricity and no school.  The main sources of income are basket weaving and begging.  Some villagers work as tenant farmers, but they are paid less than those from other communities.     

“We are extremely poor,” Faizo said.  “Fish sells 25 rupees a kilo.  Turtle meat fetches up to 300 rupees a kilo.  We need money to survive, and that’s why we catch turtles”. 

Pakistan is home to eight species of freshwater turtles.  Freshwater turtles, especially soft-shell turtles, are heavily exploited for food and medicine in Southeast Asia and China.  In the Dera Ismail Khan district, turtle traders act as middlemen in the flourishing international business and offer a handsome sum to impoverished fishermen to catch soft-shell turtles.  Once found in abundance in the waters of the Indus River, Ganges soft-shell turtles and Peacock soft-shell turtles are now on the International Union for Conservation Nature’s “red list” of endangered species. 

For the Kail people, one of the poorest and most marginalised groups, environmental degradation is a direct result of poverty, as they depend on natural resources for livelihoods.

Recognising this, the Ministry of Environment launched in 2005 the Pakistan Wetlands Programme with UNDP and the World Wildlife Fund-Pakistan.  The seven-year programme aimed at protecting wetlands — the first of its kind in Pakistan — and alleviating poverty simultaneously.  It enabled the government to provide policy, institutional, technical and financial framework to mainstream wetlands conservation.  The efforts were measured against the achievement of the Millennium Development Goal 7, ensuring environmental sustainability.   

When the wetlands initiative first began, Abdul Qadir, who has worked with UNDP for ten years on environmental issues, found it hard to get the actors to talk to one another.  He agonised over how to bring to the local governments and communities struggling against poverty the central government’s message to protect wetlands.

The Kail community received mat-making training, as part of an effort to encourage the development of a cottage industry to replace illegal wildlife trade. (Photo by the Pakistan Wetlands Programme)

Qadir remembers setting up a series of formal and informal meetings where people felt safe to talk about their needs.  District authorities subsequently began taking their own small-scale initiatives, such as establishing a community clinic.  UNDP assisted all tiers of government — national, provincial and local — to complement those efforts with a large scale projects to improve social infrastructure. 

It is through open and participatory planning processes that UNDP brings together the public institutions and local communities, Qadir explained.  “People are often not very open, so it’s really important to consult them and involve them without disturbing their local culture”. 

The Pakistan Wetlands Programme staff have worked with employees of the province’s wildlife, fisheries and customs departments to identify illegally-sold turtle parts and set up turtle hatcheries to protect soft-shell turtles’ offspring.  In 2007, the North West Frontier Province Wildlife Protection Act 1975 was amended to include all the province’s freshwater turtles on the list of animals that need to be protected. 
 
The programme also provided the Kail community with vocational training to encourage the development of a cottage industry.  The community also received awareness raising material, which illustrated the importance of natural resources management, in the local dialect of Seraiki. 

“Working with local institutions is a time-tested method here.  UNDP’s contribution is coordination”, said Qadir.