Deep in Pakistan’s southern desert, young locals use social media to save endangered gazelle

A Chinkara herd plays at a private farm in the gateway town of Thar Desert in Umerkot district of Sindh province on January 16, 2021 (AN photo by Zulfiqar Kunbhar)
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Updated 23 January 2021

Deep in Pakistan’s southern desert, young locals use social media to save endangered gazelle

  • The Chinkara is listed in the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s ‘Red List’ of threatened species
  • Viral posts from the wildlife youth forums pressurize authorities to take action against poachers

UMERKOT: Below the still surface of Pakistan’s remote Thar desert in southern Sindh – a barren landscape that often feels lost to history – an expanding social media presence engined by groups of 20-somethings is abuzz to save an endangered gazelle.

The result of a gradual rise in the numbers of internet users in one of the country’s most outlying districts has seen the spearheading of a number of social and environmental causes online, from demands for an engineering university to wildlife conservation.

The Chinkara, or Indian gazelle, native only to India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, is listed in the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) ‘Red List’ of threatened species, with an estimated 60 percent of the global Chinkara population in Thar. It is among the fastest land animals native to South Asia at speeds of 60km an hour-- but has not been fast enough to outrun poachers in the past. 

A captive Chinkara at a private farm in the gateway town of Thar Desert in Umerkot district of Sindh province on January 16, 2021 (AN photo by Zulfiqar Kunbhar)

Now, rural Sindh’s internet conservationists are taking the illegal hunters to task.

“In the last few years there has been a decrease in Chinkara-related wildlife crimes in the Thar Desert which has become possible only after the public’s sensitized social media reporting,” Mir Aijaz Ali Talpur, a senior official with the Sindh Wildlife Department (SWD), told Arab News.

Though Pakistan is estimated to have added 11 million users to its digital pool in 2020, unequal access to the internet between rural and urban areas remains. According to The Inclusive Internet Index 2020, Pakistan fell into the last quartile of countries, ranking 76th out of 100 countries globally and 24th out of 26 Asian countries.  

And yet, in the case of the Chinkara in Thar, an almost 75 percent decrease in poaching was witnessed between 2019 and 2020. The only thing that changed, was diligent social media reporting by dozens of devoted conservationists.

According to the IUCN, no current estimate of the Chinkara population in Pakistan is available, but indiscriminate hunting has badly affected gazelle numbers in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. Habitat loss through overgrazing, conversion to agriculture and industrial development is also a factor in population decline.

The ‘Karoonjhar Sujaag Forum Nangarkar’ – a Tharparkar district-based forum run by people who live in the area, focuses on the conservation of wildlife and the reporting of wildlife crimes in Thar Desert.

“Year 2020 was a successful year as cases were registered for all (poaching) incidents in Tharparkar district-- which social media volunteers had first raised the alarm for,” Zulfiqar Khoso, 25, a spokesperson of the Karoonjhar Sujaag Forum Nangarkar, told Arab News.

Some of Khoso’s posts regarding Chinkara killings have over 200 shares on Facebook. He said an incident in December last year had gone viral on the internet when his forum’s members flagged the killing of a pregnant Chiknara in the Nagarparkar area. A social media uproar ensued, a lower court took suo-moto notice of the case and hearings began. 

Thar’s conservation forums upload photographs or videos of the hunts with their posts, and say the visuals are at the heart of making their content go viral.

A group of social media activists pose at the Umerkot Fort monument in Sindh’s Thar Desert on January 16, 2021. (AN photo by Zulfiqar Kunbhar)

“Evidence has the potential to make content viral inside and outside the Thar Desert. Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter are majorly popular for platforms like us and individuals to raise our voices,” Khoso said.

“Proofs are also forwarded to formal media persons so that events can be raised from multiple platforms. Once the related content goes viral and becomes the talk of the town, then authorities come under pressure and take action-- which they are otherwise reluctant to do,” Khoso added.

Only four Chinkara poaching cases were reported in 2020, a stark decline from 17 in 2019. 

A group of social media activists pose with their mobile phones at the Umerkot Fort monument in Sindh’s Thar Desert on January 16, 2021. (AN photo by Zulfiqar Kunbhar)

Tharparkar district-based Munwar Sagar credits the decrease in poaching cases to social media. Sagar runs a Facebook page called Thar Pachar, which has over 13,000 likes on the social networking site.

“Two to three years ago, there was hardly any action against wildlife related crimes, but due to social media hue and cry, authorities are forced to take action,” Sagar, a lawyer by profession, told Arab News on Saturday.

Another online forum, the ‘Thar Wankari, Jhangli Jeewat Bachao Forum,’ is also campaigning to conserve the area's wildlife.  

“During the current season, there was an incident of Chinkara poaching in Umerkot district. Following an online outcry, authorities not only recovered the wild animals but also released them in their habitat,” Ameer Hasan Nohri, an engineering student and a member of the forum, told Arab News.

Bharumal Amrani, a Mithi-based environmentalist, said it was probable that numbers of actual poaching cases were much higher than reported cases, and added that the only time wildlife authorities in the area worked to limit Chinkara poaching, was when hunting groups arrived from the Middle East to hunt Houbara bustards in the winter, when the birds migrated in the thousands from Central Asia to Pakistan.

The rest of the year, the preservation of Thar desert’s Chinkara gazelles seems to lie in the hands of the deep south’s passionate social media conservationists.

Pakistani leaders, Saudi envoy laud Kingdom’s efforts to ‘shape’ the future

Updated 6 sec ago

Pakistani leaders, Saudi envoy laud Kingdom’s efforts to ‘shape’ the future

  • Glittering ceremony held in Islamabad to celebrate Saudi Arabia’s 93rd National Day
  • Senate chairman praises Saudi efforts to promote peace, stability in Middle Easy and beyond

ISLAMABAD: At celebrations to commemorate Saudi Arabia’s 93rd National Day in Islamabad on Monday, Pakistani leaders as well as the Kingdom’s envoy to Pakistan praised the leadership in Riyadh for its efforts to realign Middle East dynamics and open up the Saudi economy and society.

The Saudi government, in an effort led by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, has made remarkable changes in recent years under a vast economic transformation plan, the Vision 2030, to diversify away from oil and open the Kingdom to business and tourism amid rising regional competition. The Kingdom has also gone into diplomatic overdrive, restoring relations with Iran and agreeing to a rapprochement with Syria in its quest to rebuild regional alliances, instead of leaning entirely on the United States, its long-time big power ally. It has also recently joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as parts of Riyadh’s attempts to build a long-term partnership with China.

“Under the ideal leadership, Saudi Arabia is not just addressing the future, it is actively shaping it,” Chairman Senate Muhammad Sadiq Sanjrani said at a ceremony to celebrate Saudi National Day, which the Kingdom is marking this year with the slogan, “We dream and we achieve.”

The Senate chairman lauded steps taken by Saudi Arabia to promote peace and stability in the region.

“Dialogue and mutual respect are the bedrock on which lasting peace is made,” he said. “We are confident that Saudi efforts will open doors to various opportunities, including trade, the sharing of initiatives, and collaboration between leaders and their followers, not only for the region but for the entire world.”

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are close allies and share strong economic, security and cultural ties. Saudi Arabia is also home to more than two million Pakistani expatriates, making it the largest contributor to remittance inflows.

This year, Pakistan received $2 billion in financial support from Saudi Arabia in July, a day before the International Monetary Fund’s board gave the final approval for a $3 billion bailout deal. Saudi Arabia’s continued economic and investment support is key for Pakistan, as economic stabilization is a major challenge, with the $350 billion economy on a narrow recovery path after the IMF bailout averted a sovereign debt default. Economic reforms have already fueled historic inflation and interest rates.

“Pakistan is grateful for all the support extended by the Kingdom in the difficult times,” Sanjrani said, adding that Pakistan had also provided “unwavering and never-ending” support to the Kingdom on the diplomatic and security fronts.

Speaking at the ceremony, which was organized by the Saudi embassy, Ambassador Nawaf bin Said Al-Malki called on Pakistan and the world to “support all development plans and initiatives taken for the progress and prosperity of the Kingdom.”

“At the forefront of these successful initiatives is the Kingdom’s Vision 2030,” the ambassador said, “which represents a new stage leading the country to a bright future.”

PM puts Pakistan in diplomatic overdrive, pitches investments in stopover visit to the UK

Updated 16 min 4 sec ago

PM puts Pakistan in diplomatic overdrive, pitches investments in stopover visit to the UK

  • Kakar meets senior leaders of London’s capital and financial markets, prominent British-Pakistani business heads
  • Discusses “multifaceted bilateral relations and resumption of PIA flights” with British foreign secretary

ISLAMABAD: Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar on Monday met the UK’s foreign secretary as well as financial and capital market leaders and top British-Pakistani and other business groups on a stopover visit to London on his way back from New York to attend the UN General Assembly.

Pakistan in June set up a Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) — a civil-military hybrid forum — to fast-track decision making and promote investment from foreign nations. The council has identified five sectors as priority for seeking investment, namely agriculture, mining, information technology, defense production and energy, as the South Asian country deals with a balance of payments crisis and requires billions of dollars in foreign exchange to finance its trade deficit and repay its international debts in the current financial year.

Last week, Kakar used his visit to New York for the UN General Assembly as an opportunity to meet business and thought leaders and stakeholders and make the case for improved business climate in Pakistan and its potential for foreign direct investment in a range of sectors.

On Monday, senior leaders of London’s capital and financial markets called on Kakar in London and expressed “keen interest in exploring promising investment opportunities in the financial and capital market of Pakistan, reflecting a growing mutual interest in expanding economic collaboration,” the PM’s Office said in a statement released after his meeting with notable investment firms, including Fidelity International Limited (FIL), Wellington Management, Ashmore, Jefferies International, Redwheel Capital, Switex Industrial SA, Oxford Frontier Capital, GuarantCo, JP Morgan, Kalrock Capital, and UBL UK.

“Prime Minister Kakar informed the delegation about Pakistan’s current economic landscape, highlighting government measures for external account improvement,” the PM office said.

“He said that recent administrative actions strengthened the Pakistani rupee against the US dollar, fostering optimism for stability. He said positive indicators, including inflows from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and friendly nations, contributed to reduced inflation, stabilized reserves, and revival of industrial growth.”

Kakar also spoke about the potential for foreign direct investment in Pakistan’s key sectors and the positive impact of a Stand-By Arrangement (SBA) with the IMF, agreed in June. He highlighted economic improvements such as reduced inflation and improved trade after the removal of restrictions on imports and fiscal measures for monetary support and medium-term inflation targets.

“Furthermore, the Prime Minister highlighted Pakistan’s pro-investment efforts, introducing the Special Investment Facilitation Council,” the PMO said. “This initiative, led by the Prime Minister himself, streamlines investment processes, attracts investments in key sectors, and fosters long-term growth by simplifying the business landscape.”

Kakar separately met prominent British-Pakistani businessmen in London and highlighted positive economic indicators resulting from reforms pursued by his government, including a strengthening of the rupee, reduced inflation, and expected economic growth.

 “The Prime Minister spoke about Pakistan’s investment-friendly approach, mentioning incentives and ease-of-business reforms,” the PMO said. “He introduced the Special Investment Facilitation Council, chaired by himself, to streamline investment in key sectors through a single-window platform. This initiative aims to enhance ease of doing business, remove bureaucratic hurdles, and create a long-term investment roadmap.”

Kakar also shared the government’s resolve and commitment to privatize loss-making state-owned enterprises and urged overseas Pakistanis to take advantage of the opportunities for investment in Pakistan. He invited diaspora business leaders “to invest, especially in Special Economic Zones, to contribute to Pakistan’s economic recovery.”

The PMO said the business leaders “conveyed their strong interest in expanding their business operations in Pakistan while actively seeking to increase their investments in the country.”

Abdullah Kamani, a leading British businessman and the co-founder and executive chairman of Boohoo Group, separately called on Kakar. Boohoo Group plc is a British online fashion retailer, aimed at 16–30-year-olds. The business was founded in 2006, and had sales in 2019 of £856.9 million. It specializes in own brand fashion clothing.

“Kamani expressed keen interest in establishing long-term buying linkages with Pakistan and the ambition to create a comprehensive supply chain in the country, encompassing organic cotton to apparel production,” the PM’s office said. “They also hoped for improved Pakistan-UK air connectivity to facilitate increased imports from Pakistan.”

Kakar conveyed Pakistan’s commitment to facilitating investment and offered support in establishing manufacturing facilities within the country, particularly within Special Economic Zones (SEZs). He urged Boohoo Group to consider opening buying houses in Pakistan and invited the company to send a buying delegation to Pakistan.

Kakar also met UK’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly on Monday and discussed “all areas of mutual interest, including multifaceted bilateral relations, and resumption of PIA flights.”

Pakistan condemns latest desecration of Qur’an in the Netherlands

Updated 25 September 2023

Pakistan condemns latest desecration of Qur’an in the Netherlands

  • Anti-Islam activists have burnt, damaged several copies of Muslim holy book in recent months
  • Desecrations have enraged Muslims, unleashed demands governments ban such acts 

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Monday condemned the latest “senseless” act of desecration of the Qur’an in the Netherlands in front of a number of embassies of Muslim countries.
Anti-Islam activists have burnt and damaged several copies of the Muslim holy book in recent months, prompting outrage in the Muslim world and demands the nations’ governments ban such acts.
Intentionally burning the Qur’an is seen by Muslims as a blasphemous and insulting act worthy of severe punishment. 
“Pakistan condemns in the strongest terms the latest senseless and deeply offensive act of desecration of the Holy Qur’an that took place in The Hague, the Netherlands in front of some embassies of OIC member countries including Pakistan,” the Pakistani foreign office said.
“It is a deliberately provocative and Islamophobic act that has hurt the sentiments of Muslims around the world. Such acts cannot be condoned under the guise of freedom of expression, opinion and protest.”
The foreign office said Pakistan believed freedom of expression came with responsibilities and governments should actively prevent racist and Islamophobic acts that incite religious hatred.
“Pakistan’s concerns have been conveyed to the Dutch authorities. We urge them to be mindful of the sentiments of the people of Pakistan and Muslims around the world and take active steps to prevent such hateful and Islamophobic acts.”
Last month the United Nations Human Rights Council approved a disputed resolution on religious hatred in the wake of the burning of a Qur’an in Sweden, prompting concern by Western states who say it challenges long-held practices in rights protection.

Pakistan gets visas for Cricket World Cup in India after expressing concerns to ICC 

Updated 25 September 2023

Pakistan gets visas for Cricket World Cup in India after expressing concerns to ICC 

  • Team is scheduled to leave for Hyderabad via Dubai in the early hours of Wednesday 
  • Eighteen Pakistan players and 15 support staff are due to travel to India after visa delays 

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has received its visas for next month’s World Cup in India after expressing concerns to the International Cricket Council over delays and complaining about “inequitable treatment”. 

The team is scheduled to leave for Hyderabad, via Dubai, in the early hours of Wednesday and Pakistan Cricket Board spokesperson Umar Farooq said his organization had received confirmation from the Indian High Commission in Islamabad late on Monday to collect their passports. 

Eighteen Pakistan players and 15 support staff are due to travel to India. 

Earlier, the PCB had expressed its disappointment with the ICC over the delays. 

“It’s a matter of disappointment the Pakistan team has to go through this uncertainty ahead of the major tournament,” Farooq said in a statement. 

“There has been an extraordinary delay in getting clearance and securing Indian visas … we have written to the ICC raising our concerns about inequitable treatment toward Pakistan and reminding them of these obligations toward the World Cup.” 

Farooq said Pakistan had reminded the ICC governing body for three years about its obligations but it “has all come down to the last two days”. 

The PCB was forced to cancel its original plan to organize a team-building process in Dubai on the way to India. “We had to rework our plan and book new flights,” Farooq said. 

Pakistan is due to play New Zealand in Hyderabad on Friday before taking on Australia in another warm-up on Oct. 3. 

It launches its World Cup campaign against the Netherlands on Oct. 6. 

Pakistan bans using injections of Avastin after patients go blind, launches investigation

Updated 25 September 2023

Pakistan bans using injections of Avastin after patients go blind, launches investigation

  • Cancer drug Avastin in smaller doses is similar to eye drug Lucentis, used as low-cost option to treat blindness-causing conditions
  • Some 68 people from various districts of Punjab province have been hospitalized with blindness after receiving injections of Avastin

KARACHI: Pakistan’s interim health minister Nadeem Jan said on Monday the government had imposed an interim ban on using injections of Avastin cancer drug across the country after a number of patients injected with the drug lost vision.

Some 68 people from various districts of Punjab province have been hospitalized with blindness after receiving injections of Avastin, a medication primarily used for the treatment of cancer patients but also prescribed off-label in Pakistan for diabetic retinopathy-related edema. 

Health officials say the medication is registered with the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan (DRAP) for the treatment of colon carcinoma only.

The regulator said in a statement on Monday incidents of “loss of vision in diabetic patients have been reported following treatment with Altered/Dispensed/Diluted Avastin injection.” 

DRAP instructed the drug’s importer to recall suspected batches of Avastin 100mg injection, which it said had been created illegally.

“The sale/distribution of registered Avastin Injection has been put on halt till verification of its quality through sampling and laboratory testing to safeguard public health,” DRAP said in a statement on its website.

“We have established a clear strategy in response to this situation,” the health minister told Arab News. “The supply of this medication [in injection form], whether from Roche or Genius pharmaceutical, has been halted, and both Punjab and other provinces have been instructed to cease its sale and purchase until the investigation report is released.”

Jan said a five-member committee had been established to investigate “whether the problem was caused by the medicine itself, issues in its supply chain, the skill level of the administering doctors, or the sterilization process.” 

Two people associated with distribution of Genius Pharmaceuticals had been identified, and a First Information Report (FIR) had been filed against them, the minister said: 

“Two suspects have been identified and charged, but they have gone underground to evade arrest. They will be apprehended soon.” 

The affected patients had used Avastin doses distributed by Genius Pharmaceuticals.

“Once the report is ready, it will be made public, and the culprits will be dealt with according to the law. They will be punished, setting an example for others and deterring them from committing such acts driven by self-greed,” Jan added.

On its website, Roche said Avastin was approved in more than 130 countries, including the United States, to treat several types of cancer. Roche’s Pakistan has not yet commented. 

Avastin was used as an eye treatment off-label, meaning outside of the approved use. Cancer drug Avastin, when used at much lower doses, is similar to eye drug Lucentis, and is used in many countries as a low-cost option to treat certain blindness-causing conditions.

Speaking to Arab News, Javed Akram, Punjab’s Minister for Specialized Health, said the injections seemed to be okay when they were dispatched from the company but problems likely arose when they were converted into smaller doses.

“It is being transferred into small syringes from large vials for cost-cutting and profit-making, which goes against good clinical practices,” Akram said, adding that the technical committee would determine the real cause. 

Akram said a majority of the affected patients from central Punjab had been admitted to Mayo Hospital, Lahore, while those from the province’s southern districts had been shifted to Nishtar Hospital, Multan.

Jan said the government had instructed provincial authorities to ensure patients received free and high-quality treatment.

“Eighty percent of the patients show improvement with proper treatment. The government is committed to ensuring the full recovery of all patients,” he said, adding that though the cases had so far only occurred in Punjab, other provinces had also been adviced to suspend the use of this medication for two weeks as a precaution.