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.

Pakistan, UAE seek ways to enhance military engagement 

Updated 24 February 2021

Pakistan, UAE seek ways to enhance military engagement 

  • Gen. Nadeem Raza visited the International Defense Exhibition & Conference (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi
  • Pakistan has been seeking to enhance defense ties with the Gulf country under the UAE’s Vision 2030  

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistani and UAE military have discussed ways to enhance defense ties and engagement during Pakistan’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Nadeem Raza’s visit to Abu Dhabi this week, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said on Wednesday.

Gen. Raza met with UAE Armed Forces Chief of Staff Lt. General Hamad Mohammed Thani Al-Rumaithi on Monday as he visited the International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) and Naval Defense & Maritime Security Exhibition (NAVDEX) in Abu Dhabi. He also held separate meetings with other UAE chiefs of tri-services.
The Pakistani and UAE military leaders discussed measures to “enhance the level and scope of military engagements between both countries and reaffirmed to continue to forge deeper strategic ties,” the ISPR said in a statement.

“During the meetings, both sides deliberated upon various areas of interest, bilateral cooperation including security, counterterrorism and prevailing regional environment particularly with reference to Kashmir and Afghanistan.”

As Gen. Raza visited Pakistani stalls and naval ships at the two defense technology exhibitions, he welcomed the efforts of IDEX and NAVADEX in “showcasing Pakistan’s indigenously manufactured defense related equipment at global level,” ISPR said.
Pakistan has been seeking to enhance defense ties with the Gulf country under the UAE’s Vision 2030, which emphasizes developing the aviation, aerospace and defense sectors to transform its economy by putting a greater focus on knowledge-based industries.

Mohammad Hafeez declines PCB central contract offer 

Updated 24 February 2021

Mohammad Hafeez declines PCB central contract offer 

  • Hafeez was the world’s top scorer in Twenty20 internationals last year
  • PCB chief executive says disappointed but fully respects Hafeez's decision

ISLAMABAD: Twenty20 specialist Mohammad Hafeez has declined a central contract offer from the Pakistan Cricket Board.
The allrounder “politely turned down” a contract offer in category C for 2020-21, the cricket board said Wednesday.
“While I am disappointed, I fully respect his decision,” PCB chief executive Wasim Khan said in a statement. “Hafeez has been one of our star performers of the season and we hope he will carry the form and momentum to Africa.”
Hafeez was the world’s top scorer in Twenty20 internationals last year, but he didn’t feature in the recent Twenty20 series against South Africa after failing to join the team in its bio-secure bubble in time.
Wicketkeeper-batsman Mohammad Rizwan and lefthanded batsman Fawad Alam got promotions in the updated list of central contracts after their impressive performances last year.
Rizwan joined all-format captain Babar Azam, Azhar Ali and Shaheen Afridi in category A while Fawad, who had earlier only a domestic cricket contract, was elevated in category C.
Since the contracts were announced in May last year, Rizwan is the leading scorer for Pakistan in test matches with 529 runs in seven matches and 325 runs in Twenty20 internationals.
Alam, who was recalled to test matches last year after a 10-year absence, scored centuries in test matches against New Zealand and during the home series against South Africa.
The decision to promote players was taken by the PCB after Khan met with the chairman of selectors Mohammad Wasim and reviewed players’ performance during the 2020-21 season

PM Khan invites Sri Lankan leaders to explore Pakistan's Buddhist heritage

Updated 24 February 2021

PM Khan invites Sri Lankan leaders to explore Pakistan's Buddhist heritage

  • Pakistan, Sri Lanka sign five accords in the fields of tourism, investment, education and technology 
  • Colombo and Islamabad agree to deepen their free-trade agreement to achieve $1 billion bilateral trade target

COLOMBO: Prime Minister Imran Khan during a speech in Colombo on Wednesday invited Sri Lankan political and business leaders to explore Pakistan's ancient Buddhist sites of the Gandhara civilization.

Khan arrived in Colombo on Tuesday afternoon. He was received by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa with whom he held extensive consultations at Temple Trees, the Lankan prime minister’s official residence, followed by delegation-level talks between the two sides to boost bilateral trade and investment.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan (C) and his Sri Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa (L) gesture at the end of the Trade and Investments conference in Colombo on February 24, 2021 on the second day of Khan's official visit to Sri Lanka. (AFP)

On Wednesday, in talks with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and during a speech at the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Trade and Investment Conference, the Pakistani prime minister highlighted Buddhist heritage sites of the Gandhara civilization that existed in northwestern Pakistan from the middle of the first millennium BCE to the beginning of the second millennium CE.

"For people in Sri Lanka, what is of great interest is the Gandhara Buddhist civilization ... We have discovered various new sites for tourists to visit Pakistan," Khan told delegates in Colombo.

"The findings will be of interest to Sri Lankan tourists who go to historical places," he said, adding that they include a 40-foot sleeping Buddha statue.

Buddhists account for more than 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million population. Ethnic minority Tamils, who are mainly Hindu, comprise about 15 percent and 9 percent are Muslims.

Khan said his Colombo visit was aimed at strengthening bilateral relations, especially trade and economic ties through enhanced connectivity, and that Sri Lanka could benefit from the $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project of infrastructure and energy projects.

"Pakistan is part of the One Belt and Road initiative of China and CPEC is one of its flagship programs, and it means connectivity and it would help enhance Sri Lanka's connectivity right up to Central Asia," he said.

In a joint communique after the visit, Pakistan and Sri Lanka announced they had signed five memorandums of understanding to increase cooperation in the field of tourism, investment, chemical and biological sciences, industrial technology and education.

They said they had also "stressed the importance of realizing the goal of achieving US$1 billion bilateral trade target" and agreed to deepen their free-trade agreement (FTA) which came into force in 2005.

Despite the FTA, the two-way trade currently stands at only $460 million.

Military took action against personnel responsible for ex-Taliban spokesperson's escape — Pakistan army 

Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) director general Maj. Gen. Babar Iftikhar speaks during a press conference at the Pakistan Army headquarters in Rawalpindi on Feb. 27, 2020. (Photo courtesy: ISPR/File)
Updated 24 February 2021

Military took action against personnel responsible for ex-Taliban spokesperson's escape — Pakistan army 

  • Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar says military took actions against army officials found responsible for allowing Ehsanullah Ehsan to escape
  • Says his country enjoys strong military ties with Saudi Arabia and trains local troops in the kingdom 

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan Army said on Wednesday it had taken action against officials found responsible for the escape of former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesperson, Ehsan Ullah Ehsan, from an undisclosed detention facility last year. 

A high-profile local Taliban figure, Ehsan announced and justified a 2012 attack on Malala Yousafzai for campaigning for women’s education and also announced the TTP’s claim of responsibility for a horrific attack on a school in Peshawar in 2014. He escaped detention in January last year and announced his breakout on social media. 

“Ehsan Ullah Ehsan got away from our custody and there were some military personnel who facilitated his escape,” the head of the military media wing, Major General Babar Iftikhar, said while in a briefing to foreign journalists in Islamabad. 

Ehsanullah is accused in several terror attacks in Pakistan. After his surrender in 2017, local Geo News TV aired an interview he gave in custody in which he asserted that the intelligence services of Pakistan’s arch-rival, India, had been funding and arming Pakistani Taliban fighters.

The Pakistan army pledged to put Ehsan on trial but had not done so until the time he escaped custody in 2020. His whereabouts are uncertain.

Describing Ehsan’s escape as a “very serious matter,” Iftikhar explained for the first time how the TTP leader managed to find his way out of a high security environment, saying action was taken against those who facilitated him. He said it was not clear where Ehsan was currently hiding, though the country’s security forces were doing their best to capture him again. 

Asked about the fresh wave of militant violence in Pakistan, Iftikhar said several small militant organizations had unified recently and were being trained by hostile intelligence agencies in neighboring nations. 

Discussing the challenge of religious militancy, Iftikhar said that many small groups were trying to associate themselves with Daesh, but the group did not have an organized presence in Pakistan. 

He also said Pakistani law enforcement agencies had captured several militants belonging to the Iran-backed Zainabiyoun Brigade but Pakistan did not consider the militant outfit a major threat.

“We carried out very successful operations against all militant organizations and dismantled them,” he said. 

The military spokesperson said his country had extended a hand of peace to its eastern neighbor after Prime Minister Imran Khan formed his government in 2018 but did not receive an encouraging response from New Delhi. 

Replying to a question about the Saudi-Pakistan relationship, Iftikhar said his country enjoyed strong military-to-military terms with the kingdom and its teams in Saudi Arabia regularly trained local troops.

He also expressed satisfaction with the security dimension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects. 

“A lot of concentrated effort has been made by hostile elements to sabotage the corridor project,” the military spokesperson said. “We have beefed up its security and deployed an army division in Gwadar. Besides, Frontier Corps [paramilitary] provides security to Chinese projects as well.” 

Pakistan says expects free-trade talks with Gulf countries by June

Updated 24 February 2021

Pakistan says expects free-trade talks with Gulf countries by June

  • Talks on a free trade agreement between Pakistan and the Gulf Cooperation Council have been stalled since 2008
  • Intention to resume negotiations was declared during Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's visit to Islamabad in 2019

KARACHI: The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has reached out to Pakistani authorities to resume negotiations on a free trade agreement (FTA) by June this year, a top Pakistani diplomat in Riyadh said on Wednesday.

Pakistan has so far signed FTAs with three countries: China, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. With the GCC — an intergovernmental economic union of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — Islamabad started free-trade negotiations in 2004, but after two rounds of negotiations in 2006 and 2008, only a broader outline was reached.
The intention to resume the talks was declared during Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's visit to Islamabad in 2019, but they were further delayed by the coronavirus outbreak, Azhar Ali Dahar, trade and investment minister at the Pakistani embassy in Riyadh, told Arab News.  

"GCC secretariat in Riyadh has officially reached out to the embassy of Pakistan to resume FTA talks with Pakistan," Dahar said, adding that in a letter last month the GCC had conveyed readiness to start the talks "in the first six months of 2021."
"Saudi Arabia is making great progress under its Vision 2030 and heavy investment is being made on infrastructure projects. We should not miss the opportunity," he said. "Under the terms of services we can export our skilled manpower, including engineers and doctors to the kingdom."

Ahead of the resumption of talks, Pakistani authorities are now waiting for feedback from the trade community.

"Pakistani trade associations must study and send their recommendations on carrying out free-trade agreement negotiations with GCC to joint secretary Middle East at the Commerce Ministry in Islamabad," Dahar said, adding that his office had already written letters to all the relevant authorities, including the Ministry of Commerce and the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan.  

"We want to conclude the paperwork before June this year."

Pakistani businessmen welcomed the announcement.  
"It will benefit Pakistan’s trade community," Qaiser Baryar, president of the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told Arab News. "Pakistan can enhance exports of sports and surgical goods along with textile products to GCC market."   
Dr. Mirza Ikhtiar Baig, chairman of the UAE-Pakistan Business Council of Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said that while import duties in the Middle Eastern countries are not a big issue, the FTA would "help Pakistan to attract investment."

"The FTA will mutually benefit the countries involved," he said.  
For M. Saqib Goodluck, senior vice president of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the FTA between Pakistan and GCC is an "important decision in right direction."  

He warned, however, that policy makers should negotiate it carefully to avoid a situation similar to what happened after the FTA with China.  

"Pakistan must capitalize on its core competencies and its export strengths, while also simultaneously strategizing for expanding its manufacturing and exports base," he said.

"We need to learn from the FTA with China where we experienced heavy influx of Chinese products in local market whereas Pakistan’s exports witnessed only a slight increase."