HWF was instrumental in motivating the government of AJK in notifying the entire length of Poonch River as a national park in 2010. This is the first ever effort in Pakistan to conserve a specific fish species, in this case the Mahseer, and its habitat in the Poonch River. The region was noted as early as 1907, as is attributed to Rudyard Kipling on the thrill of angling for Mahseer “There he stood, the Mahseer of the Poonch, beside whom the Tarpon is a Herring and he who catches him can say he is a fisherman”. The Poonch River is unique in having warm water in its lower and middle reaches and cold water in its upper reaches. It ends at Mangla Reservoir which is one of the major fish producing water body in the country. Many channels join it in its way giving the fishes a lateral access for breeding and feeding. The Poonch River was declared as a national park due to its high fish diversity and importance of supporting fish of both conservation and economic importance particularly the endangered fish species (IUCN Red List 2013) Mahseer (Tor putitora) that is important both from the conservation and commercial viewpoint.
Following the notification, HWF prepared an ecological baseline of the Poonch River which provided the basis for development of management strategies for the national park, and mobilized resources for protection of the biodiversity of the river. Initially, the HWF intermittently funded 4-6 wildlife guards and providing management and logistics support to the AJKFWD inclusive of coordination with the communities and local authorities. The long term framework consists of sustainable management of resources with community participation where livelihoods are involved, as allowed under the AJK wildlife legislation. The profile of the national park, its conservation importance, and threats to its ecological resources have been highlighted and brought to public notice through the efforts of HWF.
HWF formed a consortium involving WWF (P), PWP, FDB, PMNH, and AJKRSP to achieve the following:
- Stabilize the population and increase the number of Mahseer fish in the Poonch river
- Protect the breeding ground of the Mahseer
- Control unlawful methods of fishing
- Encourage the game of sport fishing
- Involve the communities in the income received as game fee, and hiring them as local guards for protection in the National Park develop into a sustainable, world class sports angling eco-tourism product for AJK.
Project objectives included In situ conservation of the Mahseer fish (Tor putitora) by designation of a National Park in AJK, specifically for this purpose and the following:
- Establishing key baseline data sets for the protected area
- Mobilizing and organizing the community to participate in management of the National Park
- Implementation of an immediate action plan to secure key habitat and control over commercial, subsistence and sports fishing
- Formulation of a preliminary management strategy for this species.
The (Tor putitora) has undergone a dramatic decline in population in the last few years and the largest stable population of this fish in the country is found in the Poonch River that also provides a breeding ground for it. In addition, the Poonch River provides a breeding ground for the commercially important fish species of the Mangla Reservoir.
Following declaration of the National Park, in which wise use is allowed, Mira Power Limited (MPL or the Company), an Independent Power Producer (IPP), planned to develop Gulpur Hydropower Project (the Project) in the Azad Jammu & Kashmir (the AJK). The Project will utilize the flow of Poonch River, the full length of which within AJK has been notified as a national park by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries AJK. The Project will be a run-of-the-river (RoR) type and will require construction of a 58 m dam on a bend of the Poonch River. A surface powerhouse would be located about 1 km downstream of the dam in the Poonch River. As a result of Project operations, approximately 0.7 km of the river stretch between the dam and the power house will experience low water flow. A reservoir will be created upstream of the dam and the total submerged area (including the present river) will be approximately 5,884 kanals (2.95 km2).
A Critical Habitat Assessment of the Project site was carried out in January 2014 according to the definition in International Finance Corporation (IFC) Performance Standard 6. It was determined that the Project is located in a Critical Habitat in view of its location in a National Park (Poonch River Mahseer National Park) as well as the presence of two fish species of conservation importance: Mahseer Tor putitora and Kashmir Catfish Glyptothorax kashmirensis listed as Endangered and Critically Endangered respectively in the IUCN red list. According to IFC’s Performance Standard 6, when any developmental project is located in a Critical Habitat, the client is advised to include a Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) as part of its mitigation strategy and achieve net gain in the biodiversity value with the Project, instead of any loss.
The BAP was designed to achieve net gains of those biodiversity values for which the Critical Habitat was designated. In addition, a letter from the Directorate of Wildlife and Fisheries, AJK (office of Director of AJK Wildlife and Fisheries Department) has granted permission to the Company to construct and operate the Project on the condition that the Project will “demonstrate achievement of betterment of the national park over the life of the Project compared to the prevailing baseline conditions”. Therefore, the BAP was developed to address regional biodiversity concerns and to achieve net gain for the biological resources of the Poonch River basin as outlined in the IFC guidelines and as specified in the permission letter from the Department of AJK Wildlife and Fisheries. In compliance with article VIII B of the implementation agreement of the Biodiversity Action Plan agreement signed between MPL and HWF on April 5, 2016.
If successful, this will be a key and one of few projects in Pakistan that showcases biodiversity conservation through public-private partnership.