Dec. 3, ZIARAT, Pakistan (UPI Next) -- A 247,000-acre forest of juniper trees, some of which are thousands of years old, in Pakistan's southwest may soon vanish because of the dearth of government conservation efforts and the felling of trees by villagers seeking fuel.
The forest near Ziarat district in Baluchistan, Pakistan's largest and poorest province, is the second-largest juniper forest in the world. Its slow-growth trees are estimated to be up to 4,000 to 5,000 years old.
The "most extensive and best-known examples" of the juniperus excelsa species "are found in Ziarat at an elevation ranging from 1,980 to 3,350 meters [6,496 to 10,991 feet] above sea level," an International Union for Conservation of Nature report states.
While Ziarat's dry, cold climate may be conducive to the trees' growth, it drives locals to use their branches for firewood.
UNESCO has declared Ziarat's juniper forest a "biosphere reserve," Pakistan's second, and the United Nations has added the forest to the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.
"The juniper forests have suffered from temperature rises and ongoing drought since 1994. Snowfall and rainfall patterns have become irregular. Before the drought, snow fell regularly in winter months," said Abdul Raziq, a lecturer at Lasbela University of Agriculture, Water and Marine Sciences in Uthal.
"Another reason is disease caused by the use of banned sprays on nearby apple trees. Pakistan is one of the few countries where banned agriculture sprays are used," Raziq said. "The juniper trees are drying out and their smaller branches breaking down. The reason of drying juniper trees is yet not known. We sometimes call it juniper cancer.”
Activists and some villagers have condemned both the provincial Department of Forest and Wildlife and outside organizations for slow progress in preserving the juniper forest.
"The juniper forest is our national asset. I have been put in charge of the forests and wildlife department. The [provincial] government will surely try its best to involve the community and international researchers and donor organizations in preserving the Ziarat juniper forest," Obaidullah Jan Babath, adviser to the chief minister of the Baluchistan provincial government, told UPI Next.
However, the government and outside organizations are both "wasting huge grants from international donors and the public treasury," Shah Zaman Khan, a local elder and social activist, told UPI Next.
"Meanwhile, the axing of juniper trees continues in and around Ziarat.
"We consider the life of a juniper tree as precious as our own human lives. This juniper forest needs special attention, especially in regards to funding, and to finding a way to stop them drying up.”
Several species of juniper in the region are indigenous to Baluchistan. Scattered over large swaths of land, the juniper trees stretch beyond Baluchistan into neighboring Iran and Afghanistan. As the winter months draw near, locals have been taking to the forest to stock up on wood.
"We don't have firewood for cooking so we collect dry branches of ‘obashta,'" Naik Bibi, a 45-year-old housewife carrying a heap of dry juniper branches on her head, told UPI Next. She used the local Pashtu word for the trees.
"We were advised by our forefathers that cutting a tree is a sin because the trees are alive like us," she said.
Umai Khan, an elder from the village of Gogi in Ziarat spoke emphatically of his need for fuel.
"I am poor. I have nothing but God's gift of the wood of these trees to keep myself warm during the cold winter days," he told UPI Next.
Jamil Kakar, an anthropology researcher at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University, said that for the forest to be preserved, those living in and around it need to learn its value and significance.
"Once they know that protecting juniper trees could boost the local economy through tourism, they will not use the slow-growing juniper wood for fuel," he said.
Also indigenous to Ziarat are almond, wild olive, ash and wild pistachio trees, and 54 plant species known for medicinal qualities, the conservation union has said.
The provincial forest department has created an annual $100,000 endowment fund to meet energy requirements and assist sustainable livelihoods through products other than timber, said Masroor Kakar, director of the government's Multi-Sector Project for Conservation of Juniper Forest, an interdepartmental effort that includes efforts ranging from research and community awareness to tree nurseries and tourism efforts.
"The local fuel consumption is estimated, and the project provides local residents fuel on the basis of fuel consumption rates per person," he said.
However, although a gas pipeline provides gas to the main town of Ziarat, most villages do not have access to it. During the winter, pressure in the pipes drops drastically, leaving the locals without gas for weeks at a time.
Villagers also cut the trees for shelter.
The Forest and Wildlife Department will spend $2.3 million during a seven-year period that began in 2012 to protect the Ziarat juniper biosphere reserve, and a team of 80 works in the forest to monitor and keep it from being deforested, Syed Miskeen Shah, the department's deputy forest conservator, said, although he added that the budget is not enough.
"Personnel and patrolling vehicles need resources. Watchtowers around the forest are needed to keep better surveillance of the juniper forest,” he added.
"A huge amount of funds is needed to boost micro-financing for better livelihood of the community.”