Young Custodians:

Young Custodians: The story of Ayubia's Eco-guards

By Muhammad Waseem

Muhammad Waseem writes about the youth protecting Ayubia’s biodiversity.
It was a cold morning in 2011. A group of 11 boys was standing under a Himalayan yew, a tree older than the boys themselves, taking an oath to protect Ayubia, a national park which they call home. These were the first eco-guards of their village – protectors of the lush mountains and the extraordinary biodiversity of the area.  

Ayubia National Park is a Protected Area in Abbottabad district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.  In 2011, the concept of engaging young people directly for environmental protection was introduced for the first time in Pakistan. High school students from areas surrounding Ayubia National Park were inducted into a one-year training programme launched by WWF-Pakistan. And the first eco-guards took oath for a year.
Over the past 18 years, WWF-Pakistan has enhanced this concept by formalizing nature clubs, as well as engaging students and teachers in the region. The scope of these informal clubs was limited to imparting information about environmental issues and the area’s biodiversity.  However, the concept of eco-guards targeted engagement at a deeper level, by not only educating students about local plants and animals, but involving them in taking practical steps in protecting them. 

Local students were the natural choice to be trained as eco-guards. Traditionally, students in the area work part time in low-skilled jobs to financially support their families. Some sell fruit by the roadside, others work in restaurants or shops. But whatever background the children come from or part-time job they have, they grow up close to nature, with a familiarity with the local vegetation and wildlife. This familiarity makes a sound training ground.

The idea of eco-guards was initially floated to local schoolteachers.  As mentors of young minds, they were already vested in the well-being of the area and its future. They recognized that children could be custodians of the local natural resources. As the teachers extended their support, the idea of environmental education was able to be implemented practically with considerable traction.  Fortuitously, a dual purpose would be served; not only would the students understand the importance of conservation, they could also serve as informed participants in the tourism trade.

Each year 15 students from grades 9 and 10 are selected for this one-year training programme. Every weekend, the children join WWF-Pakistan’s team and spend five hours engaged in various conservation activities. Over the year, these students carry out clean-up activities. Ayubia National Park is a common tourist spot, with thousands of tourists visiting every summer, leaving tons of waste. The eco-guards are involved in raising awareness among tourists, and carry out cleaning activities through which they remove plastic and other waste from market areas, natural springs and other water bodies. They also carry out plantation drives, learn how to identify biodiversity, engage in dialogue on the ecological significance of Ayubia National Park, organize awareness walks and receive basic training on becoming tour guides. 

As the training progresses, the students are deputed to various sites within the park. The sites include the Pipeline Track, natural springs and sub-watershed catchments.  With these deputations the young eco-guards are able to practice what they have learnt and also share their knowledge with local and foreign visitors.

The students are enthusiastic about the learning and activities,  and gain confidence through their interaction with tourists.  Upon completion of their training, the eco-guards are endorsed by the Forest Department, the Wildlife Department and WWF-Pakistan. The entire experience gives these young individuals a sense of ownership of the area and they understand that it is part of their responsibility to help protect its natural assets.
In the Park today, there is hope that our natural resources are in the hands of young guardians who not only understand, but also value their legacy and are ready to share and pass it on to others, as well.
Muhammad Waseem is Coordinator Project, WWF-Pakistan.

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