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Mehrano: A Forest Fit for a Prince

Rina Saeed Khan visits Mehrano, a unique sanctuary lovingly created by H.H. Mir Ali Murad Khan Talpur II to save his heritage

His Highness Mir Ali Murad Khan Talpur II has led an extraordinary life – barely fourteen years old, he was crowned the ruler of the princely state of Khairpur in upper Sindh. When he turned eighteen, he was called back from England where he was studying at Cambridge University, and was formally handed over the reigns of power in 1952. An enlightened man, he initiated a series of democratic reforms, breaking his family’s traditional feudal hold over the state. At the time, Khairpur was a prosperous state decorated with architectural masterpieces, an exemplary judicature and an independent legislature.

When the independent state was forced to merge with the one unit of West Pakistan in 1955, he saw Khairpur’s institutions crumble one after the other, and powerless, he adopted confinement in his royal ‘Takar Bungalow’ in Kot Diji. He was only in his early twenties at the time and as the years passed, he was unable to come to terms with the way his state had been taken out of his hands. He sought personal sanctuary from the affairs of the world by immersing himself in Islam and the conservation of nature. Over the years, he has devoted his life to transforming his family’s privately owned game reserve or shikargah called Mehrano, near Kot Diji, into a wildlife refuge.

H.H. Mir Murad, who is now the last sovereign ruler of Sindh, says that Mehrano is the last vestige of the original ecological face of upper Sindh. “The agricultural lands are slowly eating into the sanctuary,” he explains in his soft-spoken, public school accent. A reserved, unassuming man now in his sixties, he shies away from public contact, meeting only a small circle of close friends and family. He describes his initiative to protect Mehrano: “The government’s more urgent priorities, have so far, forced us to take on a national task almost single-handed. Naturally, progress is limited and slow; much slower unfortunately, than the spread of the negative environment for wildlife that is growing all around us. Fraudulence has been allowed to enter the education system to such an extent, that the return to primeval savagery has become all too apparent. In these circumstances the survival of non-aggressive life forms … has become perilous.”

The approximately one square mile or 640 acres of the “Mehrano Private Wildlife Refuge” comprise riverine forest, grassland, a small lake and desert habitat. The approach to Mehrano is through the agricultural lands owned by the Mir (around 1,200 acres are owned by his family and friends). Sequestered in this agricultural heartland is the unique “wildlife forest” area which is Mehrano’s core zone. Several jeep routes take one into the heart of this forest, where there is a small, multi-storied hunting lodge. A narrow staircase takes one up to the roof where one gets a birds-eye view of the thick acacia forest canopy and the desert just beyond. As evening falls, all is quiet except for the birds and the rustling of animals in the forest below. This is Sindh as it once was a few centuries ago, before the forests were cut down to meet agricultural demands.

Deep inside the forest, there are a number of especially constructed hides for viewing the main species – Black Buck, Hog Deer, Wild Boar, and resident and migratory birds that come from as far as Siberia. The hides are located well inside the dense forest – a mass of matted under-wood carpets your feet along the way. Luxuriant sedge and rank weed are found in abundance near the lake, which is home to the waterfowl. Long grass trims the forest – the only sounds are of the wildlife. The Talpur Mirs were very fond of their game reserves. They even had entire villages uprooted and moved further along the banks of the river because they did not want the sounds made by the villagers to disturb their game! Even today, visitors are told to tread softly and remain silent when approaching the hides for fear of alarming the wildlife. The camouflaged hides afford views of the animals at arm’s length.

A small section of the refuge is cordoned off by a high mud walled enclosure – this area is home to the largest herd of Black Buck in Pakistan, numbering 268 males and 225 females. One of Mehrano’s biggest achievements has been the successful breeding in captivity of the Black Buck, an antelope species indigenous to the desert plains of the Subcontinent that had all but disappeared from this region. In 1987, H.H. Mir Murad enclosed a small area in Mehrano to start captive breeding of an almost extinct herd originally imported by his ancestor, Mir Ali Murad Khan Talpur I in 1865. Black Bucks are still being bred at Mehrano from that old stock, with the addition of new stock in 1987 from nearby Khar Center in the Kirthar National Park in Sindh. Today there are 493 Black Bucks roaming freely in the confines of their enclosure at Mehrano – an awe-inspiring sight.

Mehrano is also the last stronghold of the Hog Deer in Pakistan, numbering 21 males and 47 females. The Hog Deer is a timid and helpless animal that has been slaughtered mercilessly in Sindh – its skin is precious, its meat is widely enjoyed and live animals are often given as gifts. The other species in the forest include Wild Boars, jackals, jungle cats, mongoose, porcupines, lizards, snakes, turtles, skinks and different species of fish, birds and insects. Since the area is relatively small, the forest is irrigated by water from a nearby canal. In the era of the Talpur Mirs, the shikargahs of the ruling family were located all along the banks of the River Indus, often stretching for miles. The forests served as dykes to the river and prevented the desert from encroaching upon the fertile valley plain. In a region where irrigated agriculture and massive deforestation has destroyed the original eco-system, Mehrano is a special reminder of the natural landscape that was once was home to rhinos, lions and tigers.

It was Mir Sohrab Khan Talpur, the founder of this kingdom of upper Sindh, who established the Mehrano game reserve in 1790. He ruled Khairpur State from 1783 to 1829. The Talpurs are of Baloch origin and came to power by defeating the last Kalhora sovereign and his foreign allies in 1783 after a period of war that began in 1775 with the murder of Mir Bahram Khan, the chief of the Talpur clan. When power was transferred to the Talpurs, the entire region of Sindh was further bifurcated in three zones to facilitate the Talpur warlords to run their affairs independently. Mir Sohrab Khan established himself as the paramount ruler of upper Sindh.

The arrival of the British in 1838 weakened the writ of Talpur rule across Sindh, but the Mirs of Khairpur managed to retain self-rule by avoiding confrontation. By 1851, however, they had lost a major chunk of their territory to the British. The reigns of the state continued to shift from one ruler to another quite smoothly – Mir Faiz Muhammad Talpur (Mir Murad’s father) was the only ruler who was removed by the British. His minor son, Mir Ali Murad Khan Talpur II was crowned ruler and sent to attend the finest schools of the time in the subcontinent while the British took full administrative control of the state (Mir Murad was the only child – his father, too, had been the only child). On September 16 1951, Mir Ali Murad Khan Talpur II cut short his higher education at Cambridge to return to Khairpur for his formal investiture ceremony, which was attended by the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, who was a personal friend. Khairpur State had chosen to accede to Pakistan on October 3 1947, and even before then had celebrated Pakistan Day on August 14 1947 to discourage its sizeable Hindu population from any thoughts of joining India instead of Paksitan.

Already, by 1949, general elections had been held in the state on the basis of universal adult franchise – these were the first ever elections in the entire subcontinent. Mumtaz Hussain Kizilbash became the first elected chief minister of Khairpur State. Upon his return, H.H. Mir Murad over-ruled his family’s hold in the regency council (which had been set up to rule the affairs of the state during his absence) to allow the smooth transition of power to the elected assembly. The house comprising 30 members with strong opposition worked until 1955. In that year, the parliament refused to join the one unit of West Pakistan. Until then, Khairpur adn the other princely states that had joined Paksitan were an integral part of the country but had retained their autonomy. The military led government in power at the time decided to abolish the sovereignty of these states. When the threat of military intervention was felt in Khairpur, Mir Ali Murad Khan chose to avoid bloodshed by surrendering his state.

Today, H. H. Mir Ali Murad Khan is a difficult man to meet – due to ill health he rarely leaves his bungalow, which is located near the Talpur’s large fort in Kot Diji. The Talpurs would take traditionally take refuge in the fort when threatened – as princely rulers, they also built several palaces in Khairpur Mirs, their capital. Mir Ali Murad Khan only meets his former subjects during the first ten days of Muharram, when he emerges to hold public Majalis in his Faiz Mahal in Khairpur town. A sprawling pink stone palace, the Faiz Mahal was also built two hundred years ago and its furnishings have remained unchanged over the years. The family crest is displayed prominently in the large, chandeliered reception hall. Portraits of the Mirs of Khairpur adorn the walls. Faiz Mahal is used for the family’s public interactions. Its faded glory is a reflection of the heydays of Khairpur State. By 1954-55, Khairpur has a revenue growth of 310 per cent, the highest of any area in Pakistan. Khairpur State spent 22% of its revenue on education. Free education up to the matric level was provided. The state had a modern textile mill, a handloom woolen factory, a silk weaving factory, a hosiery factory, ginning and processing factories, a tannery, three ice plants, a match factory, a Virginia Tobacco factory and a Vanaspati oil and soap factory.

After the merger of the state, these developments were brought to an end by the federal government. The industrial units were shut down and removed by the regimes of Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in violation of the merger agreement which had stipulated that these industries be used to provide revenue for Khairpur. The State’s economy was shattered – soon its high educational standards had fallen drastically. Ironically, H.H. Murad’s family had been an avid supporter of the Pakistan Movement, providing considerable financial help to Muslim educational institutions like Aligharh University. It was then that H.H. Mir Ali Murad Khan withdrew from state affairs, feeling betrayed and disillusioned. Several political parties approached him but he declined all offers to play an active role in the politics of Sindh. It appears that he found solace in his great love for conservation.

It was in 1968, that he had turned Mehrano, his family’s traditional shikargarh into the “Mehrano Private Wildlife Refuge”. Alarmed at the rate at which wildlife was disappearing from his lands, Mir Ali Murad Khan initiated a detailed management plan for the refuge. From 1971 onwards he personally conducted wild flora plantation work to optimize the food and breeding cover within Mehrano forest. He was thus able to increase the wildlife carrying capacity and make up for the large area of forest lost to agriculture over the years. H.H. Mir Ali Murad Khan’s most important habitat work has been the reconstruction of “Depart Pond”, on which 5,000-10,000 waterfowl take refuge before they depart for Siberia.

Mir Ali Murad Khan’s active interest in conservation led him to serving on the government’s Sindh Wildlife Management Board from 1986-94. It was during this dynamic period of the Sindh Wildlife Board that effective measures were adopted for the restoration of the dwindling stocks of wildlife in Sindh. In 1974 the nearby Nara desert and Takkar area of Kot Diji were declared wildlife sanctuaries, but Mehrano remains to this day a private shikargah in the books of the Sindh Wildlife Department. In 1993, all hunting in the region was prohibited under the cover of the new Sindh Wildlife Protection Amendment Act. Unfortunately, in 1994 the Sindh Wildlife Board was dissolved by the government and H.H. Mir Ali Murad Khan, by now facing ill health, became increasingly isolated.

In recent years, H.H. Mir Ali Murad Khan has delegated the affairs of his estate to his youngest son, Mir Mehdi Raza Khan Talpur, who will now be running the affairs of Mehrano. “I was away studying economics in the US when I was summoned back to look after the estate. I was only supposed to come back for six months – but I have stayed on. I thought I could make some profit from the estate which I could then invest, but that has not been possible – there is no money in agriculture these days and all that is left of the estate is agricultural land. Mehrano takes a lot of money to run, and we are wondering how to cope with its expanding needs”. More open to the outside world than his father, Prince Mehdi Raza hopes to cooperate with international wildlife and donor organisations to help manage the refuge.

“This forest would stagnate without him,” says Prince Mehdi Raza about his father. “He is an expert in this field – for example, he grew certain types of trees telling us that certain types of birds will come and settle when they mature and in 20 years, that is exactly what has happened. He has created a habitat for the animals. He even planted the necessary plants needed by the Black Bucks for feeding purposes which had all but disappeared in the region.” Prince Mehdi Raza, now 33 years old, has been helping out at Mehrano since he was eight, and says that his father has left him a detailed programme to follow so that Mehrano can continue to thrive even in his absence. He adds: “I have now convinced my father modify his policy of pure conservation for conservation’s sake, to one of sustainable use ... he has now agreed ... as long as it does not destroy the serene ambiance of the forest and desert.” The prince would like to reintroduce Black Bucks into the wild again as soon as a large area of adjacent suitable habitat is acquired.

H.H. Mir Ali Murad Khan’s preservation of Mehrano could serve as a model for future projects in the area. As he puts it, “Mehrano has become all the more unique due to the short term political gain at the cost of long-term, national interest type of rural land policy which has caused the needless ruin of our rich wildlife heritage to the point of extinction.” Already his son has proposed a plan to the government to set up private wildlife preserves on a large scale in Sindh. For now, however, Mehrano remains a unique sanctuary – lovingly created by a prince to save his living heritage.

 

Credits:

  • Excerpted from the book ‘Green Pioneers’, published by UNDP, 2002. For more info: http://www.un.org.pk

  • The Friday Times (www.thefridaytimes.com)

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