Death by spider: deforestation in Pakistan

A strange phenomenon is worsening an already dire situation for the country’s trees, says Syed Hamad Ali.

Trees cocooned in spiders' webs. This photo was taken in December 2010, at the same time as the image entered into the National Geographic competition.

Photo by Russell Watkins/Department for International Development under a CC Licence.

Every year, National Geographic holds a photo competition in which participants are invited to send in images for a chance to win $10,000 and a trip to Washington.

When the winners for 2011 were announced, one photo which had attracted a lot of media attention failed to make it. It was an image entered into the competition by photographer Russell Watkins. The scene he captured is of a little girl holding a bucket in her hand, with her figure dwarfed by the presence of a large tree behind her. What is strange about the image are the branches and leaves of this tree, all of which are cocooned under a whitish layer of webs woven by spiders. In the background, more such ‘spider trees’ are to be found, surrounded by a sea of flood water.

The surreal photograph was taken during the disastrous floods in December 2010 near the town of Dadu in Sindh, Pakistan. Watkins was taking images of the flood for the Department for International Development (DFID). Many of the spiders, so the narrative goes, were forced to climb the trees to escape the intensity of waters which swept through the region.

‘No-one had seen anything like it before, and almost everyone was pleased about it. Everyone believed that the mosquitoes were being trapped in the webs’

While those who suffer from arachnophobia might find the images disturbing, many of the locals who faced untold hardship due to the floods saw the spiders as something to cheer about. They believed it reduced the risk of malaria. ‘No-one had seen anything like it before,’ Watkins wrote in his blog afterwards. ‘And almost everyone was pleased about it. Time after time people said that it was a good thing, because they weren’t being bitten by mosquitoes. Everyone believed that the mosquitoes were being trapped in the webs.’

A dubious honour

The image could be seen as a powerful representation of how elements of nature can come together and offer their own form of refuge in times of disaster. Unfortunately, many of the trees later became asphyxiated due to the suffocation caused by the spider cocoons.

In 2011, the southern half of Pakistan again suffered intense floods, with 300 killed, more than five million people affected and 1.58 million homes destroyed in Sindh. Their plight remains urgent. Prince Charles, who is founder of The Pakistan Recovery Fund, made a public appeal for the flood victims: ‘Despite the scale of devastation, the level of suffering and the level of need,’ he said, ‘the story seems to vanish all too quickly from the headlines as the world’s attention turns to disaster and destruction elsewhere. Yet the suffering in Pakistan goes on.’

According to some estimates, Pakistan holds the dubious honour of suffering from the fastest rate of deforestation in Asia – thanks in no small part to the relentless efforts of the local timber mafia

Many experts believe the devastation caused by the rising frequency of floods in places like Pakistan is more than just a ‘natural’ disaster. According to some estimates, the country holds the dubious honour of suffering from the fastest rate of deforestation in Asia – thanks in no small part to the relentless efforts of the local timber mafia. While some 30 per cent of the world’s land area is forested, in Pakistan the figure stands closer to an estimated two per cent. It is believed deforestation has played a significant role in the destruction created by the floods.

Buffalo and eco-warriors

There was a time when the Indus River had forests on both sides, offering a shield against flooding. In the past few decades, a lot of the forests in Sindh have been cleared away by influential feudal lords – some with connections in the government – to make space for crop cultivation. Even law-enforcement authorities have inadvertently contributed to the deforestation. In operations conducted against criminals, who often seek refuge in the wooded areas, security personnel have been known to set forests on fire in order to flush them out.

Security personnel have been known to set forests on fire in order to flush out criminals

With the state preoccupied with more pressing issues like the never-ending ‘war on terror’, the people have taken it upon themselves to try and save the forests. In one part of Sindh, where the local forest has been facing illegal encroachment, villagers have for the past few years been organizing protests to draw attention to their plight. They have even carried out a ‘cattle rally’, in which hundreds of goats and buffalo were brought in to block the national highway as the people shouted slogans to save the forest.

Then there are eco-warriors like Tahir Qureishi, a man who is known as ‘father of the mangrove’. He has helped rehabilitate 30,000 hectares of mangrove along the southern coast of Pakistan and is a senior advisor with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The story of how he became involved in conservation work is an interesting one. Back in 1984, while working in Dadu (the same area where years later the photographer Watkins discovered the trees covered in spider-web) he was kidnapped by a criminal gang who were after a ransom. ‘They kept me for a couple of days in captivity,’ Qureishi said in an interview. ‘But when they knew I was a forest officer they released me without further argument. That inspired me to dedicate my whole life to the rehabilitation of our ecosystem. The robbers released me as they respect those who respect forests. Trees provide them best hideouts.’

While even criminals express some respect for trees, Pakistan’s rapid deforestation can only be halted once the state begins to take a serious interest in the problem. Sadly, with all eyes on the ‘war on terror’, trees remain a low priority for those who run the country.

Syed Hamad Ali is a freelance journalist.