Located in the Sindh province, about 140 kilometres north of Karachi, Kirthar National Park is the first of Pakistan's parks to be included in the UN's listings in 1975. It stretches over 3087 square kilometres of rugged mountain desert.
The stony valleys and rugged lines of the Kirthar hills form a haven for urial sheep, ibex and chinkara gazelle. These large mammals are hunted through this rocky terrain by jungle cats, desert cats, leopard, and desert wolf. The park abounds with pangolin, porcupines, and monitor lizards and the large array of birdlife includes larger scavengers, such as the Griffon vulture and Egyptian vulture.
Apart from the abundance of wildlife, the park contains the enormous and somewhat enigmatic Rani Kot Fort. Rani Kot is the largest fort in the world, with 10 metre high sandstone ramparts stretching for a distance of 29 kilometres. From a distance, some of the walls loosely resemble the Great Wall of China as they weave through the hills. The fort was supplied water from the Rani River and a perennial spring within its walls forms pools filled with fish. Much of the area has been cultivated.
Yet there is no record for the construction of the ancient fort, nor any knowledge of it's purpose. It has been conjectured that the reason for the forts existence is its geostrategic location. Despite its extremely harsh climate, the Kirthar area occupies an important geostrategic position for two reasons. Firstly,
because of its central location - between Iran and the Middle East to the west, Afghanistan and Central Asia to the north and South and South East Asia to the east. Secondly, its pretty darn close to one the great cradles of world civilisation, the Indus Valley.
Other archealogical sites of interest within the park include incredibly detailed 18th century Chaukundi style tombs at Taung and prehistoric archaeological remains at Koh Tarash.
Despite it's size and ecological importance, not many Pakistanis knew of the Kirthar National Park until 1991, when the local authority proposed the construction of a national highway through the park. As a result of local activism, both the profile of the park was raised and the highway was rerouted.
Shortly after the demise of the highway plans, a Shell joint venture (Premier Oil) was permitted to continue their relentless search for oil in the region by Pakistan's national government. Environmental organizations and the locals pronounced the deal illegal, citing the Sindh Wildlife Protection Ordinance of 1973, which prohibits "clearing or breaking up any land for cultivation, mining or for any other purpose in the national parks of Sindh". After a protracted legal battle and (limited) global media attention, Premier Oil withdrew their claim in September, 2001.
Partly as a result of the court case, the Sindh Wildlife Department contracted University of Melbourne to undertake the first baseline study of the park since 1974. The goal is to inventory the Park's natural environment and human resources. When completed this data will be freely available.
When to go, and how to get there
In light of recent developments in the region, extreme caution is advised. Armed robbery and kidnapping are serious problems in many parts of rural Pakistan, particularly in the Sindh region. There have also been sectarian attacks in urban areas.
With that caveat aside, the Kirthar Park is one of the best maintained recreation parks of Pakistan. The best season to visit is from October to February. The park is greener in August, but the monsoonal weather is oppressive. Five furnished rest houses with cooking facilities and running water are situated on the edge of a wide valley in the center of the park at Karchat. They can be booked through the Sindh Wildlife Management Board, which also hires out tents. Food is available if ordered in advance, but it is better to take your own food, drink and bedding.
Rani Kot Fort lies roughly 90 kms north of Hyderabad. The route is through Kotri and the town of Sann, from where the remaining 20 kms distance is a beaten track across the scrubland, best covered by either jeep or camel. I'm told that camels can be rented from a man in Sann.
- The results from the baseline study can be seen at http://www.vbeefweb.unimelb.edu.au/KNPsite/index.htm