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Polo Festival Damages Wetlands in Pakistan


Every year, thousands of people come to Pakistan's Shandur Pass Polo Festival to watch the high speed equestrian sport at the world's highest polo ground. But scientists say the event is affecting the natural wetlands that circle the ground. VOA's Ravi Khanna reports on the festival and efforts to save the local ecology.

The festival takes place every year, high in the mountains of northern Pakistan at the Shandur Pass, the world's highest polo ground, at 3700 meters above sea level.

For the thousands who travel through the Hindu Kush mountains to see the matches, it's a long bumpy ride.

Polo is not played here in the sedate style of the West. It is played at break-neck speeds, even though the air is thin.

As the event becomes more popular, scientists say it is damaging the delicate wetlands that surround the polo ground.

Conservationist Doug Kuzmiak has lived in northern Pakistan for six years. "There is still a very good possibility that things can be reversed," Kuzmiak said. "They might never go back to a pristine environment, but at least a better environment than we are experiencing at the moment."

The Shandur Pass area contains lakes, streams and peat marshes, and more than 3,000 rare species of plants and animals.

Human activity has polluted the region's largest lake. Studies show e coli bacteria at high levels.

Pakistan's Northern Areas Environmental Protection Agency has sprung into action. The agency's Assistant Director Munnawar Hossein Mosvi supervises garbage collection. "If we don't collect this waste, within five years our Shandur Lake will be spoiled and maybe it will dry up and be finished within 10 years. So with this in mind, we are collecting the waste," Mosvi said.

Over 30 volunteers from the Pakistan Wetlands Program sweep the area. They also encourage visitors to use garbage cans. Environmentalist Humaira Khan says her group is working to raise awareness about the environment.

"We are telling them how they can protect their lake, why their lake is important, why the atmosphere of this valley is important," Khan said. "There is only a limited awareness about these things."

Dumping the waste in a nearby landfill is not ideal, but there are no other options for the moment.

The Pakistan Wetlands Program hopes its Warriors will be back again next year to keep the place pristine and also keep the tourists coming.