Rab Nawaz - From Wales with Love

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Rab Nawaz - From Wales with Love, Mehjabeen Abidi Habib
Published in Khyber.ORG on Thursday, June 7 2007 (http://www.khyber.org)

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Rab Nawaz - From Wales with Love

Mehjabeen Abidi Habib

Excerpt from the book "Green Pioneers"

Publishing Date: Thursday, June 7 2007

Rab Nawaz, a Welsh ecologist, has been working in Palas Valley for the last 10 years. "Our interventions in Palas have been successful, however, it will take time to establish a sustainable system", says the shy and un­assuming man who runs the World Pheasant Association's office in Abbotabad and has worked in Palas Valley since 1996.

Dressed in shalwar kameez and sporting a long beard, he could easily pass for a blue eyed Pathan. He speaks Urdu and Shina (the local Kohistani language) fluently. It is hard to believe that he was once Rob Whale, a young Welsh ecologist who had come to Pakistan in 1994 to help conduct a survey of pheasants in Pakistan's frontier region.

Before coming to Pakistan, Rab Nawaz had been working on an estate owned by the President of the WPA International. Hailing from Wales which is known for its lush and beauty, his love of wildlife and particularly wild birds was an inheritance from his naturalist grandfather, with whom he used to spend his holidays as a boy. Roaming all over coastal Wales the two would go bird-watching, so that it was no wonder that all he ever wanted to do was become a gamekeeper, working closely with nature.

At the age of 16, he did a game-keeping course and was hired on an estate whose owner, to Nawaz's dismay, used to keep live birds as captive ornaments. "However, it was a wonderful experience and I stayed on there for the next three years", he remembers. It was during his college years in Hampshire that he came into contact with Keith Newman of the WPA (World Pheasant Association) who offered him a job on his estate. Here he was able to meet wildlife experts from all over the world, a learning experience for the aspiring conservationist.

After spending a couple of years on the estate and completing his studies, Rab Nawaz thought it was time he tested his wings and decided to work in India on the endangered Indian Tragopans. His work and zeal so impressed the WPA that they asked him to come to work in Pakistan.

Looking for a job and attracted by the challenge posed by WPA's work in Dhodial, he decided to move to northern Pakistan. After working with captive wild pheasants, he and the WPA realised that the best way to start saving pheasants in the wild was to observe and record changes in pheasant numbers and habitat in the northern region and pinpoint the factors responsible for their decline.

This proposal, which was supported by the NWFP Wildlife Department and the UNDP's Small Grants Programme, turned into an activity that lasted from 1996 to 1999.

Gradually, feeling more at home amongst the dramatic mountains and wildlife of north Pakistan than in England, Nawaz developed a strong bond and affinity with the land. So that when in 1998, alter completing the pheasant research, he was jobless and faced with the option of leaving Pakistan, he chose to stay on. He joined the WWF, where he is now working in the remote Palas Valley in the Kohistan. The work he has done with the pheasants has earned him the respect and admiration of the local conservationists.

In the years he has been in Pakistan, Nawaz has spent long months in the isolated valleys of the NWFP, where his only human contacts are the local villagers. Through his fieldwork, he has had ample time and opportunity to closely interact with them, Observing local culture and he has been fascinated with the dissimilarity between tradition and religion.

"It makes me very angry when people don't observe the wisdom of their religion and confuse tradition with religion," he says. His fascination with Islam prodded him to study it in detail for nearly two years. "Someone gave me an English version of the Quran by chance and after studying it, I came to the conclusion that it could not have been written by a man," says Rab Nawaz. "So I woke up one day and realised that I wanted to convert to Islam."

He converted to Islam in 1998, changing his name to Rab Nawaz. "I had no problems with that," he says with a laugh. "People find it easier to accept me as one of them with this name and since I am living here I thought I might as well change it. Besides I like the name Rab Nawaz (which translates into 'Grace of God')".

To complete his naturalisation into Pakistani society, Nawaz married a Pakistani woman in 1999, and they live together in Abbottabad. "It was an arranged marriage," he says, "My friends knew her family and they suggested me to them." Conversion to Islam and marriage has, he believes, changed him profoundly and for the better.

According to Rab Nawaz, putting out these roots has strengthened his links to his adopted country, particularly Palas Valley that has inspired him with its beauty. "It is very special to me," he explains. "Due to its inaccessibility, its forests and rivers are undisturbed. I can't explain what draws me to this beautiful valley. Though it is a difficult place to stay and work in and the people are also sometimes hard to deal with, yet it is still very important to me."

This article is an excerpt from the book "Green Pioneers", edited by Mehjabeen Abidi Habib


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Rab Nawaz - From Wales with Love, Mehjabeen Abidi Habib
Published in Khyber.ORG on Thursday, June 7 2007 (http://www.khyber.org)