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Astola Island: Pakistan’s Hidden Gem

About 25 km off the coast of Balochistan, in the Arabian Sea, lies a large uninhabited island about 7 km long and 2.5 km wide, with sheer white cliffs surrounded by warm turquoise water. A narrow white beach runs around the periphery of the island. At places, the cliffs shrink inland to create secluded cloves. It’s almost like in the Mediterranean.

Astola Island, also known as Jezira Haft Talar (Island of the Seven Hills), has long been Pakistan’s secret. This largely unspoiled island has all the hallmarks of a tourist getaway, but thanks to its remote location, the island’s exquisite beauty has remained untarnished. To reach Astola, one has to drive seven hours from Karachi to Pasni, a sea port in the Arabian Sea, about 40 km from Astola Island. From there, the destination is another three-hour by boat. There are no facilities on the island, save for an old lighthouse and a small mosque. People who visit the island usually camp at the beach and go snorkeling or deep sea diving.

Astola Island

Photo: Abbas Ali Toor

Between September and May, Astola becomes a temporary base for mainland fishermen catching lobsters, crabs and oysters. This is the ideal time to visit Astola. A gentle breeze blows throughout the day and the color of the water and pattern of the beach keeps changing with the tide. The water is so clear that one can see the seabed to a depth of about 20 feet. From June to August, during the monsoon season, Asotla Island becomes inaccessible by boat as the sea becomes too rough.

Astola Island is mostly barren. Because of the absence of fresh water, there are no trees there, except a few scrubs and bushes. But the waters surrounding the island are plenty of marine life such as corals, dolphins, whales and a variety of fish species. The sandy beaches provide nesting grounds for many bird species such as coursers, gulls, and plovers, as well as the endangered green sea turtle. At least one species, the saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus astolae) is endemic to the island.

Astola Island

Photo: IUCN Pakistan

Unfortunately, fishing activities, both legal and illegal, have caused much damage to the island’s ecology. The fishermen dump trash and broken nets on the coast that gets tangled in the corals and damage them. The sooty gull (Larus hemprichii) which had a major breeding colony on the island, has been eradicated because of the introduction of rats. Cats left on the island dig out turtle nests, and eat the eggs and hatchlings.

In 2017, Astola Island was declared Pakistan’s first ever Marine Protected Area. However, the country is yet to draw up a plan on how to tackle the problem of pollution.

“This declaration was seen in a positive light but the lack of management plan after passing of more than two and half years raises questions about the protection of the island and the associated biodiversity that is facing multiple issues,” Muhammad Moazzam Khan, a representative of the World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan, told newspaper Dawn.

Astola Island

Photo: 0Km tours

Ashiq Ahmed Khan, a senior conservationist and expert on protected area management, argued that the development of a management plan for the Astola Island would take time. “We need to take into consideration the socio-economic aspects of local fishers and issues related with livelihood needs,” Khan reminded, adding that “good practices need to be promoted and bad practices should be discouraged at Astola.”

Dr. Babar Khan, director of wildlife at the WWF-P, believes that it is possible to protect the island’s ecology and biodiversity and at the same time promote ecotourism on the island.

Astola Island

Photo: Ammaar60/Wikimedia Commons

Astola Island

Photo: Abbas Ali Toor

Astola Island

Photo: Abbas Ali Toor

Astola Island

Photo: Abbas Ali Toor

References:
# Naveed Ali Soomro, https://www.iucn.org/sites/dev/files/astola_island_study.pdf
# Faiza Ilyas, ‘Protected’ Astola Island needs management plan, say experts, https://www.dawn.com/news/1524571

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