War-ridden Kashmir turns safe sanctuary for migrating birds
23 December 2004
News Network International
Hokersar: Muhammad Shafi Bacha has a dream. He wants to turn the wetlands in Kashmir valley into bird watchers' paradise. Bacha, who heads the wildlife protection department in the Kashmir valley, has reasons to smile. Despite the ongoing 15-year-old insurgency there has been steep increase in the migratory birds arriving in Hokersar wetland. This year more than 400,000 avian guests have arrived, the highest over the past 15 years of unrest. 'I am delighted to see so many birds in Hokersar,' Bacha told the Greater Kashmir. 'My dream of turning Kashmir wetlands into bird watchers' haven is fast becoming a reality.' He is even getting support from the government. 'We are taking revolutionary steps to preserve and protect the wetlands and water bodies in the state,' says Ghulam Mohiudin Sofi, the forest and environment minister. With no human settlements, Hokersar is attractive to birds from cold regions where water freezes during winters. In 1992, a total of 25,270 migratory birds visisted Hokersar, in 1998 the figure was 94,694 and it rose to 381,000 in 2003. The birds are counted from five watchtowers by wildlife workers. The birds are coming to Hokersar despite the fact it is just 16 kilometers west of Srinagar, the once the hub of urban militancy. 'These birds find abundant natural food in Hokersar - hence they make it their winter home,' said Mohammed Ramzan Dar, a senior wildlife officer, who looks after Hokersar. Birds from Siberia, China, Central Asia, North Europe and South Asia start arriving in Kashmir in September and stay until April. Hokersar, which draws the most number of birds among the 14 wetlands in Jammu and Kashmir, is set against a breathtaking backdrop of snowcapped mountains. The birds live in isolation from humans as the spot is guarded round the clock and the government allows only wildlife officials to visit. Bashir Ahmed Wani, an ornithologist, who has been studying birds over the past three decades, says the coming of migratory birds to Kashmir in large numbers 'indicates they are not being hunted in Hokersar.' Since 1989 hunting of birds has dipped as poachers fear they might be mistaken as militants and shot dead. Before 1989 hunters used to kill birds with impunity. The government has also enacted stiff anti-poaching laws over the past four years making the wetlands more secure for migratory birds. Experts believe the rise could be explained by the shrinking of important wetlands, such as Bharatpur between New Delhi and Agra, because of increased farming, hunting, pollution and urban sprawl. Graylag Geese, Mallards, Pintails, Gadwell, Ruddey Shell Ducks, Shovellers, Coots, Common Teals, White-eyed Pochard, Red-crested Pochard, Tuffed Duck and Gargeny Teals can all be spotted and the air is filled with the sound of the flapping wings. Wani says migratory birds always tend to visit wetlands, which are similar to their ancestral places and have abundant food. 'Our wetlands, Hokersar in particular, are rich in fauna and hence attract birds,' he said. The birds are also arriving in Hokersar despite the fact that the area of wetland is shrinking. Hokersar in 1971 sprawled over nearly 14 square kilometers (nine square miles). Now the lake covers over only six kilometers. Hokersar is not the only wetland whose area is shrinking it and other wetlands have underground springs, which serve as their main water source. However, these springs over the years have become blocked by silt brought into the wetlands by rivulets, streams and flood channels. 'As springs dry up, we're trying to keep wetlands alive by diverting water from other waterways,' says Bacha. Assured of help by the state government, Bachs is drawing up plans to resurrect wetlands in Kashmir. Bacha wants to inculde small islands and water bodies into Hokersar stretching it to around 35 square kilometers. He has similar plans for other wetlands in the region. Agrees Wani 'we will have to improve other wetlands or stretch the Hokersar itself to accomodate increasing number of birds.' 'Birds need larger habitats and not crowded ones.' Dar's right-hand man, Ghulam Ahmed Bakshi, leads boat patrols to prevent poaching. 'Never in my life have I seen so many birds flocking to Hokersar,' Bakshi said as his men slowly paddled their boats through the water. He said in the initial years birds used to get disturbed by recurring gunbattles and explosions. 'Now they hardly move even if they hear a defeaning explosion,' said Bakshi as three cracker explosions in the neighbouring village disturbed the wildlife officials but birds didn't ruffle a feather. 'Despite violence birds are feeling safe and that is encouraging.' With Hokersar becoming a bird watcher's paradise, Bacha has proposed to the state government the setting up of special observatory towers for tourists that would not interfere with the birds habitat. 'I want tourists to take home not only memories of the mountains of Kashmir but also of a huge variety of beautiful birds.