Kashmir’s shrinking wetlands threaten migratory birds

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The Third Pole, Hokarsar, Kashmir

Migratory birds that land at Kashmir’s Hokarsar wetland are being threatened by rampant hunting and the disappearance of their prime breeding ground, due to deforestation and urbanisation

Photo by Athar Parvaiz

Himalayan wetlands play an essential role regulating the water of Asia’s major rivers. (Photo by Athar Parvaiz)

 

The gunshots can be heard loud and clear across the Hokarsar wetlands in India’s Kashmir Valley, claiming the lives of thousands of birds who fly in from different parts of the globe from early November to mid-April. This rampant hunting has combined with increasing silt load, encroachments and unplanned urbanisation to ring the death knell for the Ramsar site wetland.

Locals living around Hokarsar — often called the queen of wetlands in the Kashmir Himalayas and a favourite halting and breeding ground for migrant birds — say they hear the gunshots regularly in the five months or so the birds remain in the wetland.  Environmentalist Abdul Majeed Kak, who has been studying Kashmir’s wetlands, estimates that more than two million birds come to Hokarsar from West Asia, Siberia and China during the winter and early spring.

A professional hunter told thethirdpole.net on the condition of anonymity that some 600 hunters operate in the area. “We are around 600 hunters who hunt in Hokarsar annually. Each year, every hunter contributes around Rs.300 (about US$6). The contributions from all the hunters work out to around Rs.200,000 (about US$3,450) which we pay as bribes to the watch and ward staff at Hokarsar,” he said.  “Nobody stops us after we make them happy!”

According to him, the hunters bag 120 to 170 birds every day during the season. Most these are sold clandestinely for prices ranging from Rs.700 (about US$12) to Rs. 3,000 (about US$50).  Going by his estimate, about 20,000 to 25,000 birds are killed in the Hokarsar wetland each year.

Wetland wildlife warden Maqbool Baba denied the allegation that members of the staff are bribed. “I don’t totally deny that hunting takes place in the wetland area, but it doesn’t mean it is done in connivance with our staff. The fact is that we are short of manpower as we don’t have enough personnel to guard the entire wetland against hunting,” Baba told thethirdpole.net.

Weed-control is one of the major challenges (430

Weed control is an important aspect of managing Kashmir’s wetlands. (Image by Athar Parvaiz)

Despite being a Ramsar site, Hokarsar doesn’t get the funding required for its conservation.

Shrinking wetlands

The winged visitors are under threat in other ways too. The halting and breeding ground within the wetland area is on the decline due to various human activities.

According to Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, who teaches at the Kashmir University’s Earth Sciences department, massive deforestation in the upper reaches of the catchment has increased the silt load in downstream water bodies, including the Hokarsar wetland.

“Due to the increased siltation the marshy lands have fragmented…  Excess load of siltation has also adversely affected the depth of the wetland which was 1.12 metres and has reduced to only 0.63 metres,” Romshoo said, quoting from his research paper on the impacts of changing land cover and climate on Hokersar wetland.

Marshy lands, Romshoo said, have tremendous ecological importance for migratory birds as they serve as their nesting and breeding grounds. This has been steadily declining — from 16.3 square kilometres in 1969 to 5.62 square  kilometres in 2008. In 1969, marshy land covered 85% of the wetland area.

The wetland, too, has shrunk dramatically, Romshoo said. During the observation period from 1969 to 2008, it reduced from 18.75 square kilometres to13 square kilometres.  Agriculture, nonexistent in 1969 in the wetland, now covers about 23.51 % of the wetland area.

People living around the area said the wetland was being converted to agricultural land thanks to political leaders who were forcing officials to ignore encroachments by farmers.

“All these anthropogenic influences within the wetland have accelerated the deterioration of the wetland structure and functions,” Romshoo observed.

Wetlands sustain rivers

The Himalayan wetlands play an important role storing and cleaning water that flows into major rivers like the Indus, and act as a buffer between glacial melt waters and outflows to smaller rivers and streams. Any change to these wetlands will affect flooding and the availability of water for communities living in downstream river basins.

Ramshoo suggested “an appropriate mechanism is established for continuous monitoring of the wetland, its immediate surrounding and the catchment for land system changes… so that a robust strategy and action plan is developed for the conservation and restoration of this important wetland.”