Ghulam Mohiuddin Dar, a man in his early 60s, sits by a bank of the Hokersar wetland alongside a few young boys. They are talking about gunshots they had heard the previous night, even as they watch a flock of migratory birds moving through the marsh.
“Whenever we hear gunshots, we know that a bird has been shot,” says Dar. “It happens in the dusk hours and early mornings mostly, and the sound is sometimes closer and sometimes faint. It is sad – these birds are our guests and have to return back to their places, but many don’t.”
Many members of the local community to which Dar belongs have been killing more of these birds every winter – some for money, which they get by selling the hunted birds in local markets, and some others for leisure. But even as the local population of these birds has been coming down, Dar says, the wetland’s fortune has declined as well, thanks to human activities, government apathy and a changing climate.
“The wetland has been encroached on – people grow paddy [rice] over some patches,” he says. “The city’s garbage flows into it and it has become a cesspool.”
Threats to biodiversity
The Indian subcontinent is part of the Central Asian Flyway, a major route that birds use to travel between the Arctic and the Indian Oceans. According to India’s environment ministry, some 182 species of water-birds, including 29 species threatened worldwide, use this route to migrate.
The Hokersar wetland – which some call the “queen of Himalayan wetlands” – is part of this route. The wetland is 12 km west of Srinagar and is surrounded by several villages. It is a refuge for waterfowl and wading birds that arrive every winter from Siberia, China, Central Asia and Northern Europe. It is also home to many species of fish.
Hokersar is one of four Himalayan wetlands that are Ramsar sites, recognized under an international convention of the same name as wetlands of “international importance”. The other three are the Wular, the Tso Moriri and the Surinsar-Mansar Lakes. Every year, hundreds of thousands of migratory birds fly through harsh weather and winds to winter around these habitats.
But over the years, human activities, including hunting, encroachment and pollution, have changed the character of these sites in drastic ways. Today, migratory birds have a tough time finding suitable habitats in this Himalayan region.
“We are not able to protect the wetlands and the habitat being slowly destroyed, so the birds prefer not to live in these wetlands,” says Irfan Jeelani, founder of the ‘Birds of Kashmir’ birding club.
According to Jeelani, local hunters have also been indiscriminate in their targets, not sparing even the rare whooper swan, which visited Kashmir last year for the first time since 1968.
“This year, we saw no swans coming,” Jeelani tells The Wire Science.
Anzar A. Khuroo, a professor at the Centre for Biodiversity and Taxonomy at Kashmir University, stresses that saving the birds or the wetlands is one thing – but that to protect the region’s biodiversity, and the ecosystem services they provide to people in the region, we need to protect the interactions between the wetlands and the birds. And that meant, of course, that we need to protect both.
“Land-use changes like filling of wetlands for construction and agricultural purposes have drastically reduced the expanse of wetlands in Kashmir,” says Khuroo.
Then there is climate change, which is also starting to affect the region’s status as a winter destination for migratory birds.
“Over the last two decades in Kashmir, we have seen freakish weather patterns, particularly unusual seasonal events. Like when we should have snow, we had sunny days or a warmer February, and that leads to a mismatch in plant phenology and animal behavior,” Khuroo explains. “Birds come to particular places for migration, but if we are witnessing relatively moderate winters, they will most likely try to track their suitable winter migration in some alternate places, or remain for less time.”
Jammu & Kashmir has 29 wetlands. Of them, 16 are in Kashmir, eight are in Jammu and five are in the Ladakh region.
According to Jeelani, the better solution to conserve the region’s biodiversity, and by extension its people, is to restore the wetlands to their original form.
“A minimal water level should be maintained in winters as well as summers, as many birds migrate to Kashmir in summers as well,” he says.
He adds that he and his peers in the region have also “suggested that the gun licenses as well as the guns of people living around the wetlands should be seized, and that no new license should be issued again.”
“The field staff of the wildlife department should be trained more, as the birds are not only in the waters in the wetland but also in the catchment areas around the wetlands,” according to Jeelani. “Poachers in those areas have more knowledge than the people who guard the wetlands. They know where the birds sit, the time they come and go – and it’s easy for them to target the birds.”
Ifshan Dewan, the wildlife warden at Hokersar wetland, says that the department has already been acting against the poachers.
“We have established four control rooms which are available for 24 hours,” he says. “Whenever we get any information of poaching, the control room people raid that place. We also have routine patrolling within our wetlands. But poaching is more outside the wetlands, so whenever we get any information, we take action at that time. So far this year we have seized ten guns.”
Aaliya Mir, who heads nonprofit organization Wildlife SOS’s conservation program in Jammu & Kashmir, has also been working on eliminating hunting and poaching.
“Unless and until there is awareness in these communities, seizing of guns and arrests won’t make any difference,” she says. “The need for moral education is important, as they need to realize that it is wrong to kill the birds.”
“A lot of activities are taking place right now to make people aware and to stop them from poaching these birds,” says Mir. “We have been conducting educational awareness in the areas where many cases of poaching have been reported. Also, vigilance from the department and police has increased.”
“These migratory birds will only come to Kashmir if wetlands remaining here are safe for them,” she says. “And if wetlands are not there, they will stop coming.”
Raihana Maqbool produced this story with a grant from EJN’s Biodiversity Media Initiative. It was first published in The Wire Science on 17 March 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. The Biodiversity Media Initiative is supported by Arcadia — a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing.
Banner image: Whooper swans visited Kashmir last year for the first time since 1968 but some were killed by poachers / Credit: Roquai via Wikimedia Commons.