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The Plight of Kashmir's Migratory Birds

From time immemorial Kashmir, because of its natural beauty and climate, has remained the centre of attraction for the whole world. From kings to subjects, rich to deprived, humans to birds - Kashmir attracts all. But climate change and chaotic over-development is threatening this long-standing migratory pattern. 

“The Kashmiris are kind to birds… and on the whole the birds have a happy and careless existence in this beautiful country.”

- Walter R. Lawrence, The Valley of Kashmir

From time immemorial Kashmir, because of its natural beauty and climate, has remained the centre of attraction for the whole world. From kings to subjects, rich to deprived, humans to birds - Kashmir attracts all. The political mayhem that prevails here may have affected the tourism business but this alone could not impede the migration of birds from different places of the world. It is a different form of human interference that is causing disruption to these migratory patterns: climate change and chaotic development.

Of the 24 wetlands in Jammu and Kashmir, Hokersar, is the most famous. Spread over 12.8 square kilometres it is believed to have spanned 19 square kilometres in 1969, and is situated in the city outskirts in Kashmir that host many migratory birds. Apart from Hokersar, the birds are also found in Dal, Mansbal and Wular lakes and other big and small water bodies. Some can also be seen in the agricultural lands and other orchards. Such areas play a vital role in sustaining a large population of migratory birds, and are also important for their staging and breeding. With the onset of winter, the birds migrate from Russia (Siberia), Central Asia, Philippines, Turkey, China and Europe to escape their extreme cold homes to the warmer climes of Kashmir. Brahminy duck, Tufted duck, Gadwall, Garganey, Greylag goose, Mallard, Common Merganser, Northern Pintail, Common Pochard, Ferruginous Pochard, White-eyed Pochard, Red-crested Pochard, Ruddy Shelduck, Northern Shovelar, Common Teal, Ergets, Wigeons, Coots, Little Cormorants etc are the most common migratory birds. Out of these, Grey Leg geese visit the Valley in the highest numbers. In search of feeding, breeding and nesting and to move to the ‘comparatively warmer’ regions these different species of birds have visited Indian-controlled Himalayan territory for hundreds of years.

There are ‘resident birds’, who spend their whole time in Kashmir as well as ‘birds of passage’ who migrate to Kashmir for a specific time. For example the Sandhill crane and the cormorant fly to the Indian plains in winters and then spend the spring months in Kashmir before moving to their summer homes. The wildlife department takes care of these birds and during the extreme cold winter, when the waters freeze, they arrange special food for them. In the past poachers used to hunt and sell these birds but declaring bird shooting a crime has slowed this down although not eliminated it. Unprotected birds in agricultural lands and at other water bodies are still their easy targets. The mesmerising beauty of these birds adds charm to the Valley - they play, sing, dance, and romance in the waters. Scores of bird-fanciers visit Hokersar. These birds signify the presence of life amid death. Watching them gives hope and pleasure to Kashmiris.

But, this idyllic picture of nature is under serious threat due to the erosion of the habitats in which these birds have long-thrived. Climate change as well as over-development and the loss of habitat or dilapidation of many wetlands has caused a steady decline in their numbers being recorded in recent years with some species having disappeared altogether. Wildlife experts reported that more than one million birds visited Kashmirs’ wetlands during the winter of 2009-10. Last year they recorded only half that number.

No action has been taken despite the Indian Supreme Court last year ordering authorities to identify and preserve these bionetworks in the state. The tense situation in the territory has made addressing environmental issues more difficult as security issues are routinely prioritised. The people and wildlife experts are becoming increasingly alarmed at the falling number of birds visiting their valley. Calls are finally being made for an urgent and massive effort to revive and conserve the wetland reserves of Kashmir so that once again more birds would fly here and bless the Valley with peace.

Muddasir Ramzan studied English Literature. He was born in 1990 in Kashmir, India, where he resides. He can be reached at muddasirramzan[at]gmail[dot]com