Friday, May 19, 2017

Return of the Winged Visitors

Copy rights Fatima Arif
In a world where humans are constantly shrinking boundaries under the disguise of warring ideologies, one of God’s creation calls a stretch spanning from Siberia to South Asia its home.
The migratory birds arrive in the country, covering an approximate distance of 4,500 km via the Migratory Bird Route Number 4, commonly known as the Indus Flyover. This famous route takes the birds from Siberia’s extreme winters and pushes them over the Karakorum, Hindu Kush and Suleiman Ranges along the Indus River to warmer delta areas.
Given Pakistan’s geographic location, we lie at the crossroads of the bird’s migration. Hosting them should be considered a privilege as these guests bring beauty and ecological benefits for our wetlands. One such spot is the triple complex, which consists of the Uchali, Khabeki and Jhalar lakes (Uchali being the biggest lake among covering an area of 950 hectares). The triple complex was declared a Ramsar Site, a wetland of global importance in 1996, giving it the status of a wildlife sanctuary.
The triple complex is situated in the Soon Valley, a key biodiversity hotspot in Punjab province. Part of the Salt Range ecosystem, it is the highest section of the entire range, with an average elevation of 800 metres above sea level. In addition to the lakes, the area boasts a forest tract, which is the largest single compact block of scrub forest, known as “sub-tropical broad leaved evergreen forest” in the province. In 1984, the Chinji Forest was notified as a national park.

Along with 173 avian species that are the highlight of this area, there are mammal species (Punjab urial, wild boar, Asiatic jackal, cape hare, mongoose, pangolin and the red fox) which have been reported from here, adding to its diversity. The winged guests grace the lakes from November to March annually. This important wintering ground hosts a wide range of birds including the greater flamingo, common coot (maximum population during the season), common sand piper, great cormorant, common teal, mallard, northern pintail, gadwall and common black headed gull. There are a number of globally threatened and near threatened species as well including the white headed duck, ferruginous duck and common pochard.

Copy rights WWF-Pakistan
Dr Farooq Ahmed, a local of the valley who has worked with WWF-Pakistan for approximately a decade as conservation officer, shared that more than 50 different species visit the area during the season and at any given time there are approximately 50,000 birds on these lakes. He also added that the most important bird that visits the area is the white headed duck, whose population is endangered globally. During the 1990s, its population that used to visit was estimated to be more than 100, however in the recent years it is sadly limited to around 10 to 12 birds.

In recent years, environmentalists have noticed an alarming decrease in numbers of migratory birds.This habitat has multiple threats that are damaging the ecosystem both individually and collectively.

One of the key issues is illegal hunting. It is believed by locals that this practice caused birds to change their route as they avoided the area where they didn’t feel welcomed. In Dr Farooq’s words, in the recent times illegal hunting has decreased considerably and a lot of credit goes to the work done by WWF-Pakistan on ground with the local communities. With increased awareness they now take full ownership and understand that the health of this natural resource is connected to their own. A few years back, due to the community’s strong opposition, the provincial government had to stop issuing hunting permits for the area. 

Other threats include deforestation, land reclamation and degradation of the habitat due to climate change, pollution and intensive agriculture.

Deforestation adds to the issue of climate change by aiding rising temperatures and at the same time causing erosion resulting in sedimentation turning the lakes murky. Climate change is a very serious threat and the area underwent a drought during this year’s migratory season, a repeat episode that was faced between 1997 and 2003. Intensive agriculture is another looming problem. Cabbage and potatoes are planted off-season in the surrounding areas which puts additional pressure on the water bodies.

Copy rights Fatima Arif 
Among the triple complex, Uchali Lake is the main tourist spot and the most foot traffic is seen around local festivals and holidays. To accommodate this influx the race for blind development is taking root which needs to be controlled before it develops into an eye soar (examples of which we are all too familiar with). Case in point: Kalar Kahar Lake, which has lost its charm. Tourists too need to be educated and practice their civic duties and clean up after themselves. WWF-Pakistan has installed dustbins at the facility but sadly, one often witnesses rubbish piled up outside the bins and floating at the edge of the lake! 

The valley’s population is spread between 34 villages and small surrounding settlements in the forest areas. They are the keepers of not just the rich biodiversity but also of the rich heritage too of Soan Valley, as the area holds historical and archeological importance. Links have been found to the Buddhist and Stone Age era.

During my visit to the Uchali lake during the season, on the way back when the sun set on the lake, with its display of changing colours, a sense of calm engulfed the entire place. The sound of wind mingled with the chatter of birds formed the background score, even the motor boat’s sound was in sync. As the mesmerizing shades of the sky turned black, the transition of light shifted to the nearby hills where the lights from a mosque (according to local lore Aurangzeb had said his prayers here), to an adjacent mazaar and finally to the houses in the surrounding villages representing civilization. A lone bright star in the sky added to the ambiance of harmony and gave light of optimism for those of us working for conservation. Despite their declining numbers in the previous years, we have been informed that this year comparatively more birds arrived. I said adieu to our guests with the hope that with continued efforts humans and nature too will re-discover their harmony.  

The article was originally written for Newsline Magazine. This blog post is the unedited version

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