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Wings of Distress: Kurram's Vanishing Haven for Migratory Birds

The shift is not just a local concern; it is embedded in the broader ecological dynamics of the region.
by TNN Editor - 09 Nov, 2023 1606
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Rehan Muhammad

Zahir Khan's lifelong connection with hunting along the banks of the Kurram River tells a poignant tale of changing landscapes. For three decades, he has witnessed a gradual decline in the once-abundant bird population. A dedicated hunter, Zahir annually invests 50 thousand rupees to create an artificial pond, where he patiently waits for his avian prey. However, the bountiful days of two decades past, where he could capture twenty to twenty-five ducks a day, have dwindled to a meager five in a month, with the once plentiful demoiselle crane now a rare sight.

Sajd ur Rahman, a bird trader in Kurram district, echoes the sentiment of decline. Once thriving on the trade of live-caught ducks, demoiselle cranes, and local birds, Rahman's business has faced the brunt of the changing avian landscape. The shift is not just a local concern; it is embedded in the broader ecological dynamics of the region.

Situated between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Koh e Sufaid mountain range serves as a vital corridor for birds migrating from Central Asia and Siberia. The Kurram River and its surroundings, adorned with natural and artificial ponds, become temporary homes for these visiting birds. Known as "Flyway Four" or "Green Route," this migratory path guides the birds through a breathtaking journey.

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The cyclical movement of these avian visitors is synchronized with the changing seasons. Departing Siberia before the harsh winter sets in around August, they traverse the 'Green Route' from Afghanistan through Kurram, entering Pakistan. The return journey takes place in April-May, before the oppressive summer heat sets in. This annual migration, covering approximately 4500 km, reveals a remarkable spectacle of nature.

A 2015-16 survey by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) sheds light on the significance of this flyway. Around one million migratory birds travel along the International Flyway No. 4, the Green Route. Crossing vast terrains—from Siberia through Afghanistan, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, Sulaiman mountains, and the Indus River—these feathered guests grace Pakistani territories. The entourage includes various species such as ducks, Wild Ducks, Geese, demoiselle cranes, Lapwing, Flamingoes, Herons, Houbara bustards, and Hawks. The diversity of these birds paints a vibrant picture against the changing backdrop of the Kurram River's ecosystem.

The intricate dance of migratory birds across Pakistan, as revealed in a 2018 research paper from the University of Punjab's Department of Biology, unveils a stunning spectacle. A million birds, representing 1,855 species, embark on a journey from the Chitral mountains to the riverbanks of Sindh and the plains of Punjab, driven by the eternal pursuit of sustenance and breeding grounds.

Saifullah, a knowledgeable biologist in the Kurram district, sheds light on this avian odyssey. Originating from the northwest, a diverse array of winged travelers, including khaki Campbell ducks, Mallards (green-headed ducks), geese, Eurasian birds, demoiselle cranes, sarus cranes, grebes, and various species of herons, grace not only the landscapes of Pakistan but also extend their sojourn to the Indian coasts.

Despite Pakistan's efforts to preserve its natural sanctuaries, boasting 26 National Parks, 72 Wildlife Sanctuaries, 66 Game Reserves, and 19 Ramsar Protected Lakes, the Pashtun belt, including Kurram, bears the scars of relentless hunting. Saifullah notes that the once vibrant Pashtun belt, now heavily hunted, has seen a decline in bird populations. Mallards, in particular, face a perilous decline, hinting at a shift in their migratory patterns towards Indian shores.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) underscores Pakistan's commitment to conservation with protected areas covering vast expanses. However, the ongoing challenges persist, with Saifullah emphasizing the impact of excessive hunting on migratory patterns.

Ilyas Khan, a seasoned bird trader with two decades of experience, paints a somber picture of the changing dynamics. Once a bustling trade of demoiselle cranes for 2,000 to 10,000 rupees, ducks for 500 to 5,000, and Sarus Cranes and parrots for 5,000 to 20,000, now faces dwindling prospects. The decline is attributed to rampant hunting practices in Punjab and Sindh, where drugging birds for capture has become a prevalent method. Tragically, these drugged birds, unable to fulfill their natural cycles of breeding and migration, succumb to a premature demise, echoing a poignant narrative of loss in the realms of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Kurram district.

In the delicate balance between nature and human intervention, the plight of migratory birds in Kurram district takes center stage. Biologist Saifullah, with a discerning eye, points out the multifaceted threats looming over these avian visitors. The use of chemicals in hunting, the perils of industrial waste infiltrating their food sources, agrochemicals contaminating their environment, and the ominous specter of water pollution collectively cast a dark shadow on the well-being of these esteemed guests.

Hunter Ikram ud Din, musing on the changing dynamics, attributes the dwindling bird numbers to the widespread use of weapons and the ominous specter of illegal hunting during turbulent times of terrorism. The echoes of those tumultuous periods linger, leaving a haunting legacy on the natural ebb and flow of migratory patterns.

Rehman Gul, a steward of the land in Bagan Bazar, assumes the dual role of selling agricultural medicines and tending to his farm. He unveils a critical timeline, pointing to the use of pesticides in gardens and vegetables during March and the fertilization of wheat in the pivotal months of January and February. These months, coinciding with the peak presence of visiting birds, present a conundrum as agricultural practices intertwine with the migratory rhythms.

Birdlife International's 2022 report paints a sobering picture, revealing that one in eight bird species faces the looming specter of extinction. Among them, migratory grebes stand at the forefront of vulnerability.

District Agriculture Officer Minhaj Ali lays bare the environmental challenges gripping Kurram district. With a total area of 834,988 acres, of which 144,048 acres are cultivable, a stark transformation unfolds. Over the past decade, the ephemeral nature of snow on Koh e Sufaid, coupled with diminished rainfall and arid springs, has led to a substantial reduction in cultivable land. An astonishing 70 percent of the land now lies vacant.

He underscores the intrinsic connection between the water resources and agricultural land in Kurram district, once a haven for migratory birds. However, the lamentable damage to their natural habitat has disrupted the once-harmonious coexistence, resulting in a noticeable decline in their visits. The intricate dance of nature, disrupted by human interventions and environmental shifts, reflects the delicate fragility of this ecosystem.

In the intricate tapestry of Kurram district's landscape, District Forest Officer Hussain unravels the composition of its land, revealing that 21 percent is veiled in forests. Within this green expanse, communal forests claim 20 percent, standing as shared resources for local communities. A mere one percent is designated as reserve forests, with a conspicuous absence of protected forests. However, the symbiotic relationship between the people and these wooded realms sees trees harvested for domestic needs, a practice sanctioned by the Forest Department. For larger-scale endeavors, such as buying and selling, the Forest Department and Deputy Commissioner's nod is requisite, accompanied by a commitment to contribute 20 percent of the profits to the government. Despite these regulations, Kurram district grapples with rampant deforestation for domestic requirements.

A decade ago, 30 percent of Kurram district was cloaked in communal forests, nurturing abundant freshwater springs and elevating river levels. This lush habitat fostered an ideal sanctuary for migratory birds. However, the burgeoning population has spurred indiscriminate deforestation, casting a shadow over the once-hospitable haven for birds and wildlife.

Munir Khan, a stalwart in the Wildlife Department, sheds light on the evolution of wildlife protection in the tribal districts post-merger. In the present legal framework, all wildlife in Kurram district enjoys protection. Licenses are imperative for hunting migratory birds, issued upon submission of a copy of the licensed national identity card and the requisite annual fee. Since March 2021, 988 hunters have been bestowed with shooting licenses, permitting them to pursue migratory birds on designated days. The department, while wielding the authority to fine illegal poachers, treads lightly due to nascent enforcement measures and limited staff.

Munsif Ali, the district officer of the wildlife department, paints a poignant picture of the challenges faced by migratory birds. Climate change, pollution, dwindling food sources, and vanishing forests collectively conspire against these avian travelers. The fledgling wildlife department, initiated three years ago, grapples with the trifecta of inadequate staff, geographical obstacles in the mountainous terrain, and public unawareness. In this vast expanse, where nature's harmony is threatened, the department strives to strike a balance between conservation and community engagement.