THATTA: Amid the ruthless hunting that goes on unabated in and around the Keenjhar lake –– a major wintering ground for a wide array of waterfowl –– some birds have found a sanctuary where they can fly, search for food and nest without any fear of being hunted by humans. This is all thanks to a group of local hunters who have decided to dedicate their lives to wildlife conservation.
Part of this team is Kamal Khan Palari, a farmer and resident of Nabi Bux Palari village in the Jhimpir union council of Thatta district. His village is one of the five settlements where a no-hunting zone has been active for the past six years.
“I wake up early morning by the chirping of these beautiful birds that we had almost lost. I can’t imagine losing their sights and sounds again,” he shared, showing a strong sense of affection towards the birds.
Initially developed with the help of the World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan (WWF-P) under a one-year project in 2010, the no-hunting zone is very much in place with the support of different communities.
“Though the project has ended, people are still sensitive about the birds and protect them no matter what it takes. There has been resistance within the community; some people when stopped from hunting got FIRs registered against us.
“Thankfully, the decision of the community elders has always been in the birds’ favour,” Palari told Dawn, while sharing the obstacles faced in developing a no-hunting zone near the lake.
“We came to realise that these birds lend beauty to our land and life that no other life-form could bring. This change of heart took time but we are determined to continue with it,” resolves Palari.
According to the villagers, the population of birds, especially of the black and grey partridges which are a dominant resident in the vicinity of the lake, has seen a steady rise after the establishment of the no-hunting zone.
Once trapped and killed in hundreds, these birds have now become friendly enough not to fly away when approached by humans.
Despite team efforts, however, the villagers believe that the government should intervene and post wildlife staff in the area to stop illegal hunting.
“There is no one to check illegal hunting in and around the lake, which is an officially declared sanctuary and a Ramsar site. It pains us to see the loss of biodiversity and the scale of poverty. The government must help,” believes Palari.
Situated along the Indus flyway, the Keenjhar lake has been an important breeding, staging and feeding ground for a number of wintering waterfowl and other bird species.
Studies, however, have shown that their numbers have significantly reduced over time. For instance, recorded numbers of waterfowl were around 205,000 in a mid-winter census conducted in 1987-88; their numbers reduced to 13,760 in 2006.
Along with hunting and trapping, the major reason for this reduction has been the continuous discharge of industrial and domestic effluent which has seriously degraded the lake habitat.
“Increasing pollution has depleted fish stocks, the main source of livelihood for poor communities living here,” says Ghulam Rasool Khatri of WWF-P. He added that the situation forced people to turn to hunting all kinds of animals, especially birds to earn a few bucks.
It was in these conditions that the organisation launched the Indus for All Programme at the lake with the objective to encourage communities to work towards nature conservation, he explained.
On how the plan was executed, Khatri said: “We invited local hunters to our meetings and explained to them the importance of protecting biodiversity.
“Eventually they showed willingness to establish a no-hunting zone in their villages and pledged to create awareness about nature conservation in their respective communities, and thwarting any hunting attempts. We then hired these hunters as eco-guards representing the five villages on a monthly stipend of Rs6,000.”
Sharing his experience as an eco-guard, Rafiq Khaskheli said: “After attending the sessions on wildlife conservation, we felt guilty and thought we needed to do something to atone for our actions.”
The project ran for a year or so and ended on a high-note.
But what was the spirit that forced the eco-guards to continue with their assigned task once they lost their stipend?
Javed Palari, another eco-guard, explained: “We have developed a kind of love for the birds which we once hunted to earn money. And though there are still many out there killing and trapping animals, we believe this sanctuary will always be a safe haven for all kinds of wildlife.”
Locals hired as eco-guards, fortunately, have found other sources of employment and are very much content with their new responsibilities.
Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2016