ECOLOGY: BALOCHISTAN’S SIBERIAN SECRET

Published July 23, 2017
A large flock of Siberian cranes gathered at a riverbank | Photos by the writer
A large flock of Siberian cranes gathered at a riverbank | Photos by the writer

According to Pakhtun folklore, the red-legged partridges and long-net cranes are symbols of beauty and omens of good fortune. Once, a Pashto singer was so inspired by the elegant cranes, whose migratory route brings them to parts of Khyber Pakhtunknwa and Balochistan, that he wrote a song — “Raaghlay Zaanr’ay, Zaanr’ay La Obo Raaghlay, Zaanr’ay”— describing flocks of cranes landing on a body of water. It is a spectacular sight to behold, indeed. A decade old now, it is still a popular Pashto traditional dance song.

The Siberian cranes fly over 4,000 miles from the Russian arctic twice a year to spend winters in the warmer climes of India. Their perilous journey starts from Siberia in September-October when biting cold weather compels the birds to find a region with moderate temperatures. Knowing no boundaries, the flocks fly across rivers, mountains and deserts to reach their destination in India. The banks of the Zhob River in Balochistan are a prime stopover in their long migration route from and to the Siberian cold and snowy forests.

The cranes congregate near the Darya-i-Zhob, which flows a few kilometres away from the city of Zhob and joins the Gomal River. In recent years, migrating through their usual corridor poses a risk for the Siberian crane. But, they have not changed their course and continue to come to these areas twice a year.

The migratory Siberian cranes face extinction due to illegal hunting and trapping

When winter is over, the cranes fly back to their native habitats and nesting grounds by the end of April. Stopping over lakes, river banks and water basins in many parts of Pakistan, including the mountainous area of Zhob and bordering districts, the birds can fly around 200km a day during the migration period.

One of the four crane species that pass through Pakistan during their annual migration is called the Demoiselle Crane which is an endangered species.

According to experts, these long-necked cranes with pale bluish grey plumage, live and breed near water. They emit a honking sound as they fly and can live for 20 to 30 years. The guide cranes who are familiar with the migratory route, lead the flocks with the loud honking sounds typical to cranes. Vanishing forests, drying up of lakes are major causes behind their rapid decline. But it is the ruthless trapping, killing and hunting by humans that has brought the population of cranes on the verge of extinction. According to the International Crane Foundation (ICF), 11 out of 15 species of cranes face extinction.

The Zhob valley falls on the migratory route of these cranes which pass the region in autumn and spring every year. Unfortunately with each passing season, they lose their strength. The region is home to hunters and poachers who occupy the entire area from Mir Ali Khail to Sawara Bridge on Quetta highway in Zhob district.

Ashraf Ali, Forest and Wildlife Officer Zhob, says that soon after the migratory birds begin their journey back to their native abode, poachers start trapping the birds.

According to locals, this year over around a hundred hunting parties had set up their camps along the river. In the start of the season, the district administration had imposed Section 144 completely prohibiting hunting. However, as in the unfortunate case of the houbara bustards, affluents with political clout from areas such as Karak, Lakki Marwat, Bannu and other parts of Khyber Pakhtunknwa and so on, come in hunting parties and set up their camps near the Zhob River to trap the long-necked birds. Backed by law enforcers, or politicians or the police, the law holds no relevance for these brazen hunters. “Influential hunters … have made the official restrictions, including Section 144 meaningless,” says Ali.

Hunarmal Kakar, professor at the local college and a resident of Killi Malawar along Zhob River, says that the number of cranes migrating to the valley has dwindled with the passage of time as little has been done to preserve and protect the cranes from being hunted. According to him a large number of hunting camps could be seen along the banks of the river near Killi Appozai, Malawar, Toora Khawla, Sawara, Badinzai, Wiyala, Mir Ali Khail, Sur Toi, and other parts of the district. He says the authorities concerned are just silent spectators to all this.

A man is pictured with Siberian cranes trapped in cages
A man is pictured with Siberian cranes trapped in cages

Kakar says that at least 2,000 to 5,000 birds are captured (each hunting party captures up to 30 to 50 cranes) and hundreds more are killed during each hunting season. Despite funds allocation for the conservation of cranes, the birds are still being hunted in large numbers.

He says that poachers capture hundreds of cranes with the help of local hunters and confine them in cages before transporting them to other areas.

According to him, the hunters use a pair of tamed cranes in a cage as decoys, separating the males from the females. The separated pair is taken to the hunting spot at night, before the arrival of the migratory flocks. Soon after, the decoys start crying and the cranes flying overhead are deceived by the decoy cranes. The migrating cranes swoop down close to the already captured pair. And that is when the hunters throw a swirling iron weight tied to a thread over the flock to entangle the cranes’ necks, wings and feet. Sometimes hunters shoot down the birds with firearms. The hunters also use mp3 voice recordings of the cranes’ honking to lure migrating flocks.

Kakar says that at least 2,000 to 5,000 birds are captured (each hunting party captures up to 30 to 50 cranes) and hundreds more are killed during each hunting season. Despite funds allocation for the conservation of cranes, the birds are still being hunted in large numbers.

Muhammad Moazzam Khan, Technical Adviser at World Wide Fund WWF-Pakistan, says hunting is a violation of the Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1975 Balochistan. He says a new law, The Balochistan (Wildlife Protection, Preservation, Conservation and Management) Act 2014 (Act No. XV Of 2014), is in place according to which all crane species are protected. The bill specifically lists fines on violation through crane hunting ranging from 10,000 rupees to 30,000 rupees or two months’ imprisonment or both according the value of the wild animal.

Hunters holding up the cranes they shot down
Hunters holding up the cranes they shot down

“WWF-Pakistan has always voiced its concerns against this uncontrolled hunting. It worked with a local community-based organisation which motivates the Balochistan Wildlife Department to take action against hunters. However, there is no doubt that the hunters, [through] their contacts and [with the use of] bribery, try to undermine the government’s writ,” he adds.

The official explains that there are no funds allocated neither at the district level nor at provincial level for the cranes’ protection.

Borja Heredia, Head of the Avian Species Team at Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, says that hunting in general, and cranes in particular, is a complicated issue in Balochistan. Tribalism and involvement of influentials are considered to be the major hindrances in the implementation of law. A strong multi-stakeholder needs to be brought on board with the various political, social and military stakeholders to develop a common conservation agenda. Otherwise, Heredia concludes hunting of cranes will remain rampant in the future as well.

Muhammad Jamshed Iqbal Chaudhry, Manager Research and Conservation WWF-Pakistan recommends that the District Administration and Wildlife Department should utilise their resources to provide the local communities with incentives to curtail crane hunting and trapping through public awareness of the ecological system. For example, in the past, the ICF worked with WWF-Pakistan on crane hunting and water issues.

Chaudhry stresses upon strict implementation of the Wildlife Act and information exchange among the Siberian cranes’ range states as needful measures to curtail the hunting of migratory birds from snowy Siberia.

The writer can be reached at rafiullah.mandokhail@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 23rd, 2017

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