ECOLOGY: WELCOMING THE MIGRANTS

15 Nov 2020

Email

Pochards | Photo by Arif Amin
Pochards | Photo by Arif Amin

It is known that one-quarter to one-third of migratory birds are dependent on forest cover during various phases of their life cycle. However, the world’s forests are being depleted at an alarming rate. Unfortunately, over 77 percent of global land — excluding Antarctica — and 87 percent of the oceans have been immensely modified by human intervention. Only five countries — Australia, Brazil, Canada, the US, and Russia — possess 70 percent of the world’s remaining, untouched wilderness spots.

This year, the theme of the World Migratory Bird Day (October 10) was ‘Birds Connect Our World’ which was devised to showcase the importance of conserving the integrity of ecosystems responsible for supporting the natural cycles crucial for the survival of migratory birds. These birds help in providing essential services, such as pollination, seed dispersal and pest control, among other activities that help in sustaining life on the planet. Today, unfortunately, one million bird species face the risk of extinction.

Conservationists have pointed out that birds do indeed connect our world. For instance, Donana National Park in Spain is a wintering site for over 500,000 waterfowls coming annually from various parts of Europe and Africa, because of its proximity with the Strait of Gibraltar and being an ideal location for the birds.

Similarly, Pakistan, given its strategic geographical location, serves as a stopover and falls in the flyway for several migratory bird species that travel from Siberia to the warmer waters of the Indian Subcontinent. The Indus basin is among the world’s great migratory flyways and hence a principal route for several species whose breeding is extralimital or outside a particular area. The Gilgit and Hunza Rivers being the northern tributaries for the Indus serve as one route for these birds, while some enter from further West, via the Kurram Agency in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Pakistan, particularly the wetlands of Sindh, witnessed a boon in migratory bird population this year because of the varying Covid-19 lockdown periods, leaving nesting spots undisturbed. Poachers had fewer chances of trying their luck on the birds this time, their movements limited due to the pandemic restrictions.

According to a survey conducted by the Sindh Wildlife Department a few months ago, over 700,000 migratory birds were documented in Sindh in 2020, compared to about 250,000 birds last year, which is a stark increase by over 190 percent. But this was an anomaly from previous trends, which have shown a decline in numbers, partly because of loss of habitat and partly from rampant hunting.

Given its strategic geographical location, Pakistan falls in the flyway for several migratory bird species. They are important not just for the beauty they bring to the landscape

Despite poachers stalking birding spots such as Haleji Lake, Port Qasim and Defence Phase VIII, there are conservationists within the country who are trying to overcome issues related to the illegal hunting faced by migratory birds as they land on Pakistani terrain.

But one of the first issues is, in fact, documenting the nature we already have within our borders. Various enthusiasts who are professional wildlife photographers have, in particular, contributed to this aspect. For instance, Arif Amin and Ghulam Rasool have been documenting wildlife throughout the country. Amin who was professionally associated with the education and development sector earlier on, eagerly calls himself a birder and is focusing on establishing eco-tourism in Hunza. He has co-authored two books — Birds Of Pakistan (A Pictorial Glimpse Of Natural Heritage) and Colours of Deosai: A Wonderland of Pakistan — along with Ghulam Rasool and Fakhr-i-Alam.

“This year’s World Migratory Bird Day unfortunately went largely unnoticed in Pakistan, although we are an important middle-Asian fly zone for these birds,” says Amin. “It is extremely important that we provide a conducive environment to our feathered visitors who add colour and diversity to the region. The disappearing trends of migratory birds are linked to a larger environmental issue and, if it is not addressed urgently, it will result in emergencies such as the one we are facing right now, such as climate change leading to mass flooding and desertification.”

White Winged redstart | Photo by Tahir Abbas Awan
White Winged redstart | Photo by Tahir Abbas Awan

Munzir Khalid Khan is also among wildlife enthusiasts who started documenting bird species and is highlighting them through his Facebook group, called Birds of Pakistan. Through the admins’ collective efforts, this group has also been able to safeguard bird habitats by reporting poaching activities to the relevant authorities. Furthermore, the group has been active in digging out previously unrecorded bird species while promoting birdwatching in Pakistan. And despite the obstacles being faced in terms of red-tapism, the admins are hopeful about creating further awareness for bird habitat conservation at a wider level. They also feel that authorities at various provincial levels have to be brought on to the same page to update wildlife laws pertaining to the protection of threatened species.

In 1999, while living in Saudi Arabia, Khan was oblivious to the diversity of bird species. He knew only common sparrows, crows and mynahs, despite sometimes noticing other extraordinary birds. As the internet became more accessible in 2001, Khan’s interest became profound as he became inspired by international wildlife photographers. He started exploring bird species in Pakistan and found some images of paradise flycatchers and pheasant-tailed jacanas by Ghulam Rasool.

That was his moment of truth and he decided to invest in photography gear. Eventually, in 2013, Khan created the Facebook group Birds of Pakistan to serve as a platform for fellow birders who share the same passion. It has been growing ever since, and has attracted thousands of bird lovers.

“As an avid birder, migratory birds have always fascinated me,” says Zohaib Ahmed, an active member of the group. “I start photographing them just before sunrise, at identified birding spots, which included the water bodies in Kirthar Range, the cultivated areas of Thatta and Kathore, and the mangroves of Karachi. While counting numbers and tracking their diversity and patterns, I’ve felt that a considerable decline has occurred in recent years. Educating locals to avoid hunting migratory birds may help the birds stay safe in Pakistan, as they are our prime guests.”

Mirza Naim Beg has also been working towards creating awareness about bird species. He has been gathering like-minded wildlife photographers to join the cause and, at the same time, explore their hobby. A retired banker and now a full-time conservationist and wildlife photographer, Beg has been able to connect with fellow wildlife photographers and has guided them immensely through his Facebook groups ‘Birds of Sindh’ and ‘Wildlife with Dream Merchants’.

“Bird watching is quite a unique and stress-relieving activity, and should be encouraged,” says Beg enthusiastically. “However, we need to protect our bird habitats as well, while also enabling a conducive environment for migratory birds. Welcome these birds and shoot only with a camera!”

He channelises photographers working on this niche segment through trips that he arranges to birding spots within and beyond the country, under the umbrella of ‘Wildlife with Dream Merchants’. Both Facebook groups that he manages were launched with their first photographic exhibition held in November 2016, in Karachi. So far, wildlife photographers/birders in these groups have documented almost 400 bird species from all over the country.

Beg, along with other passionate birders, is also in the final process of registering a society for awareness building activities for wild birds and their conservation. They have been able to collect some funds which will be utilised in buying black francolins, to be released in their appropriate terrains, as their population has massively declined in Sindh. Similar other projects are in the pipeline. Beg’s group has also been able to convert villagers in Sindh by educating them to stop poaching and netting; he is hopeful that such an initiative will be strengthened with the help of this society.

There is a dire need to create awareness among the masses regarding wildlife habitat conservation in Pakistan and the protection of threatened species. The country is also among the top 10 countries most adversely affected by climate change and, coupled with the illegal trading of exotic species, is facing acute habitat loss for birds. Aside from the beauty they bring to our landscape, the presence of migratory birds is as essential as the natural resources crucial for our survival.

The writer is a communications professional, an artist and a wildlife photographer. She can be reached at moeen.hiba@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 15th, 2020