KARACHI: You turn towards the Clifton Urban Forest and you run into the man responsible for growing this jungle, or rather jungle mein mangal (feast in the forest), briskly marching off somewhere. He doesn’t look happy. He has just been informed about someone trying to trap the flamingos in his artificially created lagoon.
“The lagoon these days is attracting both the migrating greater flamingos and lesser flamingos. The greater flamingos, which are some five-and-a-half feet tall, need a bit of running space before taking off, like an aeroplane. And here we have the kidnappers, who spread kite strings in their strides, to make their long and thin legs buckle as they catch them,” said Masood Lohar, the man behind the urban forest.
“I keep getting phone calls from odd people offering me money to get them a pair of flamingos because they want to keep exotic animals at their place. That day I even found a poacher here,” Lohar shared, shaking his head in disbelief.
“We have been seeing some 120 species of migrating birds and nesting birds, insects and animals here on this 220 acres of land that we have turned into an urban forest with an artificial lagoon and mudflats. This is now the largest biodiversity rich lagoon in Pakistan,” he said.
120 species of migrating and nesting birds, insects and animals sighted in the forest
From moving here two-and-a-half years ago and living in a little blue camper’s tent among the lizards and snakes and surrounded by a garbage dump that he dug up as deep as he could to clean, Lohar seems to be doing a little better now on the home front. He has built a little office with an adjoining bedroom.
“I still live here,” he said, pointing to his bedroom behind the office. “The day I leave, I know my own men will be selling the rare birds to the highest bidders,” he added.
The Clifton Urban Forest, started on Jan 8, 2021 in close coordination with the Sindh government, is a community-based voluntary initiative of Masood Lohar, the former head of UNDP-GEF SGP, from the platform of Sindh Radiant Organisation (SRO) to restore ecosystem, create urban resilience and conserve the marine ecosystem of Karachi.
It has now become a successful model of ecosystem restoration and covers Sustainable Development Goals such as eliminating hunger, providing good health and well-being, building sustainable cities and communities, taking climate action, helping life below water and life on land.
Lohar has really created what he had set out to do. Back in 2021, when he was living in the tent while clean up work and planting saplings was going on here, he had counted 42 different bird species and noticed three types of lizards. Today, he talks about moorhens, cavendish plovers, lesser sand plovers, swallows, little stilts and black stilts. He tells you about the 12 species of butterflies, three species of honeybees and the lots of beetles, all marvels of biodiversity. “You won’t even find so many species at Haleji Lake,” he beamed.
“A bird photographer also spotted and photographed two internationally near threatened birds, the black tailed godwit and the Eurasian curlew and also made a record of the first-ever sighting of the crab plover in the lagoon,” he shared.
In the 26 to 27 months that he has been here, Lohar has planted some 700,000 trees here of some 83 species, which include mangroves, water lilies and lotus out in the open sea to create the artificial lagoon and mudflats.
He takes you to his forest with all the trees, bushes and long grass allowed to grow wildly. “Watch me walk in the grass,” he says. So many insects fly up or hop out of his way as some bigger insect like the cricket or praying mantis gobble up the smaller insects. “It is not a park, it is wilderness with a food chain. The insects in the garden are food for the bigger insects and lizards here. We have bee-eating birds nesting here, too,” he informed.
Most conversations with Lohar are about his lovely neighbours. “We have three types of lizards including the monitor lizard and the skink lizard. See this climber here, our honey bees love it,” he added, while also telling you about some “nice non venomous snakes” that come to visit his office and bedroom quite often.
The forest opens into a beautiful lagoon, which connects you to the Arabian Sea. You hear chirping, you hear croaks, you hear whistles. You can see the horizon meet the ebbing tides. And that’s where you see the pink and white flamingos. There are also plenty of ducks afloat on the gentle waves.
“The flamingos require shallow water, the ducks deep water. We have provided for both,” Lohar explained.
Although flamingos are indigenous birds, migratory flamingos are also arriving here from India on their way back to Europe, a rare occurrence as this place had pretty much done away with its ecosystem and biodiversity thanks to so much reclamation around the coastal areas and pollution. “Do you know, this place, from Teen Talwar to Do Talwar and the Mai Kolachi Bypass used to be the largest lagoon with the largest lake? We built over it and finished it all. Now this urban forest is returning to nature only a little bit of what we stole from it,” he concluded.
Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2023
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