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A SIRKEER cuckoo sighted in Keti Bundar. — File Photo

KARACHI: About 80 per cent of the wetlands in Sindh have been seriously damaged by increasing pollution, largely caused by the right and left bank outfall drains, encroachments and conversion of land to agriculture use.

Of them, two wetlands of international significance in Badin are being spoiled by the effluent discharged from sugar mills, experts told Dawn after concluding a survey of winter waterfowls which, they said, also showed that unfavourable conditions appeared to have forced migratory birds to change their route and find new abodes in areas bordering India.

The survey was jointly conducted by the Sindh wildlife department (SWD) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in January.

The areas surveyed included the Nara canal (Khairpur), Pai forest (Benazirabad), Chhotiari reservoir (Sanghar), Keti Bundar (Thatta), Keenjhar lake (Thatta), Haleji lake (Thatta), Hadero (Thatta), Kharochann (Thatta) and Jubho and Nurrari lagoons (Badin) and Nagarparkar (Tharparkar).

“It was shocking to see the Nurrari and Jubho lagoons, both Ramsar sites and major staging grounds for migratory birds, being lost to increasing effluent coming from nearby sugar mills. The wetlands could still be saved if immediate measures are taken for their rehabilitation,” said Jehangir Durrani, the WWF’s natural resource management officer posted at the Keenjhar lake.

The Left Bank Outfall Drain, he said, carried wastewater from factories, which then drained into the interconnected lagoons.

“These coastal wetlands used to have a combination of features, including the presence of brackish water, freshwater and saltwater that attracted diverse avian species to them,” he said, adding that floods in recent years had brought some life into the wetlands of the province by reducing their salinity levels to some extent.

Sharing his observations, Rasheed Khan, a senior SWD officer, said the conditions at the Jubho lagoon deteriorated first and gradually it seemed to have affected the Nurrari lagoon, which had been reporting a good concentration of birds in winter.

However, their number dropped drastically during the last three years.

“The bird population in the Nurrari lagoon in winter has come down from 100,000 in 2009 to 20,000 this year. The number of 25 to 30 species which had been recorded here earlier have dwindled.

“I remember seeing the entire Nurrari lagoon turning white every winter as it was home to large numbers of flamingoes and pelicans,” he said, pointing out that hardly any bird could be spotted at Jubho this year whereas he had seen about 40 to 50 avian species last year.

The population of birds at Haleji lake, he claimed, had increased from 2,500 last year to 6,000 this winter. However, Mr Khan could not suggest the reason for the increase.

“I spotted bluebirds and pheasant-tailed jacanas after some years at Haleji. About 44,931 birds were recorded at Haleji lake while 38,958 avian species were recorded at Keenjhar lake in 2001,” he said, adding that grass fish, living on lake vegetation, and the noise from the speedboats were some of the reasons that led to the drop in bird numbers at the lake.

According to Mr Durrani, however, high hunting pressure, disturbance and pollution were the major reasons behind the decline in the number of birds at Keenjhar lake. “Birds are indicators of a healthy ecosystem. If they are going away from a place, it means it’s not suitable for humans, too. Sindh has about 200 small and large wetlands and most have lost their status under the nose of the departments responsible for their conservation,” he said.

‘A graceful guest’ from India

Answering a question about some rare bird species spotted during the survey, Umair Shahid, a senior project officer of the Climate Change Adaptation project of the WWF, said the team saw sirkeer cuckoo, also called sirkeer malkoha, for the first time in Keti Bundar’s Allahdino Shah village.

The bird is a resident of the northern and northwestern areas of India. It was described as a rare visitor to Sindh by such ornithologists as T.J. Roberts and Z.Q. Mirza, he said.

“I spotted one sitting on a betel leaf and took its picture. It’s a graceful bird with a cherry-red beak. We also saw white-eyed buzzards there, but they are common in Sindh,” he said.

The experts had encouraging observations in Nagarparkar as they found the bird population stable at different lakes. They estimated that about 80,000 birds of 80 species were staying during the winter in the desert area that has flourished considerably due to heavy rains over the past few years.

The birds spotted included pelicans, flamingos, spoonbills, spot bills, coots, common mallards, northern shoveller, northern pintail, common pochard, great crested grebe, Eurasian wigeon, garganey (a very rare bird), species of waders, including stilts, shanks, gulls and terns and plenty of raptors.

“Birds are highly sensitive to environmental changes and anthropogenic factors influencing change in the environment. In our case, it seems that unfavourable conditions have forced avian species to move further south. But we need to look at the trends for at least five years to say anything for sure,” said Mr Shahid.

The team was thrilled to see pairs of oriental white-backed vultures at Karoonjhar Hills, Nagarparkar, nesting in a tree.

“It’s a positive sign since there has been 97 per cent decline in vulture population in South Asia. Perhaps, a large number of livestock mortalities in floods have helped their population to grow,” he said.

The experts stressed the need for strict implementation of wildlife laws and rehabilitation of wetlands before the province lost its winter visitors.