In books of history, in modern-day tales of life, love, and everything that this world has to offer, the Valley of Kashmir tends to make its mark. A place that has a unique culture derived from interactions with multitudes of other cultures over the past millennia, Kashmir has also proven to be a vital link in one of the most expected but unthinkable geo-cultural interactions: the valley sees hundreds of thousands of birds coming in from the north when winter approaches, and it sees them off just like that as the spring sun harshens. One might think that fluttering of wings, splashing of feathers on water, the relentless chirps and calls might be a sight to cherish. It might be a breathtaking evening, or it just used to be.
According to Birdlife International, Kashmir lies in the middle of the Central Asian and East Africa-West Asia global Flyways for migratory birds, a coveted location that has contributed to the published record of 555 bird species recorded, is part of the Western Himalaya Endemic Bird Area, and hosts 21 Important Biodiversity Areas and 7 Ramsar Sites. These statistics are certainly mind-boggling, especially since these are aspects of the Valley the world barely concentrates on. However, people living in the valley barely know about this aspect of the place they call home, and while the reasons for such an underdeveloped understanding might be many, I want to concentrate on the little efforts that have been made to conserve birdlife in Kashmir, specifically how it is to advocate for the conservation of wetlands in a region plagued by governmental apathy, militarisation and, rampant and awkwardly-designed development.
A long drive with my father along the northern districts of the valley one late winter led us on a pebbled road, flanked by poplar trees and a few villages sprouting here and there. A few people on the road, a few relaxing on shopfronts, and some washing clothes on the banks of a small pond. We saw a few large-sized ducks out in the middle of the pond, and I immediately seized my binoculars, and my father ruffled through the roughed-up pages of a field guide: We somehow ended up agreeing that we saw a pair of Common Mergansers, a first for me, and a species my father saw after three or so decades. We confirmed the sighting by talking to some experts later that day, but the lesson I took from the uniqueness of this sighting was that we had hardly recorded this species in the valley, whereas it might have been visiting this small, quaint, pond every winter. Would the villagers have some stories to tell us about these birds? Would this sighting be as unique for them as it was for me, or an everyday occurrence? Or, coming back to reality, would this pair just be vagrant this winter, and we were just lucky to have seen them as they were? All these questions could be answered only if we had some knowledge about our water bodies, the habitats they are home to, and the sights they witness every year. Whereas the attention of birders, as well as the government, is on a few of these wetlands part of the statistics cited above, often ignored are these small wonders where we could see the whole world through these birds. That is not to say that the larger wetlands are not important; outcry about their current condition has had places in news publications, surprisingly Turkey’s Anadolu Agency too, and the apathy is as real as it can be. However, there is a wide disconnect between the wetlands, their importance as a natural resource, and their role in larger parts of people living around them. Over the years that I have been birdwatching, I have had the chance to talk to people living in the peripheries of the Shallabugh Wetland in Central Kashmir, or youngsters who live and play on the land which was once a part of Hokersar, the famed “Queen of Wetlands”, shrunken to its core by years of land-filling and encroachment. One thing is abundantly clear: the disconnect that is felt around these wetlands is not due to indifference, but the inability to act upon concerns that are shared by all. Wintering ducks and geese are hunted day and night; almost every village is rife with stories of gunshots heard every morning and evening around them. And while everyone knows about these stories, no one can do much about them. The inability to ask for accountability from the authorities concerned, to raise awareness around, to work, in whatever way possible, for conservation is exemplified in a very dampening instance of hunting that shook birders all over the Indian Subcontinent. Bewick’s Swans had wintered in wetlands of Kashmir for the first time in 73 years, and within a week of their arrival, two were shot, their bloodied carcasses made viral all over social media. It is important to note here that hunting is banned under Indian Law, which Kashmir is under at the moment, and the numerous international conventions governing wetlands all over the world. Such is the nature of conservation efforts there that even though eventually every government official and member of the birding community was able to identify the culprits, no one dared to do anything to ensure that there is at least a deterrent to future incidents like these.
As I write this, birders back home discover new records of bird species wintering in Kashmir, but I cannot help but think about their fate as they land on our waters and prepare for a harsh winter. A winter not only marred by chill and frost, but the cold that surrounds our efforts to save them, that refuses to has shrunken their winter homes exponentially, that has polluted the pristine waters they used to feed in, and left us helpless in conserving them.
Writer: Hammad Qazi
Editor: Kıvılcım Ekin Karkın