Monday, April 30

Birdsong on a quivering note

Punjab’s wetlands, the stopover for migratory birds, are fast drying up, writes Vikram Jit Singh in TehelekaThree decades ago, India’s legendary birdman Dr Salim Ali, under the aegis of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), spearheaded a pioneering study of migratory birds at the Harike wildlife sanctuary, putting it on the global conservation map. Harike became known as “Punjab’s Bharatpur”. The BNHS launched a survey-cum-census at Punjab’s smaller wetlands again last winter, and found a variety of common as well as globally endangered bird species. However the wetlands are themselves endangered, thanks to rampant encroachment. According to estimates, they have shrunk by 50 percent in the last decade alone.
Vibhu Prakash of the BNHS, along with a team from the Punjab Wildlife Preservation and Forests Department under Jitendra Sharma, conducted field studies at the Keshavpur, Shalla Pattan, Nangal and Dalla wetlands in Gurdaspur, Ropar and Hoshiarpur districts. The team found that these wetlands were vital halts for birds coming from the far north and as well as for those returning from the south.
Prakash said the wetlands were important, as there was scope for effective conservation measres here, unlike in similar areas in Jammu & Kashmir. The wetlands could also be of immense value in studying and tackling bird flu. “If there is a problem of bird flu in India, then the first signs will be seen in Punjab’s wetlands,’’ he said.
With its abundance of water bodies and marshes, Punjab has been recognised on the world wetlands map with three of its major sites — Harike, Ropar and Kanjili — listed under The Ramsar Convention, the international treaty on wetlands. Both Prakash and state Chief Wildlife Warden Kuldeep Singh feel that Nangal can also be brought under the Ramsar Convention. “Nangal has tremendous potential with its diversity of species, easy viewing and shallow waters which are rich in the wader birds. It could develop into an eco-tourism spot. One just needs to set up some bird watching hides to realise its potential,’’ Prakash said. Singh said the moves to declare Nangal a sanctuary were on and should bear results soon. Meanwhile Punjab’s wetlands at Harike is being affected by the polluted Sutlej waters. As result, experts say, some migratory birds are giving Harike a miss. Among BNHS’ significant finds last winter were the Sarus crane in Keshavpur and an assorted number of raptors (birds of prey) which are declining in numbers globally. The Sarus is on the list of critically endangered species and had in fact been declared extinct in Punjab by the Wildlife Institute of India. It was re-discovered on the Himachal Pradesh-Punjab border at the Swan river wetlands last year by the NGO Jagriti. The BNHS survey also found around 300 Common Cranes, which is considered a healthy number.
“Amongst the raptors we saw were the Imperial Eagle and the Greater Spotted Eagle, both declared globally-endangered. Both the Sarus crane and the raptors are indicator species for the health of wetlands,’’ Prakash said. The BNHS has identified agrarian encroachment and the use of pesticides as the biggest threats to the wetlands. Prakash does not rule out poisoning through pesticides by poachers as another serious threat. Sukhdeep Singh Bajwa, Gurdaspur’s honorary wildlife warden, has conducted extensive operations to nab poachers. He also feels that bird poisoning by poachers has been going on in Punjab on a large scale.

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