Nearly a fortnight ago, a tipoff about a rare cross-border aerial activity alerted all and sundry in Kashmir. The chase that ensued ended up on a familiar note.
The news first came in flutters. It seemed as if some vigilante had a sensational scoop for his bosses cooling their heels in frigid sanctuaries of the valley. The ‘birds of same feather’ had managed to sneak into the eyed-skies of Kashmir.
In military lexicon, the guest birds were actually the “avian intruders”—akin to that spy pigeon of Pakistan whose capture drove the belligerent broadcast for days together.
But the arrival of the four Bewick swans aka Tundra Swans, in the wetlands of Kashmir was a rare sight. And on a cold morning of November 20, when the wildlife officials in the valley learned about the feathered guests, their first reaction was of surprise and shock.
“And rightly so,” says Intesar Suhail, “because there’s no published evidence of Bewick swans in the history of Kashmir.”
Like others in his tribe, Suhail, Wildlife Warden Shopian and avid bird watcher, wondered about the flying foursome’s route.
But then, the hunters of Kashmir—known for their covert bump-off operations—soon reduced the pack of four to two.
“And for a while,” Suhail recounts, “our amazement became a searing agony. How they end up falling in the clutches of bird hunters is still haunting us.”
In the meantime, the wildlife watchers kept tracking the movement of the other birds—an increasingly rare winter visitor from Siberia and Russia.
Amid all this, inside Shopian’s glacial park, Suhail could tell how these swans were vagrants from Pakistan.
A bird becomes a vagrant if it strays or has been blown from its usual range or migratory route.
“It shows that this area is not their wintering limit,” Suhail informs. “It’s up to Iran in Central Asia. Their summer grounds are in Russia and Siberia and in winter, they come to some warmer climates of the UK, Europe and Iran.”
But this winter, the unusual did happen.
A flock of Bewick swans migrated to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region in Pakistan.
It was on November 18, when reports first surfaced that some birds were shot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including Bewick swans.
“It’s presumed that the birds of the same flock might have flown to Kashmir because of severe winters in Siberia and Russia,” a wildlife official informs.
After arriving in the valley, the avian guests fared on the radars of trigger-happy hunters—who still kill with impunity. It was on November 20, when they were shot dead around the Hygam and Wular area.
“There were reports that they were four in number,” the official details. “Two of them were here, and the remaining two flew away.”
Immediately, the officials of the wetland division were alerted and went to scan all the wetlands to prevent the remaining two from the prying eyes of poachers.
On November 21, a team left for Wular early in the morning, and traveled to Hygam, Mirgund, Hokersar, and even Dal Lake, but couldn’t find it.
The next exploration trip took the wildlife sleuths to saffron town Pampore’s deep water wetland called Chatlam. There was a high probability that the rare twain might be there.
“But all in vain,” a wildlife official part of the investigating team says. “The team was left disappointed and feared for the lives of the swans.”
However, in the afternoon that day, a message got to the team that somebody has seen some kind of white large bird in a wetland.
“We rushed there and had to wait for a long time till we heard a soft bugling call,” the official recalls. “Two beautiful Bewick swans with oval features, rounded yellow patches on either side of their bill emerged from the deep blue waters, and presented a breathtaking sight.”
The sight ended what looked like one of the most surprisingly shocking avian arrivals in the valley.
Around 20,000 such swans migrate to the United Kingdom every year. But in this part of the world, warden Suhail reiterates, it’s a rare bird, much sought after by bird watchers.
If it stays here, there will be people from India coming to see this bird, he reckons.
“Hardly few people from Indian subcontinent and Pakistan have seen it. It’s a lifetime opportunity for the birders,” he says.
As of now, informs Rashid Naqash, the wildlife department is making sure that the two remaining swans don’t move to the unprotected areas where they were poached earlier.
“The department has already sought an explanation from the staff where the poaching happened, and why they couldn’t reach there on time,” Naqash, Kashmir’s regional wildlife warden, says.
“We will soon find the people involved and lodge a formal complaint against them.”
Any person who ventures to hunt, poach, capture the migratory birds is liable to a jail term of one year along with the fine upto 10,000 rupees, an official communiqué of wildlife department reads.
“Hunting, poaching, capturing or sale of these birds are non-bailable and non-compoundable offences,” it adds.
“But,” guffaws a wildlife official, “these avian guests met their armed brethren’s fate in a highly surveillance zone of the world. Half of them were hunted on arrival, and the remaining two are on the watch. Such, I guess, is life for them in the valley.”