Recently, viral pictures of blood stained whooper Swans generated hue and cry among netizens and nature lovers who were angry that after flying thousands of kilometres from their natural habitats, the birds arrived in Kashmir, only to be shot.
Killed on the very first day of arrival, a new species to visit Kashmir, among the many winged visitors, the whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus) met a tragic end at the hands of the poachers in the wetlands of Kashmir.
Four members from the prized species had landed in the valley after a very long period. But two of them got killed on the very first day, leaving behind only two members of the guest birds.
“It is very unfortunate that the rare species of migratory birds, the white coloured large swans were killed in this way in Kashmir’s wetlands,” laments Rouf Ahmad, a bird lover and a nature photographer from Srinagar.
According to Dr Khursheed Ahmad, Scientist and Head Wild Life Division, Sheri Kashmir University of Agricultural Science and Technology, Shalimar, whooper Swans have flown to Kashmir for the first time in the last 100 years.
These species are not found in any part of the Indian subcontinent.
It is encouraging that the new species have started in arrive to our wetlands, but unfortunately they fall easy prey to the poachers, Dr Khursheed adds.
Large number of birds are killed by poachers and sold in markets across north Kashmir, especially around the areas hosting the wetlands.
The poachers use special hunting guns, the air rifle, that shower metal pellets across a given area, killing many birds with one shot. A cousin variant of the gun is used on humans in Kashmir.
Despite the ban on these guns, in addition to the government ban on poaching of these birds, the butchery goes unabated in and around the wetlands of Kashmir.
Occasional loud bangs in late evenings and the early mornings in deeper belts of the paddy fields are a norm for the people living in Rambergrah and Mirgund, the villages marking the boundary between the capital city of Srinagar and Baramulla in north Kashmir.
“Since these areas are close to Hokersar wetlands, many birds visit these paddy fields for food and get killed by poachers,” says Ghulam Ahmad, a resident of Rambergarh Srinagar.
“I have been used to these sounds now. Any such sound indicates the poaching of birds. This is common knowledge here,” says Basit Ali, a college going student from Mirgund area.
Apart from the more sophisticated pellet showering guns, the air rifles, the usual bore guns are also used during the dark hours, preferably in late evenings and early mornings.
People also use traditional traps and other frightening techniques to catch the winged visitors.
Spread over many square meters, with visible number of paddy and maize grains spread over its surface, a net trap is being laid by a young man in his thirties is all fit to catch the winged guests.
“The birds are attracted to the spot for food, and get entangled in the network of threads as soon as they land on the soil coloured net,” explains the young man, who claims to trap these birds occasionally for meat.
Admitting the fact that the poaching of winged visitors goes unabated, Dr Khursheed says that most of the poaching takes place outside the protected areas of wetlands, as the birds fly towards paddy fields and other cropping lands because of easy availability of food.
Many birds from Hokersar wetland, the largest in Kashmir, fly to Wular Lake and its adjacent areas for food during dark hours.
It is during these flights outside the protected areas that they get easily killed, as the poachers find it easy to shoot them outside protected areas, add Dr Khursheed.
No Regret Markets
“Not a penny less than five hundred. You don’t know, how hard it is to spend the whole dusk in severe cold, only to catch this prey for you people,” says a visibly agitated pheran clad young man to a customer, while trying to sell his hunt at the market of Sumbal town in north Kashmir.
Going by the extent of efforts and the hostile environment, these bucks are nothing, adds the man, while making a deal with a customer, “Rupees Five Hundred for the Koler bird.”
Many people poach these creatures for sport and money.
“I do not poach any bird myself, I am only a seller, this is my livelihood,” claims a young man selling the killed birds in an open market in north Kashmir.
“The poachers bring their catch to the market early in the morning. I buy these birds from them against handsome amounts,” the bird vendor adds.
“There is a good market for these birds,” discloses another vendor selling the hunted birds.
There are dedicated customers who like their meat.
“I have some customers even from parts of south and central Kashmir, who travel scores of kilometres to buy this prized catch,” says the vendor at Sumbal market.
“I have been coming to this place for the last 10 years during winter months to buy the water fowl,” admits Mushtaq Ahmad, a trader from downtown Srinagar, who has bought two birds for Rs 850.
Like Mushtaq there are scores of people who buy these fowls from the open markets.
Every year, a large number of birds, mostly water fowls like ducks, geese and swans take long flights to Kashmir from other parts of the world around the month of October and return back to their respective habitats by the end of March.
It is believed that almost three lakh visitor birds migrate to Kashmir during winters from comparatively colder places like Siberia, parts of China and Japan.
The annual migration of the birds is witnessed in the wetlands of Hokersar in Srinagar, Hygam in Baramulla, Shallabugh in Ganderabal, Wullar Lake in Bandipore and Dal Lake in Sriangar, hosting thousands of these guests for months together.
The annual migration is always a treat to witness for any nature enthusiast, in particular the bird lovers. Feeding on naturally available food present in the form of insects, worms and fish, the migratory birds can be seen hovering over these water bodies creating patterns.
These birds also feed on the food kept for them by the wildlife department.
“At times, we also put maize and paddy seeds at different spots around the wetland, as they love to eat these cereals,” says an employee posted at Hokersar reserve.
“The birds are a prize to watch. Watching thousands of birds gliding up and landing down is always a momentous sight. I often take my nine-year-old son Ali and six-year-old Zainab to witness the gala flocks of visitor birds around the wetland,” Ali Mohammad, a resident of Gund Hassibhat, an adjoining village of Hokersar says. The Hokersar wetland is situated only eight kilometres in the north west of Srinagar.
SKAUST Kashmir in the year 2017 took an important initiative to study the migration patterns of these birds in the wetlands of Kashmir.
According to the Principal Investigator Dr Khursheed Ahmad, the study aims at exploring the migratory routes, geographical span, breeding and migration timings, which would prove helpful for overall welfare and the protection of these creatures.
Apart from fitting the birds with metallic rings, the team uses PTT (Platform Transform Terminal), a satellite based tracking device fitted on the bird to track its movements.
“It is brazen that we lost track of many such birds fitted with PTT within a few weeks, as the device either stopped sending any signal or the signal received went stagnant, suggesting the death of the bird,” says Dr Khursheed.
If the signal is stagnant, it can be assumed that the bird has suffered a natural death but if the signal goes off altogether, there is every likelihood that the bird has been poached.
“Our team met with the cases where poachers had damaged the PTT devices after catching or killing the bird.”
“In addition to other motives, the technology can be used for the protection of the birds too, but the cost of each PTT unit is too high,” Dr Khursheed says.
Amidst the looming threat and lack of policy and funds, in this part of the world where mass graves are a reality, these birds pass off winters with thier lives at risk.
Although these migrations are a means to ensure survival, it is this migration to the most militarised zone in the world, where many of them find their lives cut short.