As gunshots crack into the air at the fall of dusk in the Hokersar wetland, a young man of Zainakote village bumps into two other local youth who are strolling on the eastern shore of the bird sanctuary.
The encounter is going on at Hokersar, he tells them nonchalantly with a wry smile on his face as he refers to the gunshots that ring out repeatedly inside the Hokersar bird sanctuary where hunters are busy pulling triggers to hunt down birds.
The young mans likening of bird-hunting with an [armed] encounter is understandable in a place like Kashmir where gun-fights or encounters between militants and government forces are a norm. For him, the blatant difference between hunting and encounters hardly matters — [armed] encounter needs two parties to exchange gun-fire.
Encounter is probably one of the repeatedly used and talked about words in Kashmir as the locals often witness and wake up to the news of armed encounters considering the armed conflict in the region simmering for years.
Hokersar Wetland, a Ramsar site overlooked by Pir Panjal hills, is located 12km west of Srinagar city and is surrounded by over half a dozen villages including Zainakote and Haji Bagh. Known as the queen of Himalayan wetlands and paradise of myriad migratory and residential bird species, the wetland hosts a number of waterfowl species which include Graylag goose, Mallard, Pochard, Eurasian coot, Gadwall etc. believed to come from Siberia, China, Japan and Central Asia.
After I heard the young man making the quick comment, I decided to walk to the inner edge of the wetland where a large watch-tower made of wood and concrete with balconies is located. As soon as I got there, I found a bunch of villagers squatting on the balcony trying to figure out and then narrating to one another where the hunters are hiding. They were also doing running commentary on the gunshots whether they hit the target or not.
We can tell the difference between a successful shot and a failed attempt by listening to the sound of gunshot carefully, one of the villagers with a long flowing beard said. But this is unfair. They should not do this. And the government should also not allow to do this. If there is a ban on hunting, how come these people do this? The birds come here from far off places; these poor creatures are our guests, said the bearded man identifying himself as Maqbool.
While I was talking to these villagers (spectators), two men on a boat could be seen emerging from the cover of dried vegetation and navigating hurriedly inside the wetland. Look, it seems one of them has shot down a bird. He is now slaughtering it, one of the spectators exclaimed.
The villagers told this writer that they hear gunshots almost every day as poachers often hunt down birds across the wetland claiming lives of thousands of birds.
Mostly they hunt near the margins of the wetland, but sometimes, like today, they come deep inside the lake and shoot down birds wherever they wish, the villagers said.
They bribe the wildlife department officials. We have heard such stories. Otherwise, how is it possible that the hunters dare to hunt down birds just meters away from the office of wildlife department officials, they alleged.
Sometime back, a professional hunter told this writer on the condition of anonymity that hundreds of hunters operate in the area on rotational basis. We pool money and bribe the watch and ward staff of wildlife. Each of us contributes upto 1000 rupees for bribing the staff. Nobody stops us after we make them happy, he said. Poaching of wildlife is banned in Jammu & Kashmir.
According to him, while some hunters kill birds for sport, most of the birds which are poached, are sold clandestinely (and openly as well) in some markets for prices ranging from 700 to over 1000 rupees. Going by his estimate, more than 20,000 birds are killed in Hokarsar wetland alone, each year.
Shallabugh Wetland, a stunning wetland overlooked by Harmukh and Pir Panjal hills, lies some 35km north-west of Srinagar in Ganderbal district. This wetland, which is among the satellite wetlands of Kashmir where an average half a million birds migrate every winter, is again a favorite haunt of hunters. However, the wildlife department, had stopped the water supply to the wetland on purpose in order to avoid massive hunting in that wetland. Official sources confirmed it to this writer adding that the department is taking different measures to stop poaching of birds.
A villager of Shallabugh said on the condition of anonymity that almost 80 percent of villagers in Shallabugh (which has a population of over 2,500) possess hunting rifles and most of them are habitual hunters. Thousands of birds are killed in Shallabugh every year. Hunters from surrounding villages also come for hunting, he said.
Kashmirs Regional Wildlife Warden, Rashid Naqash, when asked about hunting of birds in Hokersar, said that he would inquire from the wildlife staff monitoring the wetland. He denied the allegation that members of the staff are bribed in lieu of their leniency.
When hunting disrupts study of birds
In Kashmir, different figures are given by wildlife officials about the winged visitors to valleys wetlands from other regions of the world almost every year. But there is not any detailed study about the migration pattern of birds which visit Kashmir annually and go to other locations as well.
Mustahsan Fazili, a Zoologist who teaches at Kashmir University, told this writer that there is no authentic information available about the migration pattern of migratory birds which come to Kashmir. It is a matter of serious research to study the bird migration especially from different parts of the world. It needs time, resources and technology to study bird migration, Fazili said.
In the winter of 2017, Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST) initiated an important research project for studying the migration pattern of birds which visit the wetlands of Kashmir every winter. According to the principal investigator of the project, Khursheed Ahmad, it is a pioneering study aimed mainly at assessment of movement patterns of 12 migratory waterfowl species — especially ducks, geese and swans.
Ahmad and his team began the study in January 2017 by ringing 200 birds and followed it up in February 2018 with tagging five birds with satellite transmitters or PTT (Platform Transmitter Terminal). The birds, which were ringed and tagged with PTT included mallard, shoveler, grey legged geese, gadwall and common tail.
However, Ahmad and his team stopped receiving signals from birds fitted with PTT within months. He and his colleagues apprehend that the birds have been poached considering the rampant poaching of birds in the region.
One species (gadwall) survived for a few months and the signals we received gave us the information that this bird travelled to all the wetlands in our region. Mallar and other three birds survived for a few weeks only, Ahmad said.
He added that we have to apply for more funds for getting more PTTs as each unit costs upto half a million rupees.
We are studying the migratory routes and the geographical spread of the migratory waterfowl that visit Kashmir during winters and timings of their to and fro migration, Ahmad told this writer.
Our goals, Ahmad said, include identifying home range size and movements of waterfowl between satellite wetlands of Kashmir in different time hours during winters and the habitat use of breeding and non-breeding species in different seasons. Another important goal was to identify threats to the waterfowl and their habitats and information on the outbreak of avian influenza, the scientist said.
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