Dr Asad Rahmani is an ornithologist and conservationist who was also the former Director of Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). He is currently the scientific adviser to The Corbett Foundation, and governing council member of Wetlands International, South Asia. He was member of several committees of Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) for about two decades and was Global Council member of BirdLife International, UK. Having authored about two dozen books and over 150 peer-reviewed research papers in scientific journals, Dr. Rahmani has also guided scores of scholars of biological sciences. He is deeply interested in grassland and wetland birds and often highlights the plight of bird species and bird habitats. The only mission this scientist comes to Kashmir with is to enquire about health of bird habitats given their significance for migratory and resident bird species.
In an interview with Kashmir Observer’s Parvaiz Bhat, Dr. Rahmani spoke about his frequent visits to Kashmir’s wetlands and his impressions about Kashmir and challenges facing conservation of bird habitats in Kashmir.
Q. Tell us about your connection with Kashmir. Since when you started coming to Kashmir and what was your first impression about the place and its people? Has that impression changed over the years?
I had heard about the beauty of Kashmir since my childhood but came to Kashmir in the late 1990s for a short time, and later in 2005 with my two students for a longer period when we went around the Valley and also some protected areas. From Srinagar, we drove to Ladakh.
Kashmiris are very friendly and hospitable people, despite the problems that they are facing since late 1980s. The education system in Kashmir is much better than many states, therefore, Kashmiris are educated and articulate.
Q. When you compare the environment and wildlife conservation in Kashmir with other parts of India, do you find any major difference?
Wildlife and wild areas are under threat all over the country. So, Kashmir is no exception. J&K is perhaps the only state that has a separate Department of Wildlife Conservation. Kashmir has fabulous wetlands in the Valley but they are generally neglected. Like other states, in J&K also, attention is given only to a few protected areas, for example Dachigam, while other sanctuaries are neglected. There are many good sanctuaries in the state but lack sufficient staff, facilities, approach roads, and protection. Most of the visitors do not even know the names of these Protected Areas.
Q. Every time you come to Kashmir, it is only for ecological reasons — mainly for visiting wetlands. Which other aspects of Kashmir’s ecology attract you the most?
You are right. I visit places to study their conditions and then contact decision makers. I love birds but I am not a birdwatcher in its true sense. I am basically a conservationist, interested in protection and nature education. I encourage people to become conservationists, not just birdwatchers. People should speak to authorities on behalf of birds (and wildlife in general). If we do not speak, then who will speak? If not now, then when?
I want local people, experts, concerned citizens, and scientists to come together to work for conservation. The Kashmir Valley needs a strong civil society movement for conservation, like in many other Indian states.
Q. You have taken personal interest in highlighting the problems facing Kashmir’s wetlands. This includes writing to the Jammu & Kashmir administration about those problems and their solutions. What kind of response do you get from the government?
I do not get a response from authorities but I am told they take notice of my letters and articles, which is fine with me. I do not need a facile acknowledgement, but strong actions on the ground.
Recently, I was instrumental in bringing out a special issue of Buceros, a publication of the ENVIS Centre of the Bombay Natural History Society, on the Wetlands of Jammu and Kashmir. I sent copies of this publication to nearly 50 people in the state. Now it is for the authorities to take action. Poaching is a big problem in the Valley that needs to be tackled immediately. The Department of Wildlife has very fine officers and staff – they need government full support, resources and human-power. The authorities should immediately cancel all gun licences, instead give pistols for so-called “personal safety”. Why a person needs a gun? Extra-vigilance should be increased during winter when most of the poaching takes place. More staff should be recruited, and volunteers should be appointed who could become ‘eyes and ears’ of the Wildlife Department to stop poaching.
The birds, particularly wildfowls (ducks and geese) are shy, clearly indicating they are afraid of human beings. I have never seen so shy ducks anywhere in India. In good protected areas, one can approach ducks 50-60 m but in Kashmir, they fly away from 200 to 300 m. It is only because of extensive poaching. Even I have heard gun shots in late evening in Shallabugh and Haigam.
The Wildlife staff should be taken to Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur, or Lakh Bahosi Sanctuary in UP, or Nalsarovar in Gujarat to see how birds behave when they are protected.
Q. You have written several journal articles and books about the birds of India. Could you please tell us how birds and their habitats are crucial for local ecology, economy and culture?
I am not sufficiently qualified to talk about birds with particular reference to Kashmiri culture. I have not written many research papers on the birds of Kashmir though I have guided some students to work on birds. I have written two books, co-authored by many Kashmiri students:
Threatened Birds of Jammu and Kashmir
Important Bird Areas of Jammu and Kashmir
Both these books were published by BNHS, RSPB and BirdLife International, and distributed by Oxford University Press. If I write about the importance of birds in our life, it will be like a text-book. In a nutshell: Birds are an integral part of our culture and literature. Birds play an important role in eating insects, help in pollination, and seed dispersal. Birds are a heritage of our country. Bird watching is a multi-billion industry and occupation as birds attract thousands of tourists, helping the local economy. Bird habitats help in water regime (wetlands), climate mitigation (forests, wetlands, and grasslands) and pollution control.
Q. In recent years, a lot of young people in Kashmir have started taking interest in bird watching and environmental conservation. How do you see that?
Bird-watching is all fine but all birdwatchers should become conservationists, spokespersons for wildlife. Merely taking pictures and sharing in social media is not going to save birds and their habitats. Do something on the ground. Become a pressure group, work with the Department (not for the Department), report to them if you see any wrongdoing. Do not remain silent when you see drainage of Hokarsar (as it happened two years ago). Do not remain silent when you see poaching. The Department of Wildlife needs your support to stop poaching. Help in environmental awareness.
Taking pictures of birds and sharing in social media is not enough – it does not save them.
Q. In one of your articles, you had profiled Musa Khan of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan who you call “birding star of Desert National Park.” Khan has probably not received formal education and yet he knows names of over 200 birds and their ecological behavior. Have you come across any such bird enthusiast in Kashmir?
Yes, Musa Khan of Jaisalmer has come up well, and now he has a flourishing bird tourism business. He is the most sought-after bird guide of Jaisalmer.
In Kashmir, Dachigam to be precise, Nazir Malik was a fine forest staff and birdman, but after his retirement there is no good replacement, as far as I know. But now we have many youngsters like Mudassir Manzoor, Sheikh Haris, and Reyan Sofi who are good birdwatchers. They need national and international exposure to develop bird tourism as a profession.
In the last 20 years, I have conducted many training-workshop to develop bird guides in Kashmir, even distributed hundreds of bird books in Urdu, but unfortunately, there was no follow-up by the authorities. I am willing to conduct bird tourism training even now but people and authorities should follow it up.
The Kashmir Valley has a great potential for bird tourism, but first we have to get out of Dachigam-Hangul syndrome and look beyond. There is a whole world of birds waiting to be appreciated.
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