Pakistan’s warm waters are expected to host a higher number of migratory birds this year, following record-breaking rains that have filled the country’s otherwise polluted lakes with fresh water.
Copious rains, apart from causing widespread infrastructure and crop damage across the country, have replenished several lakes, mainly in south and southwestern Pakistan, which host hundreds of thousands of winged guests in the winter.
To avoid the stinging winter of Siberia, millions of birds travel large distances every year to warmer waters in India and Pakistan.
However, their numbers have gradually reduced over the past couple of decades, largely due to shrinking wetlands, polluted waters, and indiscriminate hunting.
“The number of migratory birds will be comparatively higher this winter since there is more surface water available,” Mohammad Moazzam Khan, technical adviser to the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) Pakistan, told Anadolu Agency.
“More rains mean fresh water, expansion in lakes and impounds’ radius, and, subsequently, more vegetation and fish, which are the key requirements of the migratory birds.”
The recent rains, he explained, had helped fulfill the needs of fish-eating birds such as pelicans and egrets, as well as those reliant on plants and insects, such as ducks and waders.
Mahrban Brohi, a zoologist at the Climate Change Ministry’s Zoological Survey Department, shared a similar view.
“This year’s massive rains have increased the number of wetlands across the country, especially in [the provinces of] Sindh and Balochistan, which means that a higher number of [migratory] birds will stay here, instead of flying on to India,” he told Anadolu Agency.
He said climate change effects, particularly low rains over the past several years, had gradually shrunk the number of wetlands and the radius of shallow waters in lakes, resulting in less vegetation and forcing the birds to fly towards Indian waters.
Fright and flight
According to a recent ecological survey by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, there has been a 20% to 30% reduction in the number of migratory birds coming to Pakistan in recent years.
Brohi, however, put the figure between 15% and 20%.
Sitting on the bank of Manchar Lake, once a favored destination for the winged guests, Mohammad Yousaf Mallah, a local fisherman, recalled a time when the lake’s shallow waters would be teeming with migratory birds in the winter.
Located west of the mighty Indus River in Sindh’s southern districts of Dadu and Jamshoro and spread over 250 square kilometers (96.5 square miles), Manchar is also one of Asia’s largest freshwater lakes.
With an average depth between 2.5 to 3.75 meters, the lake can expand to 500 square kilometers (193 square miles) during the peak monsoon season.
However, it has become a dumping ground for industrial waste generated in upper parts of Sindh and a few areas of the southwestern Balochistan province, putting the lives of those who depend on its water at risk.
“Gone are the days when the shallow waters and banks of the lake used to be littered with all kinds of migratory birds,” Mallah told Anadolu Agency.
Until a decade ago, he added, dozens of migratory bird species were found in and around the lake during the winter, with the number now down to six or seven.
Mallah, however, sees this year’s monsoon downpour as a glimmer of hope. “Clean water means more fish, more grass, and ultimately more birds,” he said.
Echoing Mallah’s words, Khan, the WWF official, said other lakes and small water bodies in Sindh and Balochistan were also filled with cleaner water, which would certainly attract more migratory birds this year.
Every year, over 1 million birds migrate from Siberia, covering a grueling distance of 4,500 kilometers (2,800 miles) in search of warmer waters.
Although their ultimate destination is in India, they make stopovers at various lakes and water reservoirs in Pakistan, mainly in Sindh and Balochistan.
These birds include houbara bustards, cranes, teals, pintails, mallards, geese, spoonbills, waders, and pelicans.
Arab royals frequently visit Pakistan at the invitation of local politicians and government officials to hunt these birds, despite opposition from environmentalists and locals.
The sprawling deserts of Thar and Cholistan are a favorite hunting ground for Arab dignitaries, with some locals viewing their trips as a means of creating jobs and improving local infrastructure.
The unchecked hunting, however, has endangered several rare species, mainly the houbara bustard, which is a prized target for Arab royals.
The central government, which sees the practice of hosting royals for these hunts as a “cornerstone” of its Middle East policy, has recently issued fresh permits to several members of the royal families of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and other states.
At least two provincial governments – Sindh and the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province – have repeatedly opposed the practice.
They say the hunting sprees disturb local wildlife and also pose threats to several migratory birds, especially the already endangered houbara bustard.
The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf of Prime Minister Imran Khan had opposed this “bird diplomacy” when it was in the opposition, but has given the greenlight for issuance of hunting permits since coming to power in 2018.
According to some accounts, the hunters consider the meat of the houbara bustard, a chicken-sized bird, to be an aphrodisiac.
The houbara species found in Pakistan is officially known as MacQueen’s bustard or Asian bustard.
Trained falcons are used to hunt the endangered bird, which is found in southern, southwestern, and northeastern Pakistan.
The exact number of houbara bustards in Pakistan remains unknown.
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