The Last Sigh of a Marsh | Jammu’s Gharana: A dying wetland

Environment

Gharana, a dying wetland, is located merely 500 m from the international border between India and Pakistan, the 200 acres of the Wetland situated in Jammu province (boundaries yet to be demarcated) harbours around 50 species of wintering waterbirds. Gharana is partially covered with various water plants — water hyacinth Eichhornia crassipes, Hydrilla spp. and Typha spp. Despite being designated as a ‘Conservation Reserve’ a decade ago by the Government of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and also declared as an ‘Important Bird Area (IBA)’ by international organisations, the neglected, dying wetland is still struggling for legal status (The Times of India 2018).
The left side of the wetland is bounded by a village, Gharana (hence the name) while on the right are agricultural fields. Negative interactions between the villagers and the waterbirds are inevitable. During winters, this wetland is cackling with wintering waterbirds that even attempt to settle into the surrounding agricultural fields. The locals treat them as pests, owing to particularly one species, the Bar-headed Goose (Anser indicus). According to the villagers geese raid the crops and to combat it the locals have taken to bursting loud fire-crackers to scare them away whenever they try to settle near the agricultural lands. Signage at the entrance of the dying wetland being put up by the Department of Wildlife, Jammu and Kashmir.

I visited the wetland for the first time in 2015. Prior to that I merely located it on Google Earth, majorly to get data on the satellite transmitter tagged birds. This telemetry exercise was carried out in 2012, even before I came to the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) as a collaborative effort of the Department of Wildlife Protection, J&K and WII. It was aimed to track the migration of wintering Bar-headed geese in Gharana. Two of these birds were tagged by the team of scientists from WII led by Dr S A Hussain (a leading expert on wetlands) along with reserve managers and one of the finest bird trappers of the country, Ali Hussain. Birds were tracked till July-August 2012 in Pakistan but after that there was no further information. We were thus left with many unanswered questions about their migration route. Nevertheless, the geese use territories of both the countries and indicate the requirement of trans-boundary management (Mahar et al. 2015).
Despite witnessing the dying wetland’s wealth of waterbirds, most abundantly the common teal and Northern shovelers, the impact of bursting of fire-crackers and encroachment around wetland is grave. Drainage of domestic, livestock and agricultural waste as well as the growing of crops within the wetland have worsened the situation.
A stop off of a few days at the place made it amply clear. The dying wetland’s area, which was demarcated as a ‘reserve area’ comes under revenue land hence it was treated as village property by locals, known as ‘Shamlat’. Thus, management and conservation activities lead to conflicts between managers and the local community further affecting the wetland. Despite the Department of Wildlife Protection, J&K, bringing this issue to the apex level several times, the lack of political will and a negative attitude of the locals led to the Gharana, the dying wetland vanishing into thin air. Drainage of domestic, livestock and agricultural waste and encroachment of cropland in the already shrinking, dying wetland are making the situation worse.

There are countless problems, but is there any hope? I recall a saying of George B Schaller “I am a conservationist and cannot afford to lose hope”. Same mantra has to be there. During my field visit I met a resident of the Gharana village, a young man, Devraj. He was working as a ‘watcher’ with the wildlife department in the wetland and was truly intrigued by birds.

Though his knowledge about birds needed upscaling, but his ability to identify species even without binoculars was unparalleled. He was my ray of hope. Channelised adequately, he could potentially be one of the flag bearers of the conservation of Gharana for the upcoming generations in the village which can turn it from a dying wetland to a thriving ecosystem.
The need of the hour is to sensitise the public; authorities need to talk to villagers and also need to pay heed to their concerns, clear their doubts and provide satisfactory solutions to them. Further, making people aware of the provisional values of the wetland like social, ecological and mainly economic needs may work wonders. This can be achieved through electronic media, educational tours, compensation schemes and confidence building.

The Gharana Wetland situated in Jammu province with an area of 200 acres harbors around 50 species of wintering waterbirds, most abundantly the Common Teal and Northern Shovelers. Pictured here is a flock of ruffs mid flight.

Undoubtedly, multi stakeholder participation is required for this endeavour. Therefore, governmental organisations, non-government organisations and individual participations by conservationists, activists, bird watchers and visitors will play a vital role in convincing the locals that conservation of this dying wetland is important. The buffer and additional area for the wetland (at least area under marsh) would be required to safeguard the habitat and waterbirds. There can be a win-win situation for all, with locals gaining employment opportunities through eco-tourism and symbiotically winter birds will gain back their safe refuge at Gharana and it hopefully won’t be remembered as the dying wetland.

References
The Times of India. 2018. Around 5,000 Migratory Birds Flock in Gharana Wetland in Jammu. December 10. Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/jammu/around-5000-migratory-birds-flock-in-gharana-wetland-in-jammu/articleshow/67021451.cms

Mahar N., B. Habib, T. Shawl, G. V. Gopi and I. Suhail. 2015. Tracking The Movement Pattern of Bar-Headed Goose Anser indicus Captured from The Gharana Conservation Reserve, India, Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (JBNHS), 112(1): 14-22. Available at: http://www.bnhsjournal.org/index.php/bnhs/article/view/92194

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