While Kashmir continues to await tourists, some avian guests have arrived. The gaggle of Greylag geese almost crash-landing on the water at Hokersar wetland on the outskirts of Srinagar can be heard even before the birds are seen. A 500-metre shikara ride deeper inside the wetland reveals a swathe of the marsh extravagantly dotted with over three lakh migratory birds.
Beginning end-September, as winter approaches in the northern hemisphere, a number of species of birds start arriving in Hokersar from Siberia, Central Asia and northern Europe — among them, the Brahminy duck, gadwall, garganey, mallard, common merganser, northern pintail, common pochard, ferruginous pochard, red-crested pochard, northern shoveller, common teal, and Eurasian wigeon. The 13.75-sq km Hokersar is the largest of Kashmir’s nine wetlands, and hosts approximately seven lakh birds every year, the biggest share of these winter visitors to the Valley.
Hokersar is also a site notified under the Ramsar Convention of 1971, an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for “national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources”. In 2016, 37 species of birds were spotted in Hokersar, 25 of which were migratory, and 12 were resident.
But there are no birdwatchers at Hokersar. Ghulam Mohiuddin, the Helper, says the wetland attracts no tourists despite being barely 10 km from Srinagar. “The birds eat insects and roots of aquatic plants, and there is an abundance supply of both,” he says.
And how does he know the number of birds on the marsh at any given time? Mohiuddin points to Sher Ali, one of the 10 “counters” who assist him. “Each of us has a designated area. We take that space and count the birds there, and then extrapolate that figure to reach an approximation of the total number of birds here,” says Sher Ali.
Wildlife Warden (Wetlands) Abdul Rauf Zargar told The Sunday Express that the devastating floods of 2014 brought a lot of silt into Hokersar, and raised the water level over the entire wetland. “It was a major challenge,” he said. “We try and maintain an optimum water level of 2.5 feet to 3 feet throughout the year. The Doodh Ganga channel that feeds the wetland also brings with it a lot of silt.”
Also, a jungle of weeds threatens to clog the waterways, and encroachment and poaching are rampant. Some 15 incidents of poaching are reported every year on average, Zargar said. “But we confiscate all the gear used by poachers, including their guns and boats, so that they cannot make their way back easily,” he added. The fact that the wetland is not secured on all sides makes it easy for encroachers.
Professor Shakil Romshoo, Head of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Kashmir, said Hokersar is one of the scores of big and small wetlands along both banks of the Jhelum that were affected by the 2014 flooding. “They can be restored, but the desilting has to be conducted in an environment-friendly manner. These wetlands have tremendous hydrological importance, and one cannot simply begin dredging unscientifically as has been done with the Jhelum,” Prof Romshoo said. “More than funds, political will is needed to address the damage to the wetlands of the Valley, and a study is essential before any restoration is begun.”
Meanwhile, the birds continue to flutter and circle above the marsh at Hokersar before settling down in the water or on patches of land. The Valley’s wetlands will continue to receive these visitors until at least the end of March. “By May, it starts looking quite empty,” says Mohiuddin.