Vanishing songs of Native Birds: Challenges to Biodiversity in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Recently, Asif Mohmand went on in search of the vanishing voices of the native birds. He then tried to explore a connection of these vanishing voices with the growing threats and vulnerabilities resulting from the Climate Change and that how these are being responded to by the relevant authorities and prevailing development discourse on ground.
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Bashir Khan, 50, standing at the corner of his field of wheat crop, narrates the story of the vanishing voices of balbala (Molapestes Cafer***), tootkhwaraka, toranaka (Turdus Merula), chaty (Troglodytidae), zyaraka (Oriolus) and kurkuray (Streptopelia bengalensis). Five Kilometers away from the main city of Mardan, Bashir Khan is a farmer in the Union Council Babinai where his family is engaged in agriculture since his forefathers times. He claims that twenty five years ago from now, the voices of all these birds were there, and until they were there, the farmers in the area were also prosperous. These birds were the protectors of their crops, guarding them from the harmful pests and insects. Today, along with Bashir Khan, almost all of the farmers in the area are using agricultural pesticides. “It has weakened us financially and it is affecting our health as well. Besides, when we talk about use of pesticides on vegetables, including Tomato, Ladyfinger, Bitter Gourd, Cauliflower, and Cabbage, all of these are our day to day food items. There are pesticides that are not effective only on the outer skin of the plant; rather they get absorbed into it, like in Eggplant and Tomato, and when we utilize the same as food, it certainly affects us and our health,” Bashir Khan remarked. He shared that he had been listening to the stories of the songs of these birds from his elders as these birds co-existed with the people and at times had nests in their houses. For generations, a significant number of women, he added, were named after these birds. Today, neither those names exist, nor those birds and their songs.

Morus Nigra tree in Peshawar village Shehtoot

In response to the search for vanishing voices of the protectors of Bashir Khan’s crops, we learnt that the Divisional Wildlife Department in Mardan, primarily responsible for the protection and conservation of Birds and other wildlife, lacks any kind of information, pictures, or record of the native birds and wildlife. Due to the absence of the Divisional Forest Officer in his office, Muhammad Tariq, Office Assistant, confirmed that the native birds are going extinct faster in District Mardan due to growing population and the effects of climate change. He shared that there is no separate scheme with the Office for the conservation of the native birds; however, there are fifty three (53) Watchers in Mardan Division keeping an eye on the illegal hunt of birds and other wildlife. It is important to note that the Divisional Wildlife Office Mardan issues permits for hunting in specific months of the year. As per the office record, four hundred and sixty two (462) shooting licenses were issued during January 2017 – January 2018, resulting into a revenue of one million seven hundred and fifty thousand (PKR 1,750,000) for the Divisional Wildlife Office.

In order to protect birds and other wildlife, there are eighteen (18) wildlife offices in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. As per the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Wildlife Department Peshawar, KP province is the habitat of the majority of the bird species in Pakistan as the climatic conditions prevailing in the province are suitable for both native and visiting birds, in comparison to other provinces. Among the six hundred and sixty eight (668) bird species in Pakistan, four hundred and fifty four (454) species are in KP province. Niaz Khan, Divisional Forest Officer, opined that the extinction of native birds in Mardan and in other neighboring regions is a result of the disappearance of fruit trees and other native trees and plants like Naranj (Citrus acida), Bera (Zizyphus jujube), Kharwala (Salix), Toot (Morus Nigra) and Shawa (Dalbergia siasso). “The habitats are not in favorable conditions (for these native trees and plants), or they don’t have suitable temperatures and climatic conditions available to them”, Niaz Khan added.

Where have the birds protecting the crops of around forty eight thousand (48000) farming families in District Mardan, including that of Bashir Khan, disappeared? How many, and which ones, of the native birds in various parts of the province have got extinct? And how many are remaining? Nobody can answer these questions. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Wildlife Department lacks any such information. It is, however, important to note that the Wildlife Department has received, during 2013 to 2018, a budget of one billion and thirty one lakh (PKR 1,003,100,000), however, despite the budgetary allocations, the situation of protection of native birds – the protectors of crops of thousands of families, including Bashir Khan – is that the relevant Department neither has any record, nor any program for the protection and conservation of the remaining native birds in the province.

BirdLife International, a global partnership of conservation organizations, states in a report that two hundred (200) species of birds have got extinct from the world. Syed Kamran Hussain, Coordinator Research for KP at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Peshawar, is of the view that the irrational use of natural resources is a threat to biodiversity globally, resulting into climate change and its severe impacts evident on the lives of the people. United Nations has declared climate change as one of the significant threat to life in the current times. Changes in climate are threatening biodiversity, environmental systems, food and agriculture in the world. “The birds residing on the banks of rivers and water had their nests in a native tree, called Kharola (Salix). However, since Kharola takes more time in maturing into a tree, and also had a growing demand in the sports industry, these trees were cut down”, Kamran Hussain explained.
It is important to keep in mind that ensuring protection of biodiversity in the world and climate change are parts of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2030 agenda. Alongside, a multilateral treaty, Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), adopted in 1992, also exists which focuses on the conservation of biological diversity and sustainable use of natural resources. Pakistan has signed the Convention in 1992 and has ratified it in 1994. Under the Convention, each Member State has to develop national strategies and targets for the conservation of biodiversity and sustainable use of biological resources. Biodiversity Action Plan – Pakistan, prepared in 1999, besides other targets, prioritizes the sustainable use of biological resources; the maintenance of biodiversity; and strengthening of human knowledge, will and capacity to conserve biodiversity. Besides, in order to follow-up on the CBD and its “Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and the Aichi Targets”, the “Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan” was developed in 2016 with the support of GIZ, a non Government Organization. The Action Plan consists of several targets to be achieved by 2025, including the sustainable use of resources, and awareness about the importance of biodiversity and its conservation.

Turdus Merula in Union council Babini (Koel )

Despite the claims made for the protection of the environmental system in the last twenty (20) years and the adoption of strategies and action plans, the voices guaranteeing the sustainability of the system have, since the last twenty five (25) years, vanished from the Union Council Babinai in Mardan. Today, including Bashir Khan, thousands of farmers no more listen to the songs of the protectors of their crops.

[pullquote]*This text story is based on the audio documentary attached with the story.
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Asif Mohmand and Noor Ul Islam are partners at PROGNAT DEVELOPMENT INITIATIVE.
The scientific/ biological names in this text story are used after consultation with Dr. Muhammad Adnan, Assistant Professor, Department of Zoology, University of Peshawar.

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