First Impression: GHARANA, a small village, amidst vast paddy fields, on Indo-Pak international border, was not treaded so often until the declaration of ceasefire between the two countries. When I first visited this place in 1997, before the ceasefire, I was awestruck to see the lonely, old wildlife staff quarter’s damaged wall, ridden with numerous gun bullets. A wildlife guard extending a handful of empty shells towards me revealed they were showered from across the border. These were picked from the wall, he informed. Standing there was very risky. He cautioned me not to tread in the fields as they were infested with land mines.
Suddenly my eyes noticed a young man, wading through the knee deep, shallow marsh in front of the staff quarter. He held a stick in one hand, grasping two dead birds, common coots, in the other. He had killed these birds by hitting them in the head with the stick .This small shallow pond or chappar, as known locally, was the Gharana wetland Game Reserve, a protected wildlife area, which I had come to see after taking over my assignment as Wildlife Warden, Jammu-kathua.
No sooner did I detain the youth, who had killed the birds, there were dozens of villagers swarming our quarter. Taking advantage of their presence I engaged with them for sensitizing about the importance of conservation and wetlands. I was startled in disbelief as they innocently expressed their ignorance about wetland’s status as reserve or wildlife protected area.
Back ground: About forty kilometres from Jammu town, the winter capital of Jammu and Kashmir state, lies Gharana village, (N 32 32.757, E 74 41.627) in R.S.Pura sector, along international border. A marsh area of two hundred acres in this village was intended to be notified as Wetland Reserve after a cabinet decision and government order in 1981.Accordingly the then collector Jammu, issued a proclamation in 1982, under the provisions of the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Protection Act 1978, declaring this area of wetland as Reserve and allowed a time period of two months for anybody to file and prefer objections and rights, if any.
With the passage of time the Wildlife Protection Department of the state made its presence in the area and initiated skeletal management interventions which then were largely focused on and oriented towards game hunting or duck shooting. Game hunting was not an illegal activity .Babus, bureaucrats, VIPs and politicians were entertained by facilitating shooting. Local hunters from Jammu and surrounding areas used to throng the wetland for duck shooting. It was lawful then to issue hunting permits. The wetlands, more or less, were rather recognised as hunting grounds than as reserves. This was the case with almost all other wetland reserves in the state.
The Changed Scenario: Jammu and Kashmir was looked down upon as the only state in India who allowed hunting of wild animals and birds. The national and international conservationist community was not digesting the legalization of hunting under the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Protection Act 1978.Incidently some major duck shooting events in Kashmir attracted the ire and criticism from conservationist lobby and proved turning point in the history of J&K’s wildlife conservation policy and paved the way for a major change. In the year 2002 the immediate result was the amendment in the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Protection Act 1978.The hunting, except under certain provisions and circumstances, became an offence and illegal activity under the amended Act. All the Game Reserves were redesignated as Conservation Reserves to give impetus to the protection and conservation of avifauna, habitat and associated bio diversity under the amended Act. However, by that time we had already inflicted considerable loss on our wetland landscape and biodiversity, left the exercises of proclamation and settlement of rights incomplete, ignored stake holders’ genuine grievances, lost their confidence and allowed vested interests to prevail. Ghrana was one such example.
Avian splendour: The notified wetland of Gharana, barring a small patch of marshy pond, and adjoining area, more or less comprises of agriculture fields. Paddy, a good quality basmati variety, is the major crop grown here.However, by the time the birds arrive in Gharana during winter, the tender shoots of wheat are already in place. This, coupled with marshy patches and a variety of aquatic vegetation, probably qualifies the Gharana as the most sought after habitat of many bird species near Jammu town.
About fifteen to twenty thousand birds are estimated to throng this wetland and adjoining area during winter every year. This wetland has recently been brought under IBA, Important Bird Area category giving it international recognition. This paradise for bird watchers supports as many as ninety species of birds including winter migrant. Common teal, Northern pintail, Northern shoveler, ruddy shelduck, gadwall, lesser whistling duck, purple swamp hen, little cormorant and ruff etc are some of the species conspicuously seen here during winter season. The major attractions include bar-headed geese, comb duck, mallard, Eurasian wigeon, common pochard, lesser whistling duck, spoon bill, black stork, woolly-necked stork and black necked stork. Some of the species like lesser whistling duck and purple swamp hen have been observed breeding in the area for last couple of years.
Bone of Contention: The local population in Gharana is not for a Wetland Conservation Reserve. The agriculture land is valued for its lucrative harvest as the area produces one of the finest qualities of basmati rice in the region. After the ceasefire, due to removal of landmines and subsequent comparatively prevailing peaceful environment in the area, the focus on agriculture land and practices gathered momentum. Largely as farming community they depend on the land for green fodder, vegetables, rice and wheat. The small pond or the tiny core wetland reserve area also provided small amount of indigenous variety of fish. The water is used for bathing cattle and washing.
Of late the relation between the wildlife authorities and locals further became strained due to presence of large number of bar-headed geese. The bar-headed geese were first reported in 2004 and have been regular winter visitors since then. This bird has invited the ire of the locals as it voraciously devours the tender shoots of wheat incurring heavy loss to the farmers.
The two hundred acres of wetland reserve as notified by the government in 1981 is yet to be demarcated and the boundaries to be drawn on the ground. Some part of this land is considered as shamlat deh while some part is claimed by the locals as their proprietary land whereas the Revenue department considers some portion as state land under encroachment. A considerable part of the Gharana village is said to be located on the wetland reserve, as per the revenue department reports. Under such circumstances the wildlife Department approached the Revenue authorities to get the wetland demarcated .However, what happened after issuance of the proclamation by the then collector Jammu in 1982 calling claims and rights could not t be traced despite several efforts. The Revenue department has been approached again for expeditious needful action. Whatever be the title of the land the fact remains the two hundred acres of wetland area has its status as Wetland Conservation Reserve under the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Protection Act 1978, as amended upto2002.
The farmers demand the compensation for the loss caused to their crop by the geese and other wild birds while the wildlife department expresses its inability to pay the compensation on the plea that no such provision or mechanism is in place under state government policy to pay compensation on account of loss caused to crop by wild animals or birds. The issue of paying compensations has been raised in concerned foras and State Wildlife Board meetings but could not get the nod of the authorities. However, the fact remains that such compensation is paid in other parts of the country and funds are also allotted under the centrally sponsored scheme -integrated wildlife habitat management, by the MOEF, Government of India. Quite often these funds, when released for certain protected areas in our state, are surrendered as unspent because of lack of such provisions as discussed above.
To avert the damage caused by the geese to crops the farmers have resorted to bursting crackers aimed at scaring away the birds .This has caused disturbance to the birds which may prove detrimental to the cause of conservation of endangered avian fauna.
The sewage from the households, chemical fertilizers from surrounding fields, animal excreta entering the water body threatens the very survival of the wetland and its bio diversity.
Putting on Track – Management Interventions: However, all this has not deterred to bring solace to the gasping wetland. Despite all odds Gharana Wetland Conservation Reserve enjoys the distinction of being the only Wetland Conservation Reserve in the state where scientific management intervention and prestigious research activities have been launched recently with the objective of strengthening of anti poaching activities ,surveillance, education , awareness, protection, conservation and research activities.
In a giant leap, setting example for the rest of the state, satellite telemeters have been used in March 2012 at Gharana to study bar-headed gees and their migration route involving scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India. In recent years bird ringing exercises have been conducted in collaboration with BNHS and other prestigious institutions. Bird flu surveillance exercises, collection of samples, serum, swabs, etc, for testing avian influenza by involving Animal Husbandry department, SKUAST Jammu have also been conducted recently. For supplementing the food stock for the fish eating birds stocking of the wetland with fish fingerlings in consultation with Fisheries department has also been done. There has not been a single incident of hunting or poaching of birds reported since last some years. The wildlife Department has recently engaged and involved researchers form WWF -India for detailed studies and planning process of wetlands in Jammu exploring the potential of boosting eco tourism, involvement of stake holders and generating lively hood options. To optimise the benefits management interventions are being extended to the catchment area of Gharana which is also the potential habitat of migratory bird species.
Wakeup call: Yet the efforts are on way to resolve the contentious issues and save this heaven of spectacular and colourful winged visitors for posterity and conservation of our natural heritage. However, the concerned authorities, with political back and will, need to gear up to save dwindling wetland wealth of the state. The environmental NGOs will have to share the responsibility to catalyse and expedite the logical settlement of contentious issues taking into consideration stake holders’ interests and depleting biodiversity of the wetlands. No conservation effort can be successful without taking into confidence the local communities and safeguarding their interests.
(The author, a trained wildlife biologist, is Wildlife Warden with the Department of Wildlife Protection Jammu and Kashmir Government.)