Birds return to find peace in war-torn land

By Sheikh Mushtaq

HOKERSAR LAKE - Tens of thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in the 17-year insurgency in Indian-ruled Kashmir.

But a recent fall in the separatist fighting has led to the return of an unfamiliar sound.

The honking of wild geese and the cackle of mallards have returned to Kashmir, with migratory birds back in the Himalayan region.

Wildlife officials say more than 1.5 million migratory birds, and at least 19 different species, flew down to Kashmir's renewed wetlands and swamps this winter from Siberia, central Asia and northern Europe.

That is a record since the insurgency broke out against Indian rule in 1989, they say, and many times higher than the number of visitors at the peak of violence in the 1990s, when the first survey was conducted.

For years lakes gathered silt and weeds, with officials either too scared to venture out to maintain them or simply not interested.

Militants used to hide in the wetlands or pass through, while security forces would patrol there.

But with violence falling since India and Pakistan began a peace process in 2004 over the disputed territory, the lakes and wetlands have been cleaned and people kept away.

"The insurgency brought lawlessness, all the trouble along with it, even to these poor birds," said Abdul Rauf Zargar, the wildlife warden of Kashmir's wetlands, pointing to a gaggle of geese in Hokersar lake, near Kashmir's main city, Srinagar.

"Things have changed now completely. With peace returning, we are paying a lot of attention to regain the lost glory of these wetlands."

Flocks of greylag geese, coots and pintails had been seen in the Kashmir valley this winter, Zargar said.

At the height of winter, wildlife workers break thick ice and throw paddy for hungry birds.

But environmentalists said not enough was being done to repair the damage already done to the wetlands.

"In the past 20 years, every water body has shrunk by 50 per cent and all waste, even toxic waste from adjacent localities, flows into these wetlands," said Syed Ishrat of Global Green Peace, a Kashmir-based environmental organisation.

He said there was little to suggest authorities were taking the problem seriously.

Ishrat said Hygam Lake, north of Srinagar, which was once the region's main bird habitats, was completely ruined.

Conservationists say past visitors like whooper swans, sandhill cranes, bar headed geese and purple-headed coots, still bypass Kashmir and fly instead to the remote Ladakh plateau.

Casualties Of Conflict

* The disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir has triggered two wars between Pakistan and India and brought them to the brink of another in 2002. The de facto border is one of the most militarised in the world.

* Analysts predicted the massive earthquake which hit Kashmir in October 2005 would bring major steps towards peace but there has been little evidence of this.

* More than 40,000 people have been killed in the 17-year insurgency.

* More than 200,000 have been displaced.

* More than 11,300 children have been orphaned and 3600 women widowed.


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