‘The ambassadors of peace’ at risk; Siberian cranes disappearing from the sky

By Rafiullah Mandokhail;

ZHOB,(Parliament Times): The long-necked bird crane is not only famous for its heart-touching voice and beautiful wings but also considered to be the symbol of beauty, an omen of a happy life and good fortune. Besides this the tall flying bird is also a poetic metaphor in the classical literature, known as the ‘ambassador of peace’. Twice a year, in the Zhob valley (Balochistan) that shares borders with neighboring Afghanistan and the tribal region South Waziristan – the migration of the cranes heralds the arrival of spring. Thousands of cranes congregate near Zhob River that flows from the north of the city into the Gomal River. The riverbank is an important stopover on the cranes’ long migration route from the Siberia’s icy forests. It is a spectacular nature show but with each passing season, the cranes are increasingly endangered by the illegal hunting and trapping.

Official data shows that, the Siberian cranes fly over 4,000 miles from Siberia to neighboring India. Their perilous journey starts from Siberia in September-October when biting cold weather compels the birds to find moderate temperatures. Knowing no boundaries, the flocks fly across the rivers, mountains and deserts to reach their destination in India. The guest birds fly via Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Hidu Kush and Karakoram including some parts of Balochistan to the hotspot of Bhatapur Rajasthan in India via the Indus and Punjab watersheds. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN-Balochistan), extremely chilly weather in Siberian forests compels the birds to fly in search of a moderate weather. Vanishing forests and drying up of lakes are the some of the causes behind the rapid decline of cranes but it is the ruthless trapping, killing and hunting by humans that has brought the population of cranes on the verge of extinction. Muhammad Akber has been associated with the crane hunting for the last ten years in Zhob area, told that when the winter is over, the cranes fly back to their native habitats and nesting grounds in March-April. Stopping over lakes, river banks and water basins in many parts of Pakistan, including the mountainous area of Zhob and bordering districts. The birds can fly around 200km a day during the migration period. He explained.

“The crane with pale bluish grey plumage, lives and breeds near water basin. it emits a honking sound when flying. The bird can live for 20 to 30 years. The guide crane who is familiar with the migratory route, leads the flock with the loud honking sound,” he added.

“After the cranes are trapped, the poachers cut their wings off and confine them to cages. In many cases they are forcefully crammed into very small boxes which sometimes paralyze their legs. The captured cranes are then transported to the bird markets for selling purposes, where people belonging to well-off families buy them to keep as pets.” Akber revealed. According to the International Crane Foundation (ICF), 11 out of 15 species of cranes face extinction. One of the four crane species that pass through Balochistan during its annual migration is called the Demoiselle Crane. As soon the migration season approaches, a large number of hunting parties set up their camps along the Zhob River. Although the district administration in Zhob imposes section 144 to completely ban hunting, but the influential hunting parties mostly from Lakki Marwat, Bannu and other parts of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province backed by some local people make the official restrictions and obstacles meaningless.

Hussain Alam having 23 cranes at home, is residing on river bank in Zhob, he said that the eyes of cranes are very delicate and they are easily affected by the light. When hearing the voice of cranes migrating in the air, the caged cranes in the courtyard also make noise and try to fly with the help of their cut wings. “Each pair of crane is sold for one thousand to one and 150 thousand rupees. Last year in Zhob, a hunter caught 70 cranes alive during the migration season and sold them for Rs. 3.5 million”. He said.

In March 2018, UNODC and WWF-Pakistan signed an agreement to work together to curb the illegal wildlife trade in the county. Hunting of the guest birds is a violation of the Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1975 Balochistan and there is another law entitled “The Balochistan (Wildlife Protection, Preservation, Conservation and Management) Act 2014”, under which all crane species are protected. Pakistan is also a signatory to the Bonn Convention on Migratory Species. Moreover, Pakistan is also a signatory of the Ramsar Convention, an international agreement on the protection of wetlands. Five of the 19 wetlands included to the Ramsar sites are in Balochistan. The Ramsar site is said to be home to about 20,000 birds but unfortunately Ramsar sites are also in decline.

Tahir Rashid, Director at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF Balochistan-Sindh) said that there are currently 15 species of cranes in the world and eight in Asia. The first four types of cranes used to come to Pakistan face illegal hunting, degradation of natural habitat and drying water basins. The centuries-old migration through Pakistan is still an amazing phenomenon. With each passing season, the flocks of cranes lose its numbers and strength. “Hunting is a violation of the Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1975 Balochistan. The Balochistan (Wildlife Protection, Preservation, Conservation and Management) Act 2014 (Act No. XV Of 2014), is in place according to which all crane species are protected. The bill specifically lists fines on violation through crane hunting ranging from 10,000 rupees to 30,000 rupees or two months’ imprisonment or both according the value of the wild animal,” he said. Salmeen Khpalwak is a social activist in Balochistan, struggling for the preservation of olive forests and protection of wildlife in the province, told that the number of cranes migrating to the valley has been dwindled with the passage of time as little has been done to preserve and protect the cranes from being hunted. Wildlife trade was the most pressing threat to wild animals across the globe including Pakistan. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has recognized the illegal wildlife trade as the third largest transnational crime after drugs and human trafficking.

“Wildlife conservationists are urging the government and non-governmental organizations to prioritize this issue at national level and take coordinated measures to conserve endangered species. Wildlife protection officers and district administrative officers are taking no action against these crane hunters. They either take bribe or lack good administration.” He lamented.

Gul Nawaz is resident of Lakki Marwat area, told that the hunters use a pair of tamed cranes in a cage as decoys, separating the males from the females. The separated pair is taken to the hunting spot at night, before the arrival of the migratory flocks. Soon after, the decoys start crying and the cranes flying overhead are deceived by the decoy cranes. The migrating cranes swoop down close to the already captured pair. When the hunters throw a swirling iron weight tied to a thread over the flock to entangle the cranes’ necks, wings and feet. Sometimes hunters shoot down the birds with firearms. The hunters also use mp3 voice recordings of the cranes’ honking to lure migrating flocks. He explained.

Borja Heredia, Head of the Avian Species Team at Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, said that hunting in general, and cranes in particular, is a complicated issue in Balochistan. Tribalism and involvement of influential’s’ are considered to be the major hindrances in the implementation of law. A strong multi-stakeholder platform needs to be brought on board with the various political, social and military stakeholders to develop a common conservation agenda. Otherwise, hunting of cranes will remain rampant in the future as well. He suggested.

Although Balochistan has a Wildlife Protection Act 2014 to protect wildlife but due to ineffective implementation of the Act and relentless poaching in the province, the number of cranes is declining every year. On the other hand, the officials at the provincial government and Wildlife department claim that they are committed to curb illegal wildlife trade with an iron hand, as protecting wildlife from all sorts of threats is the government’s top priority. WWF-Pakistan recommends that the district administration and Wildlife department should utilize all their available resources to provide the local communities with incentives to curtail crane hunting and trapping through public awareness of the ecological system.____ This investigation is part of a series on environmental crime in Asia, supported by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, the Henry Nxumalo Foundation and Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism.


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