Where have the birds gone?

Migratory birds which fly thousands of kilometres from places like Siberia every winter are now increasingly giving the Okhla Bird Sanctuary a miss.

Okhla Bird Sanctuary has for long been known as a birdwatcher’s paradise. It has been a haven for over 300 bird species and a stopover for thousands of migratory birds from Central Asia, South Asia, and North Asia including Siberia.

But with each passing year, their numbers at the Okhla Bird Sanctuary and other wetlands around Delhi have been declining, owing to various factors. Even this year only a handful made their way to Delhi.

Till December, only 11 migratory bird species, and in lesser numbers, were spotted at the sanctuary, according to a survey. While approximately 1,000 graylag geese were recorded at Okhla last year in December, this year only 250 made their way there. Similarly, 50 bar-headed geese were recorded in 2014, compared to only 30 in December 2015.

And some like tufted duck, ruddy shelduck and mallards gave the sanctuary and other wetlands a complete miss.

According to the Asian Waterbird Census, 2016, which was conducted last week, 46 waterbird species with a total population of 3,113 were confirmed at the sanctuary. Out of 46 spotted, 22 are resident waterbirds, while 24 are winter migratory birds, including four species of ‘threatened’ birds, red-listed by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The figures come at a time when the capital is seeing its warmest winter in years. Though the decline in the numbers each year can be blamed on the climatic conditions, local disturbances and the degradation of the eco-sensitive zone notified by the Union Environment Ministry last year also have a major role to play.

Area around the Okhla sanctuary was declared a protected site in the 1990s. In 2005, the National Board of Wildlife notified  areas within 10 km radius around sanctuaries as eco-sensitive zones.

But over the years, the National Capital Region (NCR) saw a real estate boom, including in and around the Okhla Bird sanctuary. Even now, construction activities continue unabated.

The government in August 2015 had notified an area up to only 100 metres from the eastern, western, and southern boundaries and up to 1.27 km from the northern boundary, which extends up to DND flyover across the riverbed situated in Uttar Pradesh's Gautam Buddh Nagar district and southeast district of NCT Delhi, as the eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) of the sanctuary.

Alarm was raised over shrinking the ESZ from the earlier 10 km in favour of real estate companies and home buyers. And months after it was notified, bird lovers and environmentalists claim no measures have been taken by the concerned authorities to protect even the current, shrunken zone. Activities which degrade the ecosystem around the sanctuary have been on a rise after the eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) was declared by the Central government.

During a recent visit to the sanctuary, Deccan Herald saw a lot of unauthorised activities, which prevent the passage of birds and affect their nesting.

For example, within the 100-metre ESZ of the eastern boundary, branches of trees along high-tension wires had been indiscriminately chopped by the power grid department.

“This has been done repeatedly by the forest department in 2015. Though their job involves tree-lopping along the wires, there should be a scientific way to do it and not indiscriminately cutting trees. This has destroyed and disturbed the forest habitat for wildlife, especially birdlife, thus resulting in a decrease in overall biodiversity,” says Ecologist and Conservationist T K Roy.

Besides, due to the presence of wires, there was a loud buzzing noise in the area, which is believed to serve as a thoroughfare for birds.

“The high-tension wires definitely interfere with the corridor of the birds,” said environmentalist Vikrant Tongad, of Social Action for Forests and Environment (SAFE).
In November, the Uttar Pradesh Forest department had banned the entry of all motorised vehicles inside the sanctuary and visitors were allowed to hire bicycles or use cycle or battery-operated rickshaws from two entry/exit points of the sanctuary.

The decision was taken after several complaints by birdwatchers and environmentalists that people come in their cars, smoke, drink and play loud music inside, thus threatening the habitat of birds.

During the visit, Deccan Herald noticed at least 10 private vehicles inside the sanctuary. A couple of guards were posted at the two gates but still there was no prohibition on vehicles from entering. One of the reasons could be presence of only few rickshaws. The department is still working on getting more rickshaws for the sanctuary.

When contacted, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) K K Singh said “no vehicles are being allowed entry”. He, however, says if violations are being reported, it is because the rule is newly introduced and it will take time to make people aware and enforce it effectively.
Cricket playground

Within the 1.27 km northern side of the ESZ, alarge grassland in the buffer zone has been turned into a cricket playground.

An official posted at the sanctuary, who did not wish to be identified, said that there is a lot of noise when people gather to play in the morning which scares away the birds generally seen during that time.

Besides, a couple of jhuggies were seen within the eco-sensitive zone.
“Earlier there were only one or two, but now their number has been increasing,” the official said.

“If people keep settling here, it will be difficult to remove them at a later stage since it will become a sensitive issue,” says Roy.

“A lot of such activities, like rampant illegal construction in many areas within the ESZ, have led to dwindling of the number of local and migratory birds,” he says.

The eco-sensitive zone on the western side can best be described as a garbage dump. Waste of all kind, biodegradable or non-biodegradable, has been dumped into the sanctuary. Besides the regular dumping of bottles, packets of chips, etc by the visitors in the area, the western side looks like a dhalao. However, the source of the garbage is not known. When asked, Divisional Forest Officer K  K Singh says  he is “not aware” of any garbage being dumped and will inquire into it. 

 Human interference is a common sight. The fence at the western boundary has been broken by locals, resulting in unauthorised thoroughfare of public. Some people can be seen collecting firewood, while others enter the sanctuary through the fence to relieve themselves. Within the 100 metres of the southern ESZ along the Okhla Barrage and Amrapali Marg – the road between Delhi and Noida – a parallel highway construction is going on, contributing to dust pollution.

Roy, who also leads the AWC census as Delhi’s state coordinator, say earlier flamingoes used to choose Okhla sanctuary during this part of the season. But this time not a single flamingo has been sighted here. “They have instead chosen Najafgarh drain,” says Roy.
In fact, many other species are skipping the sanctuary and flocking to other wetlands in the capital.

“The overall impact of these illegal activities is that the natural habitat of terrestrial and migratory birds has been disturbed. Usually by this part of the year, the birds arrive in large numbers at the sanctuary. But this time, their number is very less. Even if the birds arrive, they don’t stay for long at the sanctuary due to disturbance. In other areas such as Surajpur, Sultanpur Park, Najafgarh drain, they have arrived in good numbers comparatively,” says Roy.

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