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Wednesday, 16 September 2009

birdman of Waziristan

 South Waziristan tribal agency, arguably the most dangerous place in Pakistan’s militant-infested north-west, has become the unlikely focal point of an impromptu bird conservation project involving a nature-loving tribesman and ornithologists across northern Europe.

The project is the result of the guilt felt by Ehsanullah Wazir, a local journalist, who in 1999 was given a ring taken from the leg of a bird killed by a catapult-wielding schoolboy in Dabkot village. The ring had been attached by ornithologists to track the bird’s migrationary patterns.

“I lost the ring and felt very guilty about not having reported it to the appropriate authorities,” he said.

However, in March 2001, the opportunity to assuage his guilt arose when a friend recovered another ring that, upon careful examination, was found to bear the address of a bird observatory in the Swedish town of Annsjon.

Wazir wrote to the address with details of where the bird, a “shangharai” in the Pashto language, had been killed and was surprised to receive a rapid reply from Thomas Holmberg, the head of the centre.

The young tribesman, it emerged, had inadvertently solved a mystery about the winter migration of the tiny bluethroat sparrow that had mystified European ornithologists for years.

“Where our Scandinavian bluethroats spend their winter has long been under discussion, although India had often been suggested as a possible area of wintering. The recovery of the bluethroat from Pakistan is the most memorable event for Swedish bird-ringing this year,” wrote Mr Holmberg, enclosing a book about the birds of the Indian subcontinent and advice on how to record migratory data for scientific purposes.
Inspired by the response, Wazir set up the Waziristan Birds Ringing and Protection Centre and launched a campaign to stop the widespread hunting of migratory birds.

He began by writing to schoolteachers throughout the area, urging them to educate children about the birds and to ask them to deposit any rings they recovered from hunted birds at the school for collection.

Wazir persevered with the campaign, lobbying the head of the local administration to take action against hunting, which is illegal if deemed excessive.

Meanwhile, he sought support from officials further down the chain but it turned out that all of them were avid hunters, who, privately admitting the fact to Wazir, officially declared hunting in the area as minimal and not requiring extraordinary administrative action.

Wazir discovered that he had inadvertently won over some powerful supporters among the Taliban commanders who had taken sanctuary in South Waziristan in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Citing Islamic injunctions against recreational hunting, the Taliban banned the activity for one migratory season although they later relented after pleas from local tribesmen.

Undaunted, in 2003 Wazir carried out a survey of bird migratory patterns in the 32 sq km area around Dabkot, the first in a century, the only previous one having been conducted by British colonialists.

His study, carried out with the help of friends, established that the nearby convergence of the Zhob and Gomal rivers was an attractive one-night stopover for migratory flocks that, in addition to the bluethroat sparrow, included breeds of crane, partridge and quail native to India.

The birds typically flew north-west over South Waziristan into Afghanistan in March and April, and returned in August and September, Wazir found.

His fellow Ahmedzai clansmen had initially viewed his one-man quest with much mirth, but as rings recovered from bluethroats in subsequent years connected Wazir with ornithologists in Finland, Germany and Norway, their mirth turned to wonder – and new-found respect for Wazir’s quest.

“My efforts seemed so strange to them because they could not imagine that a hyperactive sparrow, which they only ever saw fluttering from one spot to the next, could fly such huge distances. But as news of the data recovery and interaction with Sweden and other countries spread, they were amazed,” he said.

Still, Wazir knows he may never be able to persuade his fellow tribesmen to stop hunting the migratory birds. “Hunting is such an addictive pastime among tribesman that it usually becomes a lifelong pursuit. Once they start, men will hunt as long as their legs can carry them.”

The toll taken by local hunters, working with professional bird trappers from adjacent districts of the North West Frontier Province, is enormous, surveys by Wazir have discovered.

Hunters use bird cries – recorded or from tame birds – to lure migrating flocks, capturing an estimated 500 cranes, and 80 to 250 quails and partridges per night for a month each in spring and late summer.

Unlike the catapult-bearing schoolchildren, the hunters are motivated by money, selling the captured birds to pet-seeking locals for about 1,500 rupees (Dh67) for an average pair. However, cranes with extraordinarily shrill calls can attract up to 200,000 rupees, Wazir found.

Increasingly, his work has been hampered by frequent bloody exchanges between the Pakistani military and militants in South Waziristan.

A renewed and potentially bloody campaign is forthcoming, a military spokesman said on Monday.

“The violence has affected our tentative conservation efforts in South Waziristan,’ Wazir said.

“But I will never abandon them and will continue this mission for the rest of my life.”

China interested in tri-nation gas pipeline

With India going slow on the tri-nation gas pipeline, Iranian ambassador to India Seyed Mehdi Nabizadeh Tuesday said China is interested in the
proposed multi-billion project but left the door open for New Delhi to rejoin the peace pipeline.

The Iranian envoy, however, remained quiet on whether Iran is holding talks with China over the tri-nation pipeline involving Iran, India and Pakistan.

The envoy invited India to rejoin the pipeline project but made it clear that the offer was not for the "unlimited period".

"Work on the project is progressing very fast and one should understand the urgency to join the pipeline," the envoy told reporters here when asked whether Iran is setting any time frame for India to rejoin the project.

India has not officially quit the project, but has serious reservations about its viability due to differences over the pricing of the Iranian gas and security of the pipeline that will pass though violence-prone areas of Pakistan.

Early this month, Petroleum Minister Murli Deora denied reports that India has quit plans to build the gas pipeline with Iran and Pakistan. "With Iran the question is still open, but because of the political situation in Pakistan, just now there is a little bit of a stop on that," he had said.

The project, termed as the peace pipeline due to its potential to bring together the three countries and spread prosperity in the region, was signed by Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of the tripartite summit on Afghanistan security in Tehran in May.

Beautiful Article: by Orya Maqbool Jaan