Swamphen vanishing from Bakhira lake

By Kirtiman Awasthi
Published: Friday 31 August 2007

Swamphen vanishing from Bakhira lake

-- (Credit: KIRTIMAN AWASTHI / CSE)It was a bright sunny morning when I reached the Bakhira lake. Bakhira is reputed to be the biggest natural wetland in Uttar Pradesh and is known for its purple swamphens. The birds are known to be shy. I nurtured hopes of spotting them, nevertheless. They were soon belied.

It was a perfect bird watching day and not spotting a swamphen was a disapppointment. But I did not give up hope and ambled around a waterbody that gave the impression being an open ocean. But no swamphens, yet.

Obviously, this had nothing to do with their shy nature. After all researchers and birdwatchers have noted that Bakhira has around 5,000 swamphens. Surely spotting one wasn't asking for too much. Something was seriously amiss.

Its shy nature notwithstanding, the purple swamphen is not really elusive in Bakhira. It has an eye-catching purplish-blue hue, long red legs and toes and a bald red forehead. About the size of a village hen, the bird lives in pairs and in large communities. The absentee act did not seem normal, especially in a wetland as large as 29 sq km. Located in Uttar Pradesh's Sant Kabir Nagar district, it provides nesting ground to a number of migratory birds. Because of its ecological and geo-morphological significance, the wetland was notified as a bird sanctuary in 1990. It was named after the village Bakhira, close-by.

But ambling around the sanctuary, now a little listlessly, I realised that merely declaring an area as protected did not help much. Far too many problems were evident even to the causal eye. I wondered why the officials couldn't see them. There is no proper road network to the sanctuary. An opportunity to turn it into a largescale tourist centre has been frittered away. Thoughts such as these couldn't, however, divert me from the primary aim of spotting a swamphen. A ranger told me that the birds were hiding somewhere in the lush vegetation. There was thick underwater, allright. But 5,000 swamphens hidden in there? Seemed far-fetched.
In the net I saw couple of villagers fishing in the vicinity. With nothing much to do, I veered onto desultory conversation. "What is their catch like?" I asked them. "Hardly, and this despite leaving the net an evening before. There aren't too many fish left," said Inderesh, a fisherman from the neighbouring Jhugiya village. Decline of fish stock could probably explain the disappearance of purple swamphens from the sanctuary.

The reasons for their absence began to unfold. First, a number of seized boats stand in grim testimony to fishing in the sanctuary. Then, more than 20 fishing vessels.

At one point, more than 30 fish species were found in the wetland. I learnt later that illegal overfishing had led to an absolute decline in fish stock. Some people harvest phragmites (a reed) from deep inside the sanctuary. They then use these for roofing and as forage for livestock. And, phragmite patches are a unique habitat for swamphens. Over presence of humans and disturbance to their nests have had a negative impact on the birds.

The ranger went on the defensive again. "There is constant vigil. We don't allow fishing," he said pointing to the seized boat, adding that only traditional fishing methods were allowed. But all this seems to be on paper. A villager told me that poaching is rampant.

Experts call it the conservation-community conflict. They are right. Even after 17 years of notification, land rights of the villagers and boundary of the sanctuary have not been settled. Villagers have also not got compensation. "The government does not care for us. Why should we care for birds?" asked Ram Chandra of Jaswal village. He told me that some villagers have drained parts of the wetland and transformed them into fields. Their dependence on vegetation and water cannot be ignored, he asserted. Amidst this argument, the swamphens, I felt, will soon be forgotten.

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