Inside the hunting fields of Narkara wetland

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After “foreign educated” city mayor lately belittled the significance of wetlands, the poachers have now turned Narkara wetland into a hunting heartland of Kashmir. Swooping down on their prey during midnight hours or by daybreak, the hunters freely take home the bird booty right under the nose of wetland wardens.

By Mashkoora Khan

Even as the guns have apparently fallen silent in Srinagar, Ghulam Mohammad often tosses and turns in his bed when midnight gunshots resonate in his city-suburb neighbourhood. As the rattle shatters the night’s quietude, he often gets up, with a pounding heart. His panting worsens, as the roaring guns refuse to restore the night-time serenity.

But what looks like an ‘encounter’ is actually a night out for the poacher pack in Narkara wetland—the heartland of hunters—nestled in city outskirts, in Budgam district.

By the time Ghulam retires to bed, dozens of gun-toting men armed with gadgetry start arriving in the wetland. “And if they’re not part of the nocturnal hunting pack, then some of them show up at the crack of the dawn,” Ghulam, a sun-tanned man in his mid-fifties, says while glowering inside his home, sited at a small distance from the ‘hunter’s paradise’.

The booty they take home is huge, says Ghulam, with a sad face. “At times,” he continues, “they kill hundreds of guest birds in a single sitting.”

By “guest birds”, Ghulam means the migratory birds, who every winter fly to Kashmir Valley from central Asia and Serbia to ward off extreme cold in their native regions. They include Gadwall, Cranes, Ducks, Geese, Pintail and others.

Their arrival only heralds the ‘hunting season’ in Kashmir. And eventually, many of them become prey to the hunters of the valley.

“Bird population is downing due to mass hunting inside Narkara,” Ghulam laments. “Several hunters daily visit the wetland and more than 500 birds get killed every night. Post-12 in the night, the loud gunshots from the wetland sound like an encounter between insurgents and armed forces.”

This bird butchery is happening despite Jammu and Kashmir (Protection Act 1878) ensures protection to wild birds, animals and plants in the state. The concerned Wildlife and Revenue departments simply pass the buck when asked about the pressing matter. Their complacency makes many believe that hunters do enjoy some official impunity.

Amid this popular belief, many of these hunters continue to kill birds with their unlicensed guns, Ghulam says. “How do they go scot-free still makes me wonder! Law must prevail inside the wetland,” he says. “Otherwise it’ll no longer host these guest birds in near future.”

Narkara wetland is spread around 8,000 kanals of land and is surrounded by Sheikhpora, Humhama, Gortange, Hyderpora and Bemina localities.

During 2014 flood, this wetland saved several lives, due to its ability to act as a sponge and retain excessive water. It’s now losing that feature, too. Massive illegal constructions have come up on it since then. Some people are also using a part of it for paddy cultivation.

But mainly, it’s hunting, which has plagued the wetland.

Interestingly, among the hunters that frequent Narkara are some boys and teenagers. They operate freely despite some official guards flaunting their writ on the wetland.

One question, however, baffles many: How come these young guns have suddenly found kick in the kill trigger?

“It’s due to biting unemployment rate in Kashmir,” a young hunter says, with a straight face. “We can’t even afford a good food for our family. But this ensures us some survival. It’s a source of food and income for us.”

He’s right. Much of the hunting is driven by the sense of making some quick bucks.

Each killed bird, says a prying hunter, who wields his gun like a badge, “is worth Rs 2,000.” And one can only imagine the moolah these gunners are making through the bird massacre.

Even their elders sanction their action. “Hunting makes our children happy,” says Mushtaq Ahmad, a local.

To justify his point, he turns to the religion and starts lecturing on Islam.

“According to Islam,” he says, in an unwavering voice, “hunting is Sunah [Prophet’s way of life] for Muslims and also eating hunting birds is halal [Pure]. There’s nothing bad about hunting. People across Kashmir love hunting birds. They come here from different areas to buy birds from us. This helps the local economy.”

And such is the craze that even local girls wish to venture deep into the killing fields of Narkara wetland.

“When I saw boys going inside the wetland with guns, I also get tempted for hunting,” says Saima, a girl in her late teens. “But then, I can’t go against the societal norm, making hunting, like other undertakings, as a gender-specific venture. If only I were a boy, how I wish!”

Even the well-meaning girl like Saima doesn’t care about hunting being illegal. All that matters is to feel the kick by pulling the trigger, and take the dead bird home as a hunting trophy.

But then, there’s another question: What’s it that compels some seasonal hunters to leave their sleep and spouses during midnight hour to venture into the wilderness for hunting?

To understand the madness behind their method, I stepped inside Narkara’s hunting fields, in one fine early morning.

I took some careful steps towards the roaring guns. In early morning radiance, the hunters were hiding behind bushes and taking positions — aiming their nozzles at some distant-seated and sleepy birds.

With each gunshot, the wetland rattled and bled with the fallen guests’ blood-gushing carcasses. The sight of bleeding and lifeless bird bodies delighted the hunters, who would run towards their prey and thump their fists in air in sheer jubilation.

My odd-hour presence, however, alerted most of them. If that wasn’t enough to unsettle them, then my journalistic identity turned them hostile. Their nonchalance and cold vibes made a perfect sense. It was indeed weird to ask a hunter: How does it feel to hunt these guest birds?

“You people [journalists] need a real job,” one of the irked gunners told me, with a stern face. “Why you keep chasing us? And what for?”

Instead I questioning them, they started questioning me.

“So what’s hunting for you,” a hunter asked me.

“It’s shekar!” I replied, matter-of-factly.

“Then you’re chasing wrong people here,” he replied, before aiming his gun at one more sleepy guest bird.

As another bird fell dead in the heart of the wetland, the hunters rejoiced. But what delighted them, at the same time desolated the bird habitat.

Perhaps, Ghulam was right, when he said: If these loose guns won’t be restrained immediately, then Narkara will meet the fate of other wetlands of the valley—dead and desolate!

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