If any chance is to be entertained of securing a glimpse of the Sykes’s or Sind nightjar, birders must not only go way off track at the Harike wildlife sanctuary but also venture “off-season”. This is how conservationist and Swedish birder Per Undeland discovered on May 8, 1998, the nightjar breeding 3 km downstream of Harike barrage on the Sutlej sands. In many ways, the discovery of a nesting Sykes’s became emblematic of Undeland’s seminal work on mapping Harike’s avian diversity. This nightjar species is believed to winter southwards towards Gujarat as availability of insects is better in those warmer climes.
However, when Undeland toured Harike on December 16-19, 2015, after a gap of 17 years, he was dismayed at the assault on riverine wilderness by the totalitarian forces of agriculture, development and religion. The Sutlej plains had been cleared of scrub and colonised by pesticide-dosed farming, ravaged by sand mining and trampled by cattle. In the Sykes’s prime habitat, Undeland watched helplessly the construction of another gigantic power transmission tower. Harike, like other Punjab towns, is now benefited by a steady power supply, which also allows visiting birders endless recharges of camera, laptop and smartphone batteries besides running hot water and smoothly purring blow heaters in resting rooms.
In those old days when wilderness and power cuts reigned supreme, it had been just the nesting Sykes’s female, the whistle of hot winds raking river and scrub, and the sun beating down on a wandering, “crazy gora” who was... not at all lost! And Undeland would then gladly bed at the forests and wildlife department complex at Harike town in a room configured for spartan living. He was then a birding minimalist, not too keen on cameras and content with a binoculars, spotting scope, a jotting book for field notes; and, ecstatic at vast acreages of varied wilderness that were all his to explore, sift and chronicle.
A din to wake the dead
In the good old days of 1980-84, the legendary birdman of India, Dr Salim Ali, would spend a few moments early morning in the garden of the Canal Rest House at Harike before embarking to the sanctuary to check on migratory birds caught for ringing during the night by expert Bihari trappers.
Apart from the fragrance of “desi” roses lilting in the dewy air, the garden was regaled by the morning ragas of birds such as the Magpie robin. Cut to circa 2015, and from 4am onwards, a cacophony of religious discourses blares from loudspeakers. There are many gurdwaras in Harike, and each competes hard to monopolise the eardrums of the devout, both resident and passing through. For a small town like Harike, even one loudspeaker would be enough. But here, multiplicity of discourses, and the fact they are differently sequenced, turns the spirituality of dawn into a virtual nightmare. Harike avians run the risk of getting as disoriented as fireflies, which are vanishing from urban sprawls because darkness and the stars are lost in the glare of city lights.
The new gurdwara of the Bucho Kalan sect from Bathinda, which has come up within the sanctuary next to Harike barrage, is termed an encroachment by the forests and wildlife department. The Bucho Kalan gurdwara’s loudspeaker directly impacts not only the adjoining wetland area where Greylag geese honk and Red-crested pochards bear silently, but the woodland opposite it. This woodland brims with small passerine birds, which call and feed in morning hours. So irritated was Per Undeland, as he waited for this loudspeaker to end its sermon, that he declared: “I will not recommend any birder from Sweden to tour Harike if this is the state of affairs.”
The Salman effect
In the looming elephant grasses of Harike, one may just catch a glimpse of a slowly increasing population of sambars estimated at a 100. These are deer rescued after they strayed into villages of the Harike region and hamlets fringing border jungles, and were rehabilitated in the sanctuary. Old hands in the forests and wildlife department attribute these rescues to a change in people’s attitudes.
Till the turn of the century and a few years beyond, villagers would lynch a sambar for its meat and perceive the creature as a vermin-like threat to crops. The then DFO (wildlife) at Harike, Jagdeep Singh, took an enlightened decision not to send rescued sambars to the Takhni-Rehmapur wildlife sanctuary in Hoshiarpur, as was the practice, but free them in Harike itself.
The department’s rescue team now gets a call from the police control room, which in turn has been alerted by villagers of a sambar marooned in human habitation. Growing awareness over punishment for wildlife crimes, as brought out by the trials and tribulations of Salman Khan in the Black buck poaching case, has checked the killer instinct. The ready availability of cellphones has meant that wildlife crimes are speedily reported. As political awareness grows and competition over resources intensifies, factionalism or
“partybaazi” has gripped rural communities. This means that the sound of gunshots or killing of wildlife can be reported to authorities within minutes by informers in rival camps.