Rural and urban students are learning about the need to maintain the ecological health of wetlands as a waterfowl refuge, especially for wintering migrants in Uttar Pradesh in north India. Faiza Abbasi is a CEC member and wildlife teacher from the Aligarh Muslim University.
The Indo-Gangetic plains of northern India harbor a dense concentration of lakes and ponds - called jheel in the vernacular, which support large congregations of migratory waterfowl arriving from the high altitudinal ranges of central Asia and cooler northern climes up to Siberia. The Sheikha Lake in the Aligarh District of Uttar Pradesh is a perennial lake alongside an irrigation canal that is surrounded by farmland on all sides. Every year during winters the lake is thronged by thousands of ducks, geese, terns and waders traversing from wide ranges. Apart from this the woody and scrub vegetation in the adjacent livestock rearing land provides an integrated habitat for many resident birds, breeding colonies for colonial nesters, communal roosting sites and nesting opportunities for many land birds. Owing to the presence of important avian species assemblages and some threatened birds (Sarus Crane, black-headed ibis, black-necked crane) according to the IUCN category in the red list the lake and its environs have been designated as an IBA site. However, the natural ecosystem of the lake has been under anthropocentric pressures of wild bird poaching, habitat degradation due to grazing, siltation and eutrophication; excessive harvest of fish and cultivation of water crops.
When I worked for my Ph.D. on the comparative ecology of herons in the Lake, I realized the potential of community based conservation amongst the local youth specially those with some education. In 2003 I conducted a conservation awareness campaign for the survival and sustenance of waterfowl at the Sheikha Lake with the aid of BirdLife International and Bombay Natural History Society. In a nature camp where children from the nearby city schools and rural schools in the vicinity of the lake were sensitized about the joys of birdwatching and the significance of biodiversity conservation. The participants were encouraged to come up with catchy one-liners in a slogan competition organized on the spot. Later based on the knowledge imparted during the camps a quiz competition was also organized and the teams were facilitated by eminent dignitaries. All participants were presented with a copy of a bird identification guide. Such global attention and publicity in the media to a local site instilled the community with pride and the youth came forward towards better management of the lake and protection of its avifauna. Some development assistance from the forest authorities has converted it into a recreational attraction and today it also provides income generating opportunities to the enterprising locals.
Unfortunately, the pressure of cash cropping is building up and some incidences of bird poisoning have been reported in the last couple of years as gregarious birds such as Greylag Geese feeding in farmlands cause considerable damage to winter crops. Yet, reiterating my faith in traditional tolerance of the larger part of the community, I am networking with the local authorities and regional language media while taking in confidence the village elders, youth and women to condemn bird poisoning. My next communication action campaign for the community is planned to persuade the farmers against lethal and chemical measures of damage control and adapt integrated pest management techniques trying physical measures first. Hopefully the local groups coordinated by their contribution to conservation and knowledge management will come across as an effective tool for ensuring long-term survival of the natural bounties of the lake and its status as an IBA site.
Dr. Faiza Abbasi