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Mining threatens Swan river, Punjab's Sarus crane habitat

IANS | September 25, 2022 10:50 AM

NANGAL (Punjab): The channelisation of the seasonal Swan river in areas bordering Punjab and Himachal Pradesh has helped in reclaiming thousands of acres of agricultural land, but is also threatening the local Sarus cranes with extinction. Sarus is the tallest flying bird in the world, that was once on the rise in the area.

Wildlife experts told IANS after its regular sightings in Punjab's Nangal marshy areas almost a decade and a half ago, its sighting now is rare as most of them either vanished with the gobbling up of ponds and increased illegal mining or they migrated to other areas.

The Sarus crane attains a height of up to 6 feet, with a wingspan of 8 feet. It is the tallest of all the 15 species of cranes in the world. Its habitat is shallow wetlands, marshes, ponds and fields.

"The destruction of ponds and marshy land on the banks of the Swan has destroyed the natural habitat of many wildlife species, including the Sarus crane, " wildlife photographer Prabhat Bhatti told IANS on Saturday.

He said the banks of the Swan that fall in Himachal's Una district and Punjab's Ropar district were once the breeding ground for the Sarus cranes.

As per an estimation by Bhatti, who is based in Nangal town, some 100 km from Chandigarh at the foothills of the Shivaliks in Ropar district, 18 Sarus cranes were spotted in the area by the state wildlife wing 15 years ago.

"In the latest survey, only a pair of Sarus cranes was spotted, " said Bhatti, who believes their habitat has been destroyed mainly due to the channelisation of the rivulet and increased construction and mining activity.

He has been monitoring over 18 Sarus cranes since 2005 in the marshy areas of Swan. He photographed 14 Sarus cranes at one place in 2008.

The Red Data Book -- a compendium of species facing extinction -- has put the Sarus in the "vulnerable" category.

Earlier, the wildlife wing had sighted the Sarus in the Sahaila Pattan area of Gurdaspur district too. As per wildlife experts, their sighting has declined notably.

The Swan, earlier known as a river of sorrow, with a catchment of 1, 400 sq km is 85 km long of which 65 km fall in the hill state and the remaining in Punjab.

The river channelisation project, started in 2000, aims to regenerate forests, protect farmlands from flooding and reduce soil erosion mainly in Una district, bordering Punjab. The total length of embankments is around 387.6 km and the total area to be reclaimed is 7, 164 hectares for irrigation purposes.

Responding to the decline of marshy areas with the river channelisation, a wildlife expert told IANS the wetland ecosystems are very dynamic and require a lot of "intervention", which protected wetlands do not receive due to lack of information and a stringent law that was not made with the wetlands in mind.

"Also, there are no trained forest department staff specializing in wetlands conservation and management, " he added.

Explaining the behaviour and habitat of the Sarus crane, K.S. Gopi Sundar, the global Co-chair of the IUCN Stork, Ibis and Spoonbill Specialist Group, told IANS in an interview that the Sarus cranes live as flocks and need large shallow wetlands to roost in the night and for feeding.

"When flooded areas, beside canals and rivers, are reduced, the non-breeding flocks (that can be up to 60 per cent of the local Sarus population) are displaced permanently."

The non-breeding flocks are young cranes that either do not yet have a partner, or recently paired cranes still looking for a territory.

The channelisation of the rivers is a bad scenario for the long lived species since it "loses safe roost sites and flies into areas that it is unfamiliar with".

According to Gopi, the author of the Sarus crane chapter in the global Crane Action Plan, many non-breeding Sarus that are displaced like this (Swan channelisation) fall prey to electricity lines that they are unfamiliar with in areas new to them.

Such disappearance of wetlands also reduces territory quality of the breeding pairs leading to reduced reproduction. "The effects are multiplicative and such conversion of wetlands is one of the primary reasons why Sarus are declining, " added the expert on cranes.

In places like Uttar Pradesh where irrigation canals and the monsoon help provide water throughout the year, the breeding Sarus cranes maintain territories throughout the year.

In other areas like Rajasthan and some parts of Gujarat, where water dries up during the severely hot summers, territorial pairs are forced to join other cranes in the few existing water bodies on the landscape.

Sundar believes that retaining traditional farming and helping farmers raise suitable crops is the key to conservation of species like Sarus cranes that largely live on farmlands.

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