The impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine is being felt as far away as Indian-administered Kashmir, where ornithologists see the conflict as contributing to a shortage of migratory birds which make their way each winter from Europe to the wetlands of the Kashmir Valley.
Every February, the wildlife protection department conducts a census of migratory birds in Kashmir. The department says that more than 1.1 million birds of 39 species visited the region in 2021. The census estimated 810,000 birds in 2020 and 950,000 in 2019.
The department has not yet begun this year’s count but the wildlife warden of wetlands, Ifshan Dewan, told VOA, “I am getting reports from various wetlands on low arrival of migratory birds compared to the last year.”
Experts believe that the nearly year-old war between Russia and Ukraine could be one reason for the reduced size of this year’s migratory flocks, both in Kashmir and elsewhere in the region.
Irfan Jeelani, founder of the birding club Birds of Kashmir, told VOA that birds from China, Siberia, central Asia and Europe visit Kashmir every winter. “Birds from Europe could be affected due to the war and have altered their flyway to reach here; however, weak ones couldn’t reach their destinations,” Jeelani suggested.
A similar pattern has been noted in the neighboring Jammu region, where Parmil Kumar, the head of the department of statistics at the University of Jammu, said the war in Ukraine could have been responsible for some species arriving almost two weeks later than usual.
“There is also a reduction of about 15% in the number of birds visiting this winter to Jammu region,” said Kumar, who is a birder himself.
Bird migration expert Andrew Farnsworth agreed that the Ukraine-Russia war could be a factor affecting the number of migratory birds visiting the Kashmir region this winter but noted that birds come to the valley from many regions besides Europe.
“Maybe slightly, but there are so many other factors and so many more birds arriving from more easterly locations to Kashmir, in addition to ongoing military and industrial activities in and around Kashmir for years,” said Farnsworth, a senior research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“War can and certainly does affect the movements of birds, whether by habitat destruction, increased hunting pressure during long conflicts, or destruction by military actions.”
Wildlife experts are looking to see if this year’s census bears out observations seeming to show significantly reduced populations of bird species that make the trip from Europe, such as the black stork, great white pelican and purple heron.
Wildlife experts in Ukraine say there is no doubt that the war is endangering a wide variety of creatures there.
The conflict has “threatened not only Ukraine’s population but also biodiversity, including a significant number of rare and globally vulnerable bird species,” said a recent article by Oleg Dudkin, CEO of the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds and Martin Harper, regional director at BirdLife Europe & Central Asia.
Asad R. Rahmani, a member of the governing body of Wetlands International South Asia, said another likely explanation for the declining migratory bird population in Kashmir is the destruction of wetlands that provide a winter home for the birds.
“Most birds that come to India belong to the Central Asian Flyway and Ukraine does not fall in this flyway,” he told VOA. “There is always a movement from Europe of some birds. Still, the bulk of the migratory birds come from central Russia, Mongolia, northern China, Tibet, and some countries of central Asia.”
If adequately protected, Kashmir’s wetlands could become a major tourist attraction, he added.
Rashid Naqash, the regional wildlife warden for the Kashmir region, said in an interview that his department is trying its best to protect the region’s wetlands. His department manages eight main wetlands where migratory birds congregate in huge droves during winter.
Regarding the war in Ukraine, Naqash said the migratory birds instinctively avoid places with a lot of activity and instead take safer routes to get to their wintering grounds. But he said, “It is hard, dangerous, and stressful for migratory birds to find other ways to get to where they spend the winter.”