From skies to screens: How migratory cranes threatened by internet

Rafiullah Mandokhail

IN Pashtoon culture and literature, the crane is considered to be a symbol of beauty, an omen of a happy life and good fortune. The tall flying bird is a famous poetic metaphor in Pashto classical literature, also known as the ‘ambassador of peace’. Indeed, the heart-touching call of the crane once inspired a Pashto folk singer to write a song, “Raaghlay Zaanr’ay, Zaanr’ay La Obo Raaghlay, Zaanr’ay,” which translates as “the cranes flock to the water.” Although it is decades-old the song but remained a very popular Pashto Attan (traditional dance) tune.
Perhaps the singer was inspired by the migratory patterns of the cranes. Every year, here in the Zhob valley—which flanks a volatile tribal region— the migration of the cranes heralds the arrival of spring. Thousands of cranes congregate near Zhob River that flows from the north of the city into the Gomal River. The riverbank is an important stopover on the cranes’ long migration route from Siberia’s snowy forests. For those lucky enough to witness it, it is a spectacular nature show. But with every passing season, the cranes are increasingly endangered, not only by hunters and trappers, but by an unexpected threat: the internet.
180 miles away from capital Islamabad, in Bannu district, thirty-year-old Basrullah Khan Wazir sits at his computer. He has recently uploaded an advertisement for pet cranes to a Facebook group. The ad depicts a video of the cranes in a village some where in Bannu district. In it two captured cranes with cut wings are trying to fly, but can not. They look as if they have been kept in a cage for long time.
Khan has also given his contact number along this video. He is one of a growing number of wildlife traffickers in Pakistan taking endangered animals as far from their natural environment as possible selling them online. According to Pakistan’s law, uploading photos of wild animals for selling purposes is a cyber-crime.
But there are no checks on the practice, and no mechanism exists to bring those involved to book. So every year, as cranes flocks over the mountainous vistas of the Zhob valley that also appears online. In big cities including Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, photos of the birds are uploaded on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media platforms. It is estimated that hundreds of cranes are sold each year through these social media platforms. Indeed, a survey conducted by WWF-Pakistan in 2017 unearthed 14 social media sites and as many Facebook pages actively involved in the illegal sale of wildlife in Pakistan.
A resident of Bannu district, in Khyber Pashtoonkhwa province, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described the process from capture to online sale. According to him and other local witnesses, the most recent autumn saw over a hundred hunting parties set up their camps along the Zhob River. The district administration used to impose section 144 and completely ban hunting, he said, but as the migration season approaches, dozens of influential hunting parties still arrive and set up their camps, from where they trap the long-necked birds. The anonymous resident said that soon after the cranes have been captured, the poachers cut their wings off and confine them to cages. In many cases they are forcefully crammed into very small boxes which paralyze their legs. Sometimes he says, the birds who escape return back to their captors. The captured cranes are then transported to the bird markets in big cities, or sold online, “where people belonging from well-off families buy them to keep as pets.”
It appears that this new wave of online crane traffickers is working in tandem with poachers, who take advantage of the birds’ migratory instinct. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN-Balochistan), extremely chilly weather in Siberian forests compels the birds to fly in search of a moderate climate.
These ‘ambassadors of peace’ know no boundaries; their flocks fly across the rivers, mountains and deserts to reach their destination. Their perilous journey starts from Siberia in September-October and by March-April the cranes fly back to their native habitat. They make stopovers at lakes, river banks and water basins in many parts of the country including the mountainous area of Zhob.
But as Sharaf-ud-Din, the head of Zhob’s Forest and Wildlife department said, the birds’ journey is becoming increasingly perilous. The poachers, he said, descend soon after the migratory birds start their journey. “Influential hunters mostly from Lakki Marwat, Bannu and other parts of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province backed by some local people have made the official restrictions and obstacles meaningless, including section 144 imposed by the district administration,” he said. According to recent surveys conducted by WWF-Pakistan, hundreds of bird markets in big cities including Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar exist, selling wild animals including cranes.
The surveys found that Karachi hosted highest numbers of shops and markets dealing in wildlife, followed by Peshawar in Pakistan. In March 2018, UNODC and WWF-Pakistan signed an agreement to work together to curb the illegal wildlife trade in the county. Identifying animal markets is a component of the MoU.
Muhammad Moazzam Khan, Technical Adviser at Wild World Fund WWF-Pakistan said the hunting of the guest birds is a violation of the Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1975 Balochistan, adding there is now a new law entitled “The Balochistan (Wildlife Protection, Preservation, Conservation and Management) Act 2014”, under which all crane species are protected.
“WWF-Pakistan has always voiced against the illegal hunting,” he said, adding that “it has worked with local community based organization which motivates the department to take action against the poachers. However, there is no doubt that the hunters having their contacts and through bribes try to undermine the Government writ. Unfortunately, there is no fund allocated for the cranes’ protection.”
Deputy Commissioner Zhob Shabir Mengal told this scribe that Pakistan is a signatory to the Bonn Convention on Migratory Species. He said the government is committed to curbing illegal wildlife trade with an iron hand, as protecting wildlife from all sorts of threats is the government’s top priority, particularly the problem of the illicit wildlife trade.
Once the law enforcers arrest the poachers-cum-smugglers, cases are registered under the Wildlife and Biodiversity Act of 2015, he said. “Wildlife trade was the most pressing threat to wild animals across the globe including Pakistan. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has recognized the illegal wildlife trade as the third largest transnational crime after drugs and human trafficking,” he explained.

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