October 14: Harike sanctuary, a large wetland in India’s Punjab district, has just undergone a massive clean-up operation. The sprucing-up of a large part of the sanctuary has been done to welcome a special group of tourists who had stopped coming to the sanctuary because it had stopped being hospitable.

These tourists used to come all the way from Siberia, China, Central Asia and Ladakh to escape the harsh winter months. They were migratory birds like the cotton teal and common pochard, says a report in ‘The Indian Express’. Almost 360 species of birds have been recorded earlier in the vicinity of the sanctuary.

Then they stopped coming to Harike because its surface got covered choc-a-bloc with a tenacious weed called the water hyacinth. Harike is one of six wetlands in India, along with Chilka and Bharatpur, to be declared as one of international importance.

In fact, Dr Salim Ali, India’s well-known ornithologist, ha dstated in the early 1980s that the sanctuary, spread over 41 sq km, had a greater potential than India’s famed Bharatpur migratory bird sanctuary.

But that was until the water-hyacinth was introduced in the wetlands. A foreign weed imported from South America, the hyacinth grew indiscriminately all over the surface of the water covering nearly 10 sq km of it. It not only prevented the birds from settling in the water, but stifled plant life in the water and bred a whole lot of water snakes in it.

For nearly 20 years, the Punjab government failed to clear it. Then last year the Indian Army’s 7 Infantry Division stepped in. And in less than three months, managed to rid the water of the ugly weed.

The tourist influx is expected to go up this year with the arrival of 13 species of dabbling and diving ducks and the Bar-headed and Greylag Geese. After all, the food they fancy – four varieties of aquatic plants – are now flourishing in the now-clean waters.

Army Comes to the Aid of Birds
Army Comes to the Aid of Birds [Illustration by Sudheer Nath]
The clean-up was done in a systematic manner. Video images of the wetland were taken from the helicopters at the beginning. The second step was to look for information on websites devoted to the water hyacinth, and then an action plan was devised.

About 150 army officers, jawans and labourers, along with workers of the Punjab Wildlife and Forests Department, loaded themselves into trucks and assault boats and got to work at the wetlands, armed with rakers and cutters.

And when these did not prove effective enough, additional help was made available by army officers balancing on barrels and pulling out the huge masses of the wed with ropes.

The result – more than 1.5 lakh tonnes of hyacinth removed at a cost of just Rs 17 lakh or US$37,778 (assuming Rs 45 to US$1). And the return of the birds who had been forced to give up their annual visits to Harike.

Harike is the first major wetland destination after Kashmir for birds flying down from the northern hemisphere. The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) is, thus, setting up a field station here.

The Punjab Government, too, plans to spend Rs 50 lakh or US$1,11,111 (assuming Rs 45 to US$1) on developing the idea of eco-tourism, or tourism that does not disrupt the ways of life of the local population and habitat. Bird-watching towers, log huts and hotels will be constructed near the sanctuary for this purpose.