Context & Culture

Afghanistan Bird Watch


The most underreported Afghan story of January 2010 already has been identified: One of the world rarest birds has been spotted in Badakhshan.

Overshadowed by the coverage of the London conference, the BBCreported that scientists of the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society found specimen of the large-billed reed warbler (photo), one of the rarest birds on earth, during research in Badakhshan province and identified it on the basis of DNA taken. The bird had last been spotted in India in 2006. The birds even are reported to belong to a breeding colony. The scientists involve say that ‘ironically the ongoing war and the remoteness of their location have helped their survival’.

The finding of the warblers is a good sign: The country had almost as many bird species as Europe before the war (410; Europe 465; source: Ernst Kullmann, Die Tierwelt, in: Willy Kraus (ed.), Afghanistan: Natur, Geschichte und Kultur, Staat, Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft, Tuebingen and Basel 1972) and it has to be feared that many of them were extinct by the war.

Maybe, at least some might have survived – like the Badakhshan warbler. Travelling through Afghanistan’s provinces for many years, though, I was always happy about the rare occasion when I could see any other bird then the ubiquitous crows and maina starlings: the plenty of swallows in spring and summer almost all over the country, the green parakeets in the garden of the King’s palace (and beyond), a kingfisher in Arghandab (Kandahar), pheasants and a European roller (Coracias garrulus) in Khost or even a pair of golden orioles (I am not sure about the exact species) that lived for a few weeks in the EUSR office compound in summer 2007. (I had another oriole sighting in Tsamkanai district of Paktia in 2003.) And I swear that I was not under the influence of any substance when I saw a flock of four or five black swans flying over the Wardak desert (Charkh district) towards the mountains in early November 2004. Unfortunately, no camera was at hands but I have an Afghan witness.

There are also some sad stories. One is the story about the large breeding colonies of the pink flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber roseus) at the two lakes Ab-e Istada and Ab-e Nawur, to the west of Ghazni, that were seen for the last time in the early 1970s. The recommendation of the International Conference on the Conservation of Wetlands and Waterfowl held in 1971 in Ramsar (Iran) that the Afghan government protected Ab-e-Istada and Dasht-e-Nawar met a positive response by the Wildlife Management Department of the Afghan Ministry for Agriculture, established in 1972, but came too late. Excessive hunting and the drought of 1970/71 has destroyed the colonies. The story is told by Gunther Nogge, a German ornithologist (Beobachtungen an den Flamingobrutplätzen Afghanistans, J. Orn. 115, 1974: pp. 142-151; I am happy to send a PDF file of the whole article to anyone interested).

Here a summary of what Nogge’s article (gratefully unearthed from Heidelberg University Library by my son Jan Ruttig) says – it also sheds some rare light on the ecological changes many parts of Afghanistan have faced over the last 30 years:

The first one who possibly mentioned the flamingo colonies was no one less than Emperor Babur, the founder of the Moghul empire, who passed the area in 1504 on his way back from Dera Ghazi Khan to Ghazni and Kabul:

When we still had one körüh to go to Ab-e Istada, we became witnesses of a splendorous spectacle: From time to time, a red glow lit up, almost as the shine of the afterglow […]. When we came closer we realized that this were gigantic swarms of wild flamingos.

Babur gave a figure of more than 10 or even 20,000 birds. But there is a translation issue. My German copy of Babur’s memories speaks of ‘wild geese’. Indeed, the German reports of the 1970s mention lots of ruddy shelducks (Cassarca ferruginea) at Ab-e Istada that are brownish-red. On the other hand, the Germans also report that the flamingos often stood so far away in the water that they only saw a ‘pink cloud’ and were unable to count the individual birds.) So, what did Babur really see? And what did he it? (On this, see further below.)

Contemporary visitors counted 1000 (1965), 4000 (1966), 5100 flamingos (not geese) plus 1000 young birds that were bred on some islands in the lake (1969) and 2900 (1970) at Ab-e Istada and almost 12,000 at Ab-e Nawur. This one was the highest known breeding place of the pink flamingos worldwide with 3100 meter above sea level. Some flamingos were caught for the Kabul Zoo and successfully raised there. Apart from the flamingos, some 40 other species of birds were spotted, among them different kinds of cranes and seagulls, herons, spoonbills, brown ibises, geese and ducks.

While the islands on which the flamingos bred were fully enclosed by water one meter deep in 1969, the lake had lost much of its water (the local population did not use boats and did not know how to swim), they were accessible in the following year and the waterline had receded. German ornithologists found makeshift shooting stands on one of the islands, indicating that the local population had started hunting the flamingos. In this year, this prevented the birds from breeding.

When in winter of 1970-71 the snowfalls and the following spring rains failed, Ab-e-Istada – with its periodical raise and fall of the water level, wasn’t able to regenerate. At another visit of the Germans on 18 April 1971, only a few water holes were left of the lake, with only some 500 flamingos. Exactly a month later, the lake was completely gone. Except from a few small ones, no birds were there anymore. Ab-e Nawur was almost dry in mid-June 1971, with some 6000 flamingos remaining; in early July it was fully dry, too, and all birds gone. Nomads, that were driven out of their grazing areas early by the drought as well, had passed the area with their flocks. Ab-e Istada had recovered in 1972, in contrast to Ab-e Nawur, and some 1500 flamingos had returned but have not resumed breeding because of human interference at both places. But also the new Sarda dam erected in 1970 that blocks a tributary to Ab-e Istada from the northeast might have interrupted the regeneration of the lake. The rest is lost in the thunder of war.

No one I asked in the South-Eastern region when I worked there in 2003 remembered the birds and I had no time, unfortunately, to go there and check myself when it still was possible. (Pacha Khan kept me busy most of the time.)

Interesting, from a linguistic point of view (and we are in Pashto Mashto, after all), is Nogge’s discussion of how Afghans call the flamingo in their language: In general, the word for flamingos in Dari is qaz-e Hosseini. (Qazis goose, by the way, i.e. Hoissein’s goose – and probably that’s the ‘goose’ seen by Babur.) A story is told, Nogge continues, that the birds’ red colour has been caused by the blood of Hossein, in which they mournfully had bathed after he had been martyred in Kerbela in 680. As a result, flamingos were neither hunted or their meat eaten. (This sounds like a Shia tale to me; Hossein was one of the sons of caliph Ali the founder of Shia Islam.) And Nogge continues: The human population at Ab-e Istada, though, does not reject eating flamingo meat – and also calls the bird by another name: ding. But this is the name used for marabou (or adjutant), a long-legged vulture not related to the flamingo, says Nogge and suggests, that, maybe, this renaming is a trick to circumvent the flamingo meat taboo.

But, maybe, Nogge just does not speak Pashto. Because in Pashto, ding(with a retroflexive ‘d’ and a long ‘ee’) means – goose.

Finally, Nogge suggested to guarantee protection from hunting for the flamingos by ‘raising the awareness of the strictly Musulman population at Ab-e Istada about the confusion of names and the meaning of the [original] name qaz-e Hosseini’. That might not do the trick, though, because Sunni Pashtuns – who live around Ab-e Istada – might not be impressed by a Shia story.

So much about the flamingos. Anyone interested in joining AAN’s Afghan birdwatcher subgroup?

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture, Economy & Development