It is springtime which means birds in great numbers are migrating northwards over Afghanistan. The wetland in the south-east of Kabul city, Kol-e Hashmat Khan, is an internationally important place for water birds to rest and recuperate before taking back to the air and resuming their flight over some of the world’s highest mountain ranges. Kol-e Hashmat Khan is a place that successive rulers of Afghanistan have also been drawn to – mainly for hunting. When AAN’s Kate Clark visited the lake one April morning, however, she found birdwatchers only. They were enjoying the birds and the beauty of the site, but were also concerned for the wetland’s survival.How Kol-e Hashmat Khan looks to migrating water birds: a haven amid city and mountains (Photo Source: Andrew Scanlon/UNEP)
For more on the birds of Afghanistan, see AAN’s “Bird Dossier.”
Kabul at dawn can be a quiet, clear, dreamily beautiful place. At Kol-e Hashmat Khan, where reed-covered water and sky meet, on the day we visited only ducks and waders broke the green mirror of the lake surface as they took off and landed. There were snowy white great egrets, grey herons, a multitude of duck species, moorhens, coots, stints and redshanks, while overhead, swallows wheeled and plunged. The waterfowl are part of the great spring migration of birds crossing Afghanistan, coming from their Indo-Pakistani wintering grounds and heading north to breeding grounds in Central Asia and Western Siberia – a route known as the ‘Central Asia Flyway’.
The lake is what remains of an extensive marsh formed by the Logar River emptying into the broad plain south of Kabul. As late as the first half of the 20th century, that marshland stretched into what is now Kart-e Naw and Chaman-e Huzuri. (1) However, irrigation canals and increased demand for water reduced the water level. The current lake was formed in the 1920s by damming what had been marshland with three barriers. Currently, the lake is fed by an inlet from the Logar River, rain and snowfall and springs from the nearby mountains.
This wetland – whether in its greater or lesser extent – has been at the heart of historic Kabul for centuries. It is overlooked to the northwest by the Bala Hisar, where there has probably been a fortress on this site since at least since the sixth century, although the current structures were developed during the Moghul period (1505-1738), and, to the west, the historic graveyard called Shuhada-ye Salehin. From here, the 1100 year old Kabul Wall climbs up over the Sher Darwaza mountain, eventually ending up at Babur’s Gardens on the other side. The area around the lake itself contains many historical sites, including the shrine of Jabr-e Ansar. (2)
It was Emperor Babur (1483-1530) who first described the Kol-e Hashmat Khan wetlands. (3) Successive latter-day monarchs sought to protect the lake for hunting: Amir Abdul Rahman Khan (1880-1901) hunted here, as did his son, Habibullah (1901-1919); he also built the Qala-ye Hashmat Khan fort as a guesthouse and hunting lodge on the southeast shore of the lake, and an elevated brick road to the fort directly across it. Zaher Shah proclaimed the lake an official hunting reserve and had it protected by Royal Guards. After the 1973 coup, they were replaced by Republican Guards and, in 1978, the Afghan Government gazetted the wetland as a protected area because of the number and variety of waterfowl found here. However, as one set of authors looking at protected areas in Afghanistan noted, “the legal designations did not survive the ensuing conflict.” (4)
Birdwatchers, not hunters
Kol-e Hashmat Khan just after dawn on the day of the Asian Waterbird Census (Photo source: Kate Clark)
Looking out over the lake and recording the birds there, with the historic sites in the background and the snowy peaks of Paghman behind them, was an altogether more positive experience for this author than her last two forays into reporting on avian migration in Afghanistan. One dispatch told the story of a Pallas’ or Great Black-Headed Gull, a migratory giant of the skies with a wingspan of more than a metre, who had been shot dead by hunters in the Shomali and marketed as a “delicious species of duck” in Bagram. Another relayed how a houbara bustard had been killed by Faryab police who feared it was a “Taleban suicide bomber bird.” They had noticed wires on its body which were actually part of a satellite tracking device fixed by an Uzbekistan-based group monitoring the houbara’s migration.
By contrast, at Kol-e Hashmat Khan, it was a pleasure and a delight to be among, not hunters, but birdwatchers. About thirty of us – all but two Afghan – had come together to take part in the Asian Waterbird Census. (5) We gathered around dawn by the lakeside and climbed a tower, part of an educational centre built by the Ministry of Agriculture’s Conservation Corps Programme on the side of the lake. Among our number were many newcomers to birdwatching, but also several highly expert Afghan ornithologists. (6)
They included Sayed Naqibullah Mostafawi, who had been an engineering graduate from Kabul University “looking for a job, any job,” when he happened to find one with the Wildlife Conservation Society. There, he discovered a passion. “I joined as a research assistant,” he said, “and became very interested in all wildlife, especially birds.” He is now the wildlife NGO’s project manager for the Afghan north east and is usually found in the Wakhan. He has recorded 600 species of birds in Afghanistan, including one, the large-billed reed warbler, which had not been seen anywhere for a hundred years.
There were also local experts taking part in the Asian Waterbird Census, including Sayed Massum Barbari, one of seven rangers, all local men, who work at the lake (employed by the Ministry of Agriculture). He was able, not just to identify the birds on the lake, but also name many of them in Dari. Given that Afghans generally use ‘waterfowl’ (murgh-e abi) as a generic term for all ducks, waders and even gulls, it was interesting to find out that names for individual species do exist. (7) They include the visually descriptive ‘water crow’, zagh-e abi (cormorant), as well as turturak (little crake), named onomatopoeically for its cry (listen to it here).
The birds and their habitat
So, how are the wetland and its birds faring post 2001? The government’s “National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan: Framework for Implementation 2014-2017” describes the site in the 1970s, before coup d’état, war and upheaval:
…the lake proper was state property in the 1970s and was administered by the Department of Ceremonies of the President’s Office. The fields to the south of the lake were property of the public baths while the fields on the northern part of the lake were owned by local residents. Ownership of other lands surrounding the lake was not registered. Rahim and Larsson (1978) noted that there were only a dozen houses between the east side of the lake and the Kabul-Gardez highway. Rahim and Larsson (1978) reported the lake as being about 190 hectares in size and that it becomes “nearly dry” during the summer months.
In the intervening years, reports the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, Habibullah’s hunting retreat, Qala-ye Hashmat Khan, was destroyed during factional fighting in Kabul and houses built on what were once fields with just a dozen houses on them. The Plan also describes more recent abuses. “Influential settlers” have illegally built homes and small businesses on government land, “in many cases right to the water’s edge, reducing the size of the lake to about 150 hectares.” Other settlers, it said, have illegally built houses on the hillside above the lake adding to the population expansion in the area and pressure on the water resources. Building near the lake stopped in 2012. Even so, there are other threats:
Tube wells have been drilled along the lake shore to service the needs of the expanding population adding to the depletion of lake waters. Car washers have set up illegal businesses just below the Bala Hissar and are polluting the lake with the run-off. Hospital waste and garbage has been dumped into the lake itself, sometimes by government owned trucks from Kabul municipality. Local people continue to cut reeds and grasses in the lake, and women launder clothes and household goods at the lake shore. Hunting and harassment of birdlife is still common but now is mainly the prerogative of children and teenagers. The historical Qala-i-Hashmat Khan on the southwestern shore of the lake, once used as a guest house by former royalty and earmarked to be developed into reserve education and awareness centre, was been sold and removed.
Compared with before the war, the numbers of bird species staying to breed are down (from ten species before the war to four now), possibly, say Mostafawi and Stephanie Ostrowski in a 2010 report for the Wildlife Conservation Society, due to the “excessive water drainage in summer and the precocious harvesting of reeds when the lake dries.”(8) Even so, writing in 2010 and comparing surveys of birds before the war (the first scientific accounts were made by German zoologists Günther and Jochen Niethammer in 1967), (9) and since 2001 (the Wildlife Conservation Society made 86 visits between March 2007 and April 2010), they reported a slightly greater diversity of birds. The 2007-10 survey identified 93 species – amounting to almost one quarter of the total number of regular bird species reported in Afghanistan. (10) The number and variety of species which rest here during their northern migration makes Kol-e Hashmat Khan still a wetland of international importance. Moreover, the surveyors recorded five species of global conservation concern – the Dalmatian pelican, ferruginous duck, ‘Western’ black-tailed godwit, Eastern imperial eagle and European roller. They concluded:
Given the small size of the area, its relatively high altitude, the harsh weather conditions in winter, and the immediate vicinity of a population of more than 5 million humans, which increases the likelihood of disturbance, the bird diversity of Kol-e Hashmat Khan appears reasonably high.
Are the waters now drying up?
The wetland may have proved resilient so far, but there is no doubt that it is under severe pressure. Speaking to Naqib Mostafawi from the Wildlife Conservation Society and Ranger Massum Barbari, both were worried that the lake is shrinking and bird numbers appear to be dropping – both numbers of individuals and species. The size of Kol-e Hashmat Khan has always been highly variable. It is never anything but shallow – at most only about 1.5 metres deep – and varies in extent, not just from year to year, depending on how much winter snow and spring rain have fallen, but also by season. Unlike before the war, it now always dries up completely over the summer, probably because of water taken out of both it and the Logar River which feeds it. (When dry, Barbari reported, youngsters play football here, appreciating the flat surface.) It is still dry in autumn and in winter, there may or may not be water, depending on precipitation, and it may or may not be frozen, depending on temperatures (so the lake is really only useful for birds in their spring migration). The other factor looming over the lake is climate change which is already making the air in Afghanistan warmer and reducing precipitation.(11) Even taking into account the lake’s normal yearly and seasonal variations, the lake appears to be in trouble, as Mostafawi explained:
Today, in total, we identified 17 species and saw around 500 birds, but in 2010, in the same week, I recorded 36 species and more than 2000 water birds. Now, the water is less, there is plastic and solid waste in it – people throw everything in there – and the population is encroaching.
The Kol-e Hashmat Khan wetland is currently managed by the Department of Natural Resource Management in the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock. Fields to the south and north are privately owned, but other claims of ownership of land are not registered and are possibly forged. The wetland is now a listed site in the country’s National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, but is not yet legally protected. (See AAN’s analysis of two other sites on this list, Band-e Amir and the Shah Fuladi, which got legally protection in 2009 and 2015, respectively and a good summary of the Kol-e Hashmat Khan site, its ornithological importance and the threats it faces here. The National Biodiversity Plan describes “a new government multiagency coalition” which is “spearheaded by the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) and Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock to deal with the most immediate issues that threaten the integrity and survival of the Kol-e-Hashmat Khan wetland.” (12)
Kol-e Hashmat Khan is an important site, and not just for birds. It is one of the few remaining ‘lungs’ in Kabul, a polluted city with a growing population that needs its natural spaces. For this year, the birds on Kol-e Hashmat Khan will soon be moving on. They are there in greatest numbers now, in March and April (Hut and Hamal in the Afghan calendar). In the fourth week of April, their numbers usually drop significantly and, by mid-May, the lake will almost be deserted of water birds. They will be back next year, though, and for as long as there is a wetland to support them.
A gallery of bird pictures taken on the day of the Asian Waterbird Census can be found here: “Kabul Duck Alert 2: Pictures of birds and birdwatchers at the Kol-e Hashmat Khan wetland.”
(1) Chaman-e Huzuri – the Public Lawn – lies at the east end of Jade Maiwand, in front of the Eidgah mosque and just outside the walls of the Bala Hissar. Long a place of public recreation, it was ‘municipalized’ during the reign of Habibullah Khan who held tented iftar ceremonies there for up to 4,000 people. It was also used for sport (golf and tennis for the royals), nawruz celebrations and military parades. There was a small lake, created on the east side.
(2) May Schinasi wrote on Jabr-e Ansar (summary translation):
In 1822-3 a certain Allah Werdi constructed a tomb over a grave that was considered to be that of Jabr-e Ansar, a revered saint for Kabulis. In fact, the building was erected over two unknown graves which have subsequently been known as Ziarat-e Hazrat Tamim wa Jabr-e Ansar. Afghan historians have pointed out that Jabr was probably the son of the [11th Century] poet and mystic Khwaja Abdullah Ansari, while Hazrat Tamim was a companion of the Prophet, said to have been killed in Kabul in around 664 during one of the first campaigns of the Muslim armies against Kabul. This is what gives the cemetery of Shuhada-e Saleheen [the Righteous Martyrs] its name today.
Kabul 1773-1948 Naissance et Croissance d’une Capitale Royale, Universita degli Studi di Napoli L’Orientale (2008)
(3) Babur wrote:
Southward from the town, and to the east of Shah-Kabul, there is a lake nearly a farsang in circumference… The citadel is of surprising height, and enjoys an excellent climate, overlooking the large lake and three meadows…which stretch below it…
(4) “Setting priorities for protected area planning in a conflict zone – Afghanistan’s National Protected Area System Plan”, McKenzie F Johnson, Nina Kanderian, Christopher C Shank, Haqiq Rahmani, David Lawson, Peter Smallwood, University of Richmond (2012)
(5) The Asian Waterbird Census is an annual count of waterbirds in Asia (from Afghanistan eastwards to Japan) and Australasia which monitors populations, evaluates sites and aims to encourage interest in waterbirds.
The species recorded as part of the census at Kol-e Hashmat Khan on 6 April 2016 – with common English, Latin and (where known) Dari names – were:
Little Grebe, Tachybaptus ruficollis
Great Egret, Casmerodius alba, sabz-e aqar safid
Grey Heron, Ardea cinerea, sabz-e aqar
Common Teal, Anas crecca
Northern Pintail, Anas acuta
Eurasian Widgeon, Anas penelope
Northern Shoveler, Anas clypeata
Mallard, Anas plathyrhynchos
Tufted duck, Aythya fuligula, kakule-ye gelasi
Moorhen, Gallinula chloropus, suara-ye turturak
Coot, Fulica atra, qushqul
Common Redshank, Tringa totanus
Ruff, Philomachus pugnax
Little Stint, Calidris minuta
Brown-headed Gull, Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus
Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica, ghachi
White Wagtail, subspecies ‘Masked Wagtail’, Motacilla alba personata
Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Passer montanus
Eurasian Magpie, Pica pica, akak
(6) Birdwatchers had come via the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), BORDA – a German NGO specialising in waste water – the local rangers and the Kabul Birdwatching Club.
(7) See footnote 5 for some of the Dari names reported by Ranger Massum Barbari. Others were: cormorant, zagh-e abi; golden eye, chamach; little crake, turturak; pelican, qutan; teal, chircha and shellduck, surkh ab.
(8) The little grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis), mallard (Anas plathyrhynchos), coot (Fulica atra), and common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) were found to be breeding “with certitude” (ie nests, eggs and young seen). In the 1960s, ten species were reported to be breeding at the lake.
(9) Thomas Ruttig writes:
If you can read German, refer to these two pages from an article by Jochen Niethammer about Kol-e Hashmat Khan, under the title “Zwei Jahre Vogelbeobachtungen an stehenden Gewässern bei Kabul in Afghanistan” (“Two Years of Birdwatching at Standing Bodies of Water near Kabul in Afghanistan”) in the Journal für Ornithologie, no 2/1967. (The whole article has a paywall.) Niethammer was a guest lecturer at Kabul University’s Faculty of Sciences from 1964 and 1966. In one to two week intervals, he registered the birds of two lakes – Kol-e Hashmat Khan and Kargha Lake – near Kabul between August 1964 and September 1966 and estimated their numbers. Of the 160 registered species, almost half were waterfowl, six of which bred at the lakes. Two of them, the black-necked grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) and common pochard (Aythya farina), were newly discovered as breeding birds in Afghanistan.
His father, Günther Niethammer, travelled three times to Afghanistan in his position as director of the Department of Ornithology of the Zoological Research Museum Alexander König and chairman of the German Zoological Society in 1965, 1966 and 1972. The father also wrote a 1941 article “Beobachten über die Vogelwelt von Auschwitz” (“Sketches about the Birdlife of Auschwitz”). He was a member of the Waffen-SS, and first a guard, later officially an ornithologist at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Sentenced to a prison term in Poland after the war, he then went back to Germany to become on of its leading zoologists.
(10) The following bird species were recorded by the Wildlife Conservation Society at Kol-e Hashmat Khan Wetland between March 2007 and April 2010. Those in bold are vulnerable (VU) or near threatened (NT), ie of global conservation concern:
1 Black-necked Grebe, 3 (sic) Little Grebe, 4 Great Crested Grebe, 5 Dalmatian Pelican (VU), 6 Great Cormorant, 7 Little Egret, 8 Great Egret, 9 Grey Heron, 10 Indian Pond-heron, 11 Little Bittern, 12 Glossy Ibis, 13 Eurasian Spoonbill, 14 Greylag Goose, 15 Common Shelduck, 16 Ruddy Shelduck, 17 Common Teal, 18 Garganey, 19 Gadwall, 20 Eurasian Wigeon, 21 Northern Shoveler, 22 Northern Pintail, 23 Mallard, 24 Tufted Duck, 25 Ferruginous Duck (NT), 26 Common Pochard, 27 Red-crested Pochard, 28 Cotton Teal, 29 Black Kite, 30 Long-legged Buzzard, 31 Golden Eagle, 32 Western Marsh Harrier, 33 Eastern Imperial Eagle (VU), 34 Common Kestrel, 35 Eastern Baillon’s Crake, 36 European Water Rail, 37 Moorhen, 38 Eurasian Coot, 39 Pied Avocet, 40 Black-winged Stilt, 41 Black-tailed Godwit (NT), 42 Lesser Sand Plover, 43 Little Ringed Plover, 44 Common Greenshank, 45 Wood sandpiper, 46 Green Sandpiper, 47 Common Sandpiper, 48 Common Redshank, 49 Spotted Redshank, 50 Ruff, 51 Dunlin, 52 Little Stint, 53 Common Snipe, 54 Steppe Gull, 55 Great Black-headed Gull, 56 Common Black-headed Gull, 57 Slender-billed Gull, 58 Gull-billed Tern, 59 Common Tern, 60 Whiskered Tern, 61 Laughing Dove, 62 Eurasian Collared-dove, 63 Rose-ringed Parakeet, 64 Common Cuckoo, 65 European Roller (NT), 66 Common Hoopoe, 67 Common Kingfisher, 68 European Bee-eater, 69 Eurasian Crag-martin, 70 Northern House-martin, 71 Barn Swallow, 72 Grey Wagtail, 73 Citrine Wagtail, 74 White Wagtail, 75 Water Pipit, 76 Tree Pipit, 77 Long-tailed Shrike, 78 Shrike, 79 Desert Wheatear, 80 Common Stonechat, 81 Indian Reed-warbler, 82 Blyth’s Reed-warbler, 83 Siberian Chiffchaff, 84 Hume’s Leaf-warbler, 85 House Sparrow, 86 Eurasian Tree Sparrow, 87 Rock Sparrow, 88 Rosy Starling, 89 Common Starling, 90 Common Myna, 91 Hooded Crow, 92 Carrion Crow, 93 Eurasian Magpie.
(11) The government’s “National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan: Framework for Implementation 2014-2017” says:
Mean annual temperatures in Afghanistan have increased by 0.6°C since 1960 or about 0.13°C per decade. Increased temperatures have been most pronounced during the autumn, with increases of 0.29°C per decade. Mean rainfall has decreased slightly at an average rate of 2% per decade, mainly due to decreases in spring precipitation (Savage et al. 2008).
Afghanistan has historically experienced climate cycles of about 15 years, of which 2–3 are generally drought. In recent years, however, there has been a marked tendency for this drought cycle to occur more frequently than the historical model predicts. Since 1960, the country has experienced drought in 1963-64, 1966-67, 1970-72 and 1998-2006. The period 1998 to 2005/6 marked the longest and most severe drought in Afghanistan’s known climatic history (ECHO 2006). This increased frequency of drought in recent years appears to be a consequence of increased temperature coupled with reduced spring precipitation (Savage et al. 2008).
(12) A new project for the lake, funded by the Global Environmental Facility, is being developed by the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) and Ministry of Agriculture with the close coordination and support of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and UNEP.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020