Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, will America allow Afghanistan to lick its wounds and restore its natural heritage?
|In India, the wintering Siberian Crane has been missing in action for nearly a decade|
Afghanistan has always suffered for its place on the map. For millennia, before traders discovered the Silk Route across the Hindu Kush mountains through the Khyber Pass into the riparian plains of the Punjab, before the armies of invaders from Persia thundered into the Indian subcontinent, and before Russians and Americans overran the land in pursuit of mercenary friends-turned-foes, Siberian Cranes flew unmolested over these vast natural barriers to their wintering grounds in India. Though migrating birds have been traditionally hunted in these parts, the outbreak of relentless war has so disturbed their passage that the critically endangered Siberian Cranes have not visited their ritual haunts in Bharatpur, India since 2002.
Of the migratory crane species, the Siberian Crane (Grus leucogeranus) has the longest travel route. They are known to use three distinct migration flyways to their wintering grounds. Of the three surviving populations, birds in western Siberia that winter in northern Iran use the Western Flyway, and those that winter in India use the Central Flyway. The third route, the Eastern Flyway, is used by a breeding population in northeastern Siberia to migrate to Poyang Lake in China. The Western and Central Flyways intersect in Russia and parts of Kazakhstan.
Birds using the Central Flyway traditionally migrated over a distance of 5,000 km from western Siberia through the Russian Federation, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan to wintering grounds that once spanned most of northern India including parts of Bihar. The Keoladeo Ghana bird sanctuary in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, was a well-documented wintering ground of the cranes. Cranes are sensitive to disturbance and over time, as war games intensified in the territories along the cranes' Western Flyway, the numbers of Siberian Cranes migrating into India dropped alarmingly. The birds were denied opportunity to descend to their traditional resting and feeding grounds en route to their final wintering destination. The last pair was recorded at Bharatpur in 2002.
|Heedless of political boundaries, wintering Siberian Cranes flew 5,000 km to their destinations along routes that traversed several nations|
The Cold War warmed up in Afghanistan when America armed Mujahideen fighters with nearly $40 billion in weapons, including portable anti-aircraft missile launchers called Stingers, in order to weaken the Soviet Union's hold in the region. After the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of Soviet power centres in the Kremlin, the weapons remained with the mercenary fighters who changed sides at will in the decades of civil war that followed.
The southeastern part of Afghanistan was once covered with lush forests irrigated by monsoon rains. Less than two percent of those forests remain. In recent years, large parts of Afghanistan have been controlled by Taliban militia who, apart from committing humanitarian atrocities, also denuded the land of its forests. While the Taliban-supported timber mafia pillaged most standing forests for the Pakistan market, military bombings have ruined the remaining tracts. Hazardous pollutants from the explosives, including depleted uranium from anti-tank missiles, pose grave threats to the continued survival of humans and wildlife in the region. Fears are even raised of uranium dust being blown into rivers by windstorms. Depleted uranium has a half-life of 4.5 billion years and clearly the problems of war are not about to go away in a hurry.
After 9/11 the US administration, in pursuit of Al Qaeda, bombed Afghanistan without relent. It is ludicrous to imagine that thoughts of the country's wildlife and environment even troubled policymakers during heated discussions in the interest of US national security. With the reported killing of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2, America has exacted more than its pound of flesh.
What, now, will become of Afghanistan? Will the bombings continue? A part of me wonders hopefully: Why can't America, as part of its much-publicised rebuilding efforts, take stewardship of Afghanistan's ecology and allow nature to work her rescuscitating magic?
Will the Siberian Cranes arrive in India by the Central Flyway again? I'm just being a foolish optimist, listening for the rush of the wind in wings of hope.
Text: Bijoy Venugopal
Photographs: International Crane Foundation photo gallery