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Web-winged and in peril

As encroachment and water scarcity wipe out riverine forests, fruit bats are forced to move into urban areas

By Shaukat Korai |
PUBLISHED September 26, 2021

Many would say that the Indus River is the lifeline of Pakistan’s economy and its biodiversity. However, according to experts, the river faces severe shortage of fresh water in its lower Indus basin due to climate change and diversion of its water by barragesand storage to large dams in upper basin.

The Indus River travels some 3,000 kilometres from Tibet to Arabian Sea - its lower Indus basin a 900 km away from the sea in Sindh. The shortage of fresh water in huge quantity in the dams and barrage in the upper basin of the Indus wiped out riverine forest and imbalanced the ecology, and consequently this compelled the forest’s wildlife to seek out new shelter.

Fruit bats from the riverbed, after losing their habitat and food resources, fled to a new destination in the urban area. However, urban cities have not been as welcoming to the intrusion. Recently, it was reported that the local police slayed around 400 fruit bats in vicinity of Nawab Shah - the fifth largest city of Sindh and situated 300 km away from Karachi.

These fruit bats themselves prefer the lush greenery of the riverine forest because of the dense and lush older trees in the area as well as the thin human population. These bats are not only in lower Indus basin but their colonies are in the upper basin of the Indus and they can also be found in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. A research study by the Department of wildlife and ecology, University of Veterinary and Animals Sciences Lahore conducted on the public perception about fruit bats in Peshawar and Charseda district, revealed that the general public was widely unaware of the fruit bats services for ecology and same was the case in Nawab Shah.

Mehru Bhutto, a resident living on the outskirts of Nawab Shah said that these bats had been seen here for many years. The bats fly at night and return to their roosts during the day. “I also heard that they are harmful for humans and orchards specifically for olive but we have never been harmed by them,” she added.

The district police who have been responsible for killing the bats claim that they have slayed them upon the complaints of the residents because these are harmful for people as well as orchards.

Wildlife has been given protection under the U/S 21 of the Wildlife Act 2020. Under the act, it is prohibited to kill wildlife which includes the fruit bats. These fruit bats play a key role as they disperse seeds in their droppings and carry a dusting of pollen from tree to tree, fertilising flowers as they feed. According to wildlife conservator Javed Mahar, “They are beneficial mammals for the ecology and play a pivotal role in seed dispersal to develop the plants.”

“Their important roles cannot be denied to maintain plants and forests for ecology as they ultimately benefit people and the environment,” he said, adding that the bats have also played a significant role in the agro-ecosystems of Pakistan. “These pollinate the flowers and serve as vectors for seed dispersal.”

According to the conservator, these fruit bats are attracted to the fragrance of eucalyptus plantations in the inland areas as riverine habitats have already faced retrogression due to human action as well as climate change, which has affected their habitat and food resources.

Statistics obtained from the review report on Pakistan titled, ‘Food and Agriculture Organisation of United Nations 2019,’ approximately 84 per cent of Pakistan’s area is semi-arid or arid out of this 49 per cent is arid which receives less than 250 mm of rainfall and 250 to 500 mm rain falls in the semi-arid annually. The forest sector of Pakistan manages 55.3 per cent area of land biomass and out of this, only 5.1 percent is under forest covered while the rest of the land used is for pastures and range lands. That review report declared Pakistan a forest poor country, which has only 0.021 hector per person forest cover equal to 2260.43 square feet, compared to the world average of 1 hector/person.

According to President Society for the Protection of Animal Rights (SPAR) Zain Mustafa, “All that we see in Nawab Shah is the consequences of human intervention in nature. You see such news from everywhere these days. Somewhere its fruit bats whereas elsewhere its leopards. It’s all the result of human intervention in nature.”

“At this moment we need public awareness [on the issue] and this includes making the police are of it too. We should tell everyone how important is ecosystem is to us and why it is important to have wild life in this ecosystem,” said Mustafa. “I don’t blame the police for killing the fruit bats. Someone influential must have complained about it and they did it. I do believe police would not have basic awareness about the fruit bats.”

“Our organisation is planning to meet high officials of police to convince them that some portion of their training should be allocated for ecosystem and the wildlife,” he added. “We have also planned to meet religious scholars for cooperation in public awareness of animal rights,” said the president of SPAR.

Nawaz Kunbhar, who is the author of 15 books on wildlife, said that there is no room for species in the current state of riverine forest because these are almost extinct. “Political and powerful people have removed forest for agriculture and now they are growing crops on thousands of acres of land. Under these circumstances, the future of wildlife has come under question.”

“Fruit bats came out of the forest only after losing their habitat and food sources, only to be killed by the police. The police commits the heinous crime. The blood should be avenged by the police,” he added.

“Wildlife is now searching for a new destination for their survival. Whether riverine wild life or land forest - both are in grave danger. Parrots and rabbits - both species are extinct now in the land forest,” said Nawaz.

Both Moosa and Bhanwer forest in district Larkana and Noshero feroz used to comprise dense and lush green trees many decades ago. However, both forests are now barren with much of its land devoid of trees and is being used for agricultural purposes. According to Anwar Pirzado, a resident of Bhalhrejee which adjoins Mohenjo-Daro near the bank of Indus River, the two forests were grown on thousands of acres but political influential have encroached both forests and grown crops there instead now.

Pirzado cultivates his ancestral river land. He says that as a child when he used to run through these forests, so dense were the lands that no one could get through them however there are no more forests in the river bed now. “Political influential people are cultivating crops now in the forest land,” he added.

According to Riverine forest Researcher Professor Habibullah Abbasi, the forests have been depleted about 90 to 95 per cent, which has impacted the wildlife as they have lost their habitat as well as their food resources. This has therefore, naturally led to the migration of their wildlife.

Abbasi’s research team has found alarming changes in the Sukkur-Shikarpur and Nawab Shah-Hyderabad region of Indus. The overall forest’s cover used to be 42.67 percent. However, after 1979 that cover gradually decreased to 0.722 percent by 2010. According to his research, the loss of the riverine forest on a large scale is terrifying for the future of biodiversity and the embankment of the river. Abbasi also said that their new research under gone but delayed due Covid-19 pandemic so far reveals that situation has deteriorated further.

Similarly, Nawaz explained that there are two to three factors for deforestation. One is depletion of water by climate change and secondly, the man-made shortage in the lower basin of Indus and thirdly those who remove forest and encroach the land and they have managed tract (Ketees) for agriculture purpose there.

Water expert Idrees Rajput, who has served as an official for more than 30 years for irrigation in Sindh, identified two major causes for shortages of fresh water. One is climate change and second is diversion of fresh water for agriculture purpose and storage for dams within the vicinity of upper river basin in Punjab-one of the largest populated provinces of Pakistan.

Rajput says this is because climate change glaciers are melting and also because the lower basin of Indus doesn’t receive its due share of water whatsoever documented in 1991 water accord. “The problem is that the lower basin of Sindh does not get its fair share of water whatsoever, which is enshrined in the 1991 water accord. This is a double whammy for Sindh and its ecology,” he said.

In 1991, the four provinces of Pakistan agreed on the distribution of water resources, according to same agreement, 48 million acre-feet (MAF) of water was allocated to the Sindh for both Kharif and Rabi seasons of the year including 10 MAF downstream Kotri for deltaic area annually, of which share it out 33.94 MAF for Kharif and 14.82 MAF.

According to Statistics obtained from Government of Sindh, that province has faced heavy shortage of water, from 2012 to 2021. Its share is 536.36 MAF but 452.09 MAF received only. During this period Sindh faced average 15 percent shortfall in Kahrif and 17 percent in Rabi Season from its due share according accord 1991.

Idrees, emphasis that water accord should be implemented with letter and spirit. He elucidate that no doubt climate change is major cause of water shortage but whatsoever available resources of water these should be distributed accordingly.

Kunbhar says, Authorities must ensure balance ecology and protection of forests and wildlife, make public aware of how important ecology, forest and wildlife are to us. Forests are providing food security and shelter, and are essential to combating climate change, protecting biodiversity, supporting economic development, future employment opportunities, and the livelihoods. Government ensures the application of the law that come only with good governance which is a question in developing countries.