War zone refugia? Establishing a baseline for protected waterbirds in a wildlife refuge flanked by agriculture and militarization
Parsons and Kannan BMC Res Notes
War zone refugia? Establishing a baseline for protected waterbirds in a wildlife refuge flanked by agriculture and militarization
Michael H. Parsons 0
Prameek M. Kannan 1
0 Department of Biological Sciences, Fordham University , Bronx, NY 10458 , USA
1 Department of Biology, Pace University , Pleasantville, NY 10570 , USA
Objectives: The welfare of threatened fauna should not be assumed merely because their refuges have been designated with protected status. This is particularly true in geographical areas where social/military events drive an under-reported, but potentially lethal, type of human-wildlife interaction. Waterbirds of Gharana Wetland Conservation Reserve consist mostly of threatened species. However, as occurs globally, 'protected' fauna near contested borders are sometimes affected by military forces. As part of a larger project to document regional avifauna, we report the seasonal status of waterbirds in order to help establish a baseline for comparing conservation of wildlife within contested areas to that of fauna in more secure refuges. We examined 24 avifauna surveys for relationships between seasons, temperature, individuals and species. Results: 28 of 61 waterbird species were rare. We found seasonal variations in individuals (F3,731 = 3.82; P < 0.01) and species (F3,11 = 5.81; P < 0.05) with a major influx in late winter, rather than autumn. Thus, while this sanctuary serves as an over-wintering site, it is also a stop-over site for high-altitude migrations. While providing this baseline, we offer a reminder that the welfare of wildlife in protected areas should be monitored seasonally, with the ongoing threats to their conservation, carefully documented.
Conservation monitoring; Avifauna and militarization; Remote wetland biodiversity; War zone refugia
Human militarization can influence the behaviors and
population status of wildlife [
] however, few
studies documenting this type of human–wildlife conflict
(HWC) focus on protected refuges or wildlife
sanctuaries . Indeed, gaining the formal protection of a
wildlife sanctuary is often considered an end unto itself [
The Gharana Wetland Conservation Reserve (GWCR;
32°32′28″N; 74°41′27″E; 281 m asl) is a critical wetland
(~ 0.75 km2) situated along the international
Indo-Pakistan border. While wetlands provide shelter for more
than 12% of all animal species and 40% of all birds [
wetland may be especially important because it is found
along the Central Asian flyway (Palearctic–Oriental) for
winter and summer migrations [
]. The relatively mild
winters and abundant resources attract rare and
threatened species from as far away as Siberia and Mongolia.
However, as occurs in regions throughout the world—
despite the international and local designations for
]—the local political and economic
conditions challenge the “protected status” of endangered and
The principal threats to conservation in GWCR
relate directly to its proximity to a contested
geopolitical border. Following independence in 1947, both
India and Pakistan claimed the same ‘line-of-control’
]. Thus, for the past 70 years, there has been varying
levels of military activity, including use of 82 mm
mortars, in the area [
]. These shells can influence the
wildlife directly through ordinance-strikes, or indirectly
through reverberation [
]. In 2003, a formal ceasefire
was declared. Ironically, this action increased
anthropogenic pressure and revealed a complex dynamic
between militarization and agriculture, found here [
and other regions around the world [
]. Whereas, the
declaration of a ceasefire did not completely halt the
shelling, but instead limited the threat enough so that
farmers moved into cultivate the wetland for farming.
Complex dynamics between militarization and agriculture
Locally, farmers not only endure stray firing, they also
compete with wildlife for crops. As occurs in most
avifauna refuges, migrant visitors are herbivores, and thus
consume seeds, saplings, wheat and even crops such as
basmati rice, a local mainstay. When migrants arrive
in winter, palatable shoots of wheat and rice seedlings
are already germinating [
], Consequently, waterbirds
are not only threatened by shelling, but also by farmers
who chase them with firecrackers which (ironically, if
not purposefully) mimic gunfire and reverberation [
Additionally the refuge is compromised because
villagers deposit their wastes into the wetland, thus,
exacerbating silting [
]. Pollution from fertilizers and
domestic animal excreta are further threats. Lastly,
some farmers intentionally dump soil into the wetland
to increase farmable surface area. The take home lesson
is that there is a complex and under-reported dynamic
between military and agricultural conflicts.
Unfortunately, wildlife in such protected habitats may not be as
sheltered as we suppose [
From a global perspective, decreases in the
abundance or fluctuations of waterbirds are particularly
important to document in areas such as these [
conditions of which, may be exacerbated by human
presence and ‘both types’ of disturbance. As such, the
status of water-birds—in particular any changes in the
number of seasonal migrants—is one of the key
distinguishing attributes of its biodiversity when threatened
by anthropogenic factors [
]. By formally
documenting this information, researchers may help promote the
potential for ecotourism, as well as compensation for
Contested areas such as GWCR are recognized as “war
zone refugia” [
], but fauna within are not
well-documented. Our objectives were to seasonally document
the residential status, relative abundance, richness,
evenness and feeding guilds of waterbirds in the GWCR
over a full year. This information represents an essential
step in a comprehensive plan to document the wildlife
in this protected region, and to obtain baseline data for
longitudinal comparisons of secure sanctuaries.
Gharana 32°32′28″N; 74°41′27″E; 281 m above sea level,
located on the Indo-Pakistan border in the south-western
part of Jammu and Kashmir, is composed of a rain-fed
swamp with a bottom surface of loamy clay with
decaying vegetation. It is in the subtropical climatic zone where
summer temperatures reach 46 °C maximum and winter
minima decrease to 2 °C. Annual rainfall is ~ 1331 mm,
with the majority of precipitation occurring when the
south-western monsoon winds arrive (July–September).
Vegetation includes Eicchornia spp., Hydrilla spp. [
and the common reed (Typha spp.). Due to local
development, there is also surface runoff from agricultural fields
The agricultural fields adjacent to Gharana village also
provides both suitable habitat, and concomitant threats,
for a diverse group of bird taxa [
]. These characteristics
make this protected area both accessible and
economically important. This wetland is also located in a state
known for outdoor activities and adventure (Jammu and
Kashmir), and is internationally renowned for
birdwatching and mountaineering [
Our methods have been previously reported in the
overarching project [
], except herein we report seasonal
fluctuations limited to waterbirds, as the data was far too
prodigious to include in one report. Twenty-four surveys
were conducted from July 2012 to June 2013, covering
all seasons; summer (April–June), monsoon (July–Sept),
autumn (Oct–Novem) and winter (Dec–March). These
surveys strictly followed well-established methods for
line transects and point count methods in [
using widely-spaced, randomly-elected transects, with
attention to avoiding bias from effort, walking speed, or
weather conditions; birds flying overhead were counted
separately as they cannot be used in density estimation).
Counts were performed twice per month at all sites by
a team of ten individuals in the early morning (07:00–
10:00) during the time of highest bird activity [
lowest human disturbance. Observer effects were
minimal because these animals have habituated to humans
through agricultural and military actions. Experts > 200 h
of wetland bird identification and post-doctoral training
were consulted throughout the period.
All waterbird species were classified as common/
rare, and also resident/migratory status of the birds
as per [
]. For instance, VC = very common species
encountered during (80% of all surveys); C = common
species encountered frequently (50–70%) and R = rare
species which are encountered less frequently (10–20%).
Likewise, if a particular species was documented between
December and March, then it was considered as a winter
visitor. Whereas, presence between April and June was
documented as a summer visitation. If we documented
a waterbird was documented throughout a year in and
around GWCR, then it was considered as a resident.
Feeding guilds were identified from the literature, rather
than what birds were seen feeding on at the time. Nikon
Monarch 10 × 42 binoculars were used during surveys
for taking observations and on-the-spot identification.
Photographs and/or video were used to validate any
unidentified species. The checklist was prepared using the
standardized common and scientific names assigned in
]. All data collected were observational and did not
involve any manipulation or alteration of any animals,
plants or humans.
Univariate analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used to
examine the relationships between season and between
number of individuals and the number of species.
Tukey’s post hoc test was used to test pair-wise
comparisons between seasons. Univariate ANOVA was also used
to examine the relationship between season and each
of four indices (Shannon–Wiener, Simpson’s Diversity,
Equitability J and the Margalef index). Cross tabulations
with Pearson’s Chi Square tests were performed between
feeding guild and abundance, feeding guild and residence
status, and between abundance and residence status. We
used linear regressions to assess the relationship
individuals and temperature and between species and
temperature. Statistical significance (alpha) was set at P ≤ 0.05
and descriptive and inferential analyses were conducted
using Minitab V. 17 (State College, PA).
We documented 61 waterbird species from 11 families
of 6 orders over 1 year (Table 1); 28 species were rare.
The majority were from three families, the Anatidae
(Anseriformes), Phalacrocoracida (Pelicaniformes), and
Rallidae (Gruiformes). We found the most waterbird
species in March (39), and fewest in June (16). The
largest population (~ 9701 individuals) was also recorded in
March while the lowest population size (130 individuals)
was found in May. Order Anseriformes contributed the
most species (19). During March, the Bar-headed Goose
(Anser indicus) constituted 62% (6000 individuals) while
the Ruddy Shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea) accounted for
15% (1500) of the total population (9701) count.
The number of waterbird individuals (ANOVA
F3,731 = 3.82; P < 0.01) and species (ANOVA F3,11 = 5.81;
P < 0.05) varied by season (Table 2). Tukey’s post hoc test
showed that the number of individuals and species in the
Winter differed to all three seasons, and that Autumn,
Monsoon, and Summer seasons were not different to
one another. Among the 4 indices, the
Shannon–Wiener (ANOVA F3,11 = 25.2; P < 0.001), Simpson’s
Diversity ANOVA F3,11 = 18.5; P < 0.001, and Equitability J
(ANOVA F3,11 = 18.6; P < 0.001) were each significantly
different across seasons. In all cases winter was different
to the other three seasons. The Margalef index (ANOVA
F3,11 = 0.75; P > 0.5) did not vary significantly by season.
Among the 61 species, 15 were common (25%), 28 were
rare (46%), and 18 very common 29% (Table 1). Within
feeding guilds, among the 18 species of carnivores, 8
species were ‘very common’ (44%), however cross
tabulations (Table 3) showed no association between
feeding guild and abundance (χ2= 4.4; P > 0.5). There was an
association between feeding guild and residence status
(χ2= 21.9; P < 0.001). Winter visitors were more likely to
be herbivores (46%), whereas there were no resident
herbivores. There was also an association between residence
status and abundance (χ2 = 21.9; P < 0.001) (Table 3). Rare
waterbirds were most likely to be winter visitors (54%)
than were common (26%) or very common birds (21%).
Among the 14 species of residents, 10 were very common
(71%) (Table 3). There was a strong negative correlation
between temperature and number of species S = 4.84;
R2= 61.8%; F = 16.15; P < 0.005. No correlation was found
between temperature and number of individual
waterbirds; S = 2803.18; R2= 13.3%; F = 1.53; P > 0.2.
Protected fauna inhabiting “war zone refugia” have not
been well documented [
], despite their presence and
vulnerability in geographically-contested areas
]. Here, we have provided a template for obtaining
baseline data for waterbirds living in such areas. In doing
so, we have provided the first documentation of the
seasonal status, relative abundance, species richness,
evenness and dominance of waterbirds under-duress over 1
year. We have identified 61 species from 11 families of
6 orders; two-thirds of all species (40) were visitors, and
almost half (28) were rare. Waterbirds present during the
stopover period (March high-altitude return migration)
contributed more to the four indices than over-wintering
birds (late Autumn upsurge).
Like most wetlands, this reserve supports birds of a
diverse array of ecological niches and therefore, varied
diets. The majority of resident species were carnivores,
likely owing to the wide availability of year-round access
to invertebrate fauna. Most of the carnivores were very
common, whereas there were no resident herbivores.
However, migrants were more likely to be herbivores,
partly explaining many locals’ frustration with the loss
of crops. Furthermore, most of the herbivores visited
during the winter when birds predate the young and
highly palatable shoots of wheat and therefore inflict
maximum damage to crops. This dynamic
demonstrates that either the presence and absence of military
activity in such areas can result in direct duress from
shelling, or indirectly result in agricultural duress when
farmers move forward once the shelling periods cease.
Continued documentation of the avian fauna and their
availability of resources is necessary to aid in the
promotion of the wetland for improved conservation. While
important for baseline data and continual monitoring,
this information may also be utilized to quantify
numbers to inspire ecotourism and similar approaches to
enhance the livelihood of resident farmers and provide
alternatives to farming for income. At the global scale,
conservationists should pay special attention to
document avifauna in contested regions, or militarized
borders, while not prematurely assuming that species in
protected sanctuaries are safe from duress.
Our data are descriptive, consider ad hoc hypotheses,
and do not include comparative data from other wildlife
refuges or sanctuaries around the globe. Further, we do
not report quantifiable measures of shelling (e.g.,
number of explosions, amplitude of noise generated,
lethality, damage to young, or variation by season). However,
we hope our initial communication encourages others to
analyse and report the well-being of fauna in both secure
and vulnerable sanctuaries in the presence and absence
GWCR: Gharana Wetland Conservation Reserve; IBA: Important Bird Area.
MHP and PMK analyzed and presented the data, completed the literature
review and drafted the manuscript. Both authors read and approved the final
We thank the Department of Wildlife Protection, Jammu and Kashmir for
granting permission and providing the necessary logistic support and
cooperation for this extensive study. We also appreciate the efforts of those that
collected this extensive data set, who wish to remain anonymous.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Availability of data and materials
The datasets generated during and/or analyzed during the current study have
been made available in a public digital data repository available at https://doi.
Consent to publish
Ethics approval and consent to participate
These data are observational only and do not require ethics approval or
consent to participate.
No external funding was received and thus the authors are not declaring any
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in
published maps and institutional affiliations.
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