08 February 2013
I was telling a relative of mine about the one dozen different species of birds that nest in my garden (and it’s a one-kanal house) and at any given time the song of twice as many species. He, a retired judge of the superior court, living in Judicial Colony near Thokar Niaz Beg was surprised that there was a total absence of birdsong in their area.
I told him that the birds were missing entirely because of the absence of indigenous species of trees in the locality. The entire colony is choc-a-bloc with all sorts of exotic trees. There is not a single peepul, neem, amaltas, to name only a few.
Ornithologists tell us that Lahore was home to no fewer than a hundred and seventy different species of birds until the mid-seventies. In the latter part of that decade, flight and cabin crews of the national carrier began to flood this unfortunate land with all sorts of ornamental shrubs and trees from the Far East. Ignorant and foolish, these people only had their eye on the huge profits to be gleaned from the sale of this contraband.
That was also the time of the establishment of such residential areas as Iqbal Town and sundry other ‘societies’ in south Lahore as well as of Defense Housing Authority. Vast tracts of real and ancient forest were cleared; roads and housing came up and with them a new forest of shrubs and araucaria – this import being the most popular in those days.
Not that this was the first alien invasion. We had earlier seen the clearing of indigenous trees to plant the Australian water-guzzling eucalyptus and the pretty alstonia. Mark: birds were singularly repelled by both species. However, over the decades, crows and pied mynas (the latter very rarely) have taken to nesting in eucalyptus mainly for want of any other species. But very strangely, I have never ever seen any specie of bird nesting or even roosting in alstonia. The result was that our birds began to leave Lahore for forest and scrub outside the city.
The disease of preferring exotic tree species over our own was matched by yet another sickness: the preference for ornamental shrubbery in place of real trees. One example that I know of is the Anjuman e Himayat e Islam premises in Lahore that was home to many magnificent hundred year-old trees. In the 1980s or shortly after, they were all chopped down by one very, very foolish man and replaced by shrubbery. Thousands of birds that thrived on those trees in the heart of smoggy Lahore were banished and part of the lungs of the city destroyed.
Roads in all the new residential societies were planted with either eucalyptus or alstonia; houses only with some little shrubbery. The 21st century rolled around and we discovered some more useless species to replace our own. This was the age of ficus and ashoka. Today, every new road is adorned with these absolutely worthless trees.
To anyone who understood ecology, this was the making of a disaster. But importers of these exotic species were only concerned with the profits to be had. Having spoken to at least three importers, I have learned that they have not even the faintest clue of ecology. The Forest Department nursery on Ravi Road stocks indigenous plants and sells saplings for one rupee a piece. Twice, the officer in charge, seeing my concern for the loss of our trees, even refused to take any money for the few dozen trees I obtained. Yet the average person will not go there. Instead he will blight his home with ficus.
One importer of exotic species with connections to the ruling party in Punjab has meanwhile become a billionaire selling exotic species. His links permitting him free run with the Parks and Horticulture Authority gives him room to sell exotic shrubbery and miniature palm trees for a preposterous six-figure price. Damn the ecology of Lahore. Lucre is the God and birdsong can go to hell.
We have seen example of these pricey plants in the green spaces leading up to the Saggian Bridge from the Ring Road in north Lahore. The Ring Road in the south and near the airport is similarly blighted. Indeed that vast over a hundred acres of open space in front of the airport is a sad, arid and shadeless desert contaminated with the rubbish of imported shrubbery.
And now recently we were told that the government had uprooted five hundred and some trees to widen the canal road. In the stead of these lost trees, we are being promised ten times more. I assure you that as surely as night follows day and as surely as we have been blighted by a lack of foresight and understanding over the past six decades, we are going to have five thousand imported trees along the canal.
This will nicely put the politically-connected importer of exotic rubbish up by Rs 500 million and Lahore the poorer for birdsong.
The sad thing is that PHA is run by general duty bureaucrats who have no clue of ecology. In any case, a bureaucrat is hand maiden to the political master and what the master says goes. Consequently, bureaucratic ineptitude and sycophantic compliance are killing the birds and turning Lahore into a green desert.
posted by Salman Rashid @ 2:29 PM,