Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

And no birds sing ...

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Growing up in Lahore in the middle of the last century, any child would have taken the drone of grey hornbill wings overhead, the mocking laughter of the golden-backed woodpecker and the oh so beautifully honeyed flute of the golden oriole for granted. They may not have known the names of all these birds, but the songs, these and many more, were familiar. These songs were heard from the Mochi Gate garden through The Mall and Davies Road. Lawrence Garden and Governor’s House simply tossed them out like embers from a lively fire. Gulberg echoed with them and the cantonment was just one huge ecosystem alive as alive can ever be with birdsong of a hundred different notes. And Model Town was simply very much more of the same. Barely 10 kilometres from the city centre, villages like Bedian, Shadiwal or Bhekewal were primal forest.

The Lahore of the 1950s and for two decades after was a sylvan city. It was a veritable garden verdant with indigenous trees lovingly planted by its British keepers in the century before we became Pakistan. In 1960, spurred by political pressure to increase forest cover, corrupt, inept, ill-meaning officers of the forest department succumbed to wholesale plantations of eucalyptus.

The eucalyptus was preferred over local species because it had a hundred percent success rate: stick a sapling in the ground and it will become a tree because no animal touches it. So rampant was this self-wrought invasion that within 10 years, Pakistanis lost sight of the reality that the eucalyptus is an alien imported from Australia. This ignorance continues to this day.

Together with that, Lahore underwent a complete transformation. The 1970s was a time of a mad inflow of petro-dollars and an endless appetite for real estate for skilled and semi-skilled men with little education but plenty of new money. Vast tracts of farm and rangeland in the immediate surroundings of Lahore were reclaimed for their dinky houses with pediments and Corinthian pillars. The primal forest that had been there for centuries was mowed down. Millions of trees, many of them a millennium old, were mercilessly cut because trees simply did not figure in the scheme of this so-called development.

After that massive deforestation, which continues to this day whenever a new housing estate is designed, they planted shrubs and exotic species. The wonderful pipal, banyan, neem, acacia trees were replaced with zilch. Two things happened. One, trees of the large biomass that sequestered carbon to prevent global warming was gone. Secondly, birds that nested in those large trees through the generations were suddenly homeless.

In 1970 there were, according to one study, 170 different species of birds resident in Lahore. And we are not counting those stopping on their bi-annual migrations. Today there are only about 60 different species left. Nowhere in the municipal limits of Lahore can one see the beautiful red avadavat whose tuneful mating song used to be such a treat in the drowsy dawns of July and August. Or the brown munia that quietly went about its business in the clerodendron and madhumalti thickets.

Who has now heard the mellifluous flute of the golden oriole as it dashes through the foliage like a flash of gold and black or the cackle of the grey hornbill and the drone of its wings? We have not lost just the music of our feathered friends; we are alien to their beauty too. I remember the glory of the paradise fly-catcher as it pirouetted and swayed through the branches of our pipal tree, snapping up insects. Never still for a moment, its electric blue head gleamed in the sunlight as it carried its beautiful long tail like a bride’s train.

We are so much the poorer now.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

3 Comments:

At December 21, 2015 at 11:31 AM, Blogger AHMED BAJWA said...

Very True. The Rich past of these treasures of Lahore was also described in details time and again by Late A. HAMEED in a romantic fashion. One really feels stripped off. Ruthless so-called elite is actually not elite in moral values. These people from our political and business elite always pass their free days in the West But they don't get inspiration from the system prevailing in those societies. They don't know the alphabet of Ecological balance which is very much necessary for the existence of mankind. Salam to you Mr Salman Rashid for uttering concerns for this very much needed topics.

 
At December 21, 2015 at 5:33 PM, Blogger Muhammad Athar said...

Lahore that it was!

 
At December 23, 2015 at 10:36 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Philistines All of them. They only crave wealth.

 

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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days