After the fall of cocks’ crow into oblivion, the sparrows’ chirp in the morning is the new victim of our urbanisation drive. The cities have muted their vocal cords just as dictators do to political opponents.
The spatial design of cities is causing biological suffocation for most animals, especially the birds. Numerous international research studies in the past five years suggest that the natural selection of species is rapidly happening in the unnatural urban environment as an unintended consequence of urbanisation. In the sub-continental context, the best survivors are those that are pampered by humans, out of spiritual or cultural reasons such as cows, monkeys, kites and pigeons or that have quickly adapted to the changing environment such as rats and cockroaches.
According to a story published in the Guardian in September 2013, the house sparrow is a threatened species all over the world, which has seen a long-term decline in urban and suburban environments. In the last decade of the 20th Century, “Greater London lost 70 percent of its sparrows between 1994 and 2001”, the author claimed. The magnitude of decline of their numbers in Pakistani cities is not readily available but the reasons for their demise are similar, which include the use of pesticides, loss of trees and birds’ habitat and above all the toxic air in the environment. Experts believe that the current smog in Lahore and the plains of Punjab, which has set new records of air pollution indicators, will toll heavily on animal and birds’ population as it does on human health and society.
The loss of sparrows and other birds may be added to the ‘crimes’ of the present government, with its infatuation with metalled infrastructure and cutting of trees. According to the Birdwatchers Club of Pakistan, Lahore hosted at least 240 bird species until 1965, which were reduced to 101 until 1992 and the discounting has continued since then. The cutting of trees along the canal and other places for expansion of roads in Lahore have left many birds homeless including common sparrows and larks that loved to nest on small to medium sized native fruit trees.
A few lonely conservation efforts by civil society do exist such as NEST, a small-scale initiative by students of Government College Lahore, which raises awareness about the critical decline of sparrows in Lahore city and promoting artificial nesting and bird feeding to bring them back
Off course, other factors are also in play for the fall of sparrows as the bird has traditionally shown a good adaptation to urban structures like electric poles and ventilators for nesting and roosting. For example, water reservoirs and green spaces have almost completely disappeared, leaving many birds exhausted in hotter summers. According to Animal Rights in Pakistan, exotic trees and grass have wiped out insect life on which young sparrows grow. As sparrows are highly ‘non-migratory’ species by nature, they prefer to die instead of moving to other areas in search of food and nesting.
“The most pathetic part is the human behaviours and the rising disconnect of city residents with nature and co-habitants. The city lifestyles and its hustle and bustle produce a kind of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder among the residents, resulting in loss of empathy towards animals and birds, which share the urban space with humans”, says Nosheen Fazal, Manager Environment in Punjab Irrigation Department who has worked for conservation of animal and bird habitat along canals and irrigation works.
By losing its population of sparrows, Lahore has developed a parity with London in at least one parameter, though a negative one. The government is least bothered to mitigate the loss as they have developed motorised roosters in the form of Metro buses and trains.
The city residents are also content with preserving the legendary wake-up calls of birds as alarm bells and mobile ringtones. A few lonely conservation efforts do exist from civil society such as NEST, a small-scale initiative by students of Government College Lahore, raising awareness on the critical decline of sparrows in Lahore city and promoting artificial nesting and bird feeding to bring them back.
At present, no Pakistani city seems interested to develop the ‘resilience’ of its human and animal populations. In other parts of the world, the scarcer and costlier urban land is used very efficiently against the competing demands of open green spaces, housing and commercial uses of human population. Innovative solutions such as vertical forests and rooftop gardening are being tried from China to Scandinavia to keep the cities as liveable for humans as for other species. Unfortunately, such ‘beyond-the-rhetoric’ programs are absent in the development planning and urban development of Pakistan.
Some steps are however, being taken to improve the ‘governance’ of cities. For example, the Punjab government is developing rich data on land use, mainly to guide the planning and development process.
The initial analysis for 194 cities shows that there has been 130 percent increase in the built up area of the province during the last 10 years and more than 1700 km2 of agricultural land has been transformed to other land uses. The city of Lahore has seen 150 percent increase in built-up area during the same time and has become the fifteenth largest city in the world with more than 11 million of population.
The government intends to use this database as a decision support tool to apply implement spatial laws on development schemes in the province. This resource can be used for conservation purposes as well to increase the resilience and liveability of our fast growing cities.
The opportunity lies in studying and using our rapidly expanding cities as a big evolutionary force, which is pushing many species to adapt, migrate or simply vanish. By studying the evolutionary behaviour of birds in an urban environment, we can take conservation steps for non-adaptive and threatened species, prepare suitable medicines and pesticides for diseases and insect control and above all reclaim the liveability of our cities and towns.
The writer is associated with LEAD Pakistan as Team Leader, Sustainable Cities Initiative and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Daily Times, November 14th 2017.