After the construction of the Madhya Ganga barrage in 1984, the Haiderpur wetland took shape upstream of the barrage and is now the largest in Uttar Pradesh.Fed by the Ganga and Saloni rivers, the biodiversity-rich Haiderpur wetland is home to around 234 bird species as well as swamp deer, otters, turtles and more.A former Wall Street professional and a passionate birder brought the wetland to the attention of the authorities and is now involving the local community to conserve the wetland. Scores of people have travelled past the Madhya Ganga barrage at Bijnour in western Uttar Pradesh over the last three decades, casually appreciating the birds and the Ganga river. But one such visitor in 2013, Ashish Loya, not just noticed the beauty but also set out to explore the upstream of the barrage where there lay a large wetland. For almost two years, he regularly visited various parts of the wetland, with each visit rekindling Loya’s childhood passion for birding. Loya, who now lives in Bijnour, around 10 kilometres away from the wetland, visits it almost every day. Part of the Hastinapur Wildlife Sanctuary, the Haiderpur wetland stretches across 3,000 acres – with a core area of 1,200 acres – of Muzaffarnagar and Bijnour districts. It is fed by the mighty Ganga river and the smaller Saloni river that originates near Shukrataal at the Himalayan foothills. The wetland helps in flood control, water storage and purification, and supports livelihoods. The landscape around the meeting point of the two rivers always attracted the birds. But after the construction of the barrage, also called Bijnour barrage, in 1984, the wetland took shape despite the crowded Gangetic plains and is now the largest in the state. It is home to 234 bird species. Of them, more than 90 are migratory bird species that visit the wetland between December and February and it is a stopover site for migratory birds in Central Asian Flyway. The Haiderpur wetland stretches across 3,000 acres in Uttar Pradesh. It provides shelter to many wildlife species, helps in flood control, and supports livelihoods among several ecosystem services. Photo by Ashish Loya. “With bird stock crossing 50,000 in December, January and February, it’s one of the finest, lesser-known wilderness secret and birders’ paradise. With fluctuations of water level due to opening of gates at the barrage, the landscape scene at Haiderpur varies with season,” said Sanjay Kumar, Divisional Commissioner, Saharanpur, till recently. The wetland is also home to wildlife species like otters, jackals, crocodiles, turtles, fishing cat, Burmese python and the swamp deer, the state animal of Uttar Pradesh. Loya recorded a herd of 148 swamp deer in June last year. Despite such abundance, this site was neglected by the forest department for some time and illegal activity thrived. In some pockets of the wetlands, there were disruptive people, some who brewed illegal liquor as well as rampant poaching and hunting. Moreover, at many places, certain communities would squat with their livestock and encroach the wetland. The Haiderpur wetland, part of the Hastinapur Wildlife Sanctuary, stretches across Muzaffarnagar and Bijnour districts. Map from Datawrapper. Discovering the hidden jewel Originally from Akola in Maharashtra, Loya, an alumnus of BITS, Pilani, worked in New York for several years. There he balanced his life between working in the finance sector at Wall Street and volunteering with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living programme. He returned to India in 2008 “post a spiritual upheaval” and went to live at the Bengaluru ashram of the Art of Living Foundation as a full-time faculty. As part of his work with the foundation, Loya, 47, is in Bijnour since 2013. Here, Loya returned to his childhood interest of birdwatching – in the 1980s, Loya was a member of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and had taken part in the waterbird census. In his college days, he was also the president of the college Nature Club. Loya started touring the entire wetland area on his motorcycle. And then explored some portions on foot. He visited almost daily and soon realised how important the area is. That’s where his passion for the wetland started. The wetland’s shape is such that most of it cannot be seen fully from the barrage. By 2015, convinced that this is a hidden jewel, a paradise for the birds, both native and migratory, Loya started uploading bird photos on the ebird.org website, a repository of birds from all over. Currently, Loya is the highest contributor from the Haiderpur wetland and Ganga barrage area. He showed photos and videos of the birds to the then Conservator of Forest V. K. Jain, who responded positively and in 2019 installed a forest chowky at the wetland. That put a check on the incidents of poaching and hunting of birds. There are eight villages sharing a border with the wetland: six in Muzaffarnagar district and two in Bijnour district. And a few more nearby too, have easy access to the wetland. Loya also received a zealous response from Sanjay Kumar, who joined as Divisional Commissioner, Saharanpur in June 2019. Himself a birder and nature enthusiast, Kumar took the lead and along with the Forest Department and World Wide Fund for Nature-India (WWF-India) held the first ‘Haiderpur Bird Festival’ on February 2 and 3 last year. Asad Rahmani, former head of the BNHS, was present at the event. The expert was all praise for Loya for his consistent efforts for the conservation of the wetland. Haiderpur is now recognised in Rahmani’s book as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA).