With the advent of winter in Siberia, migratory birds, locally referred to as "guest birds," have begun flooding Pakistan's lakes and riverbeds to avoid the harsh winter in their native land.
Every October, hundreds of thousands of Siberian birds – including cranes, geese, ducks, swans and waders – migrate to Pakistan's wetlands in huge flocks, where they remain until the end of February.
"These migratory birds have become part of our heritage," Tahir Qureshi, an ecologist and senior advisor to the International Union of Conservation of Nature, told Anadolu Agency.
Most of these birds throng the wintering grounds in Pakistan's southern sea belt, where not only the natural wetlands but also several vast private lakes and ponds serve as their host habitats for five months.
The country's northern wetlands and mountains also host thousands of guest birds each year.
The birds set out from Siberia in mid-October, flying over Turkey and Iran before alighting in the southwestern Baluchistan province, where the Hongol National Park serves as a haven for cranes, falcons and pelicans.
"This is a centuries-old route for the birds," Qureshi explained.
In the southern Sindh province, mangroves along the Arabian Sea represent a first stopover for migratory birds before they disperse among some two dozen wetlands in different parts of the country, mostly in Sindh.
The famous Haleji Lake, situated around 300km northwest of Karachi, is a favorite resting place for migratory birds, especially doves and ducks.
In northern Pakistan, meanwhile, the Lakki Murwat, Bannu and Kurk districts are preferred stopovers for cranes.
Guest birds use the southern wetlands for resting while the northern parts of Pakistan are favored locations for breeding.
According to the Sindh Wildlife Department, some 232 different kinds of migratory birds visit Pakistan every winter.
Qureshi pointed out that, in local culture, guest were considered a blessing from God, stressing that migratory "guest" birds were a blessing for Pakistan's ecosystem.
"Every year they travel thousands of miles to rest and breed in Pakistan, which contributes to maintaining the local and international ecological balance," he said.
"For instance, flamingos eat algae from our sea belt caused by massive amounts of sewage water and industrial waste every year," said the ecologist.
"We must treat them as guests as they help Pakistan maintain its ecological balance in a situation where governments have little time to think about this great problem," he added.
About two dozen locations around the country have been designated as protected areas for migratory birds, most of which are in Sindh and Baluchistan provinces.
Despite restrictions, the illegal hunting of migratory birds continues to pose a threat to many bird species.
The northwestern districts of Lakki Murwat, Kurk and Bannu are famous for hunting and poaching cranes, which some locals keep as pets. Cranes are also often presented as gift by local elites.
According to Qureshi, some 5,000 cranes are caught or poached every year in the three districts.
Falcons, meanwhile, are a favorite prey of Arab hunters, who, after training them in private reserves, use them for hunting houbara bustards.
The price for a falcon, depending on its kind, ranges between Rs 100,000 and 500,000 (roughly $1,000 to $5,000).
Hussain Bux Bhagat, chief conservator at the state-run Wildlife Department, told AA that they issue 30 to 40 licenses for bustard hunting each year through the Foreign Ministry.
He admitted, however, that the illegal hunting of migratory birds went far beyond the issued licenses.
"There are no estimates with respect to illegal hunting," the official said.
"Thousands of birds cannot return to their homelands because of illegal hunting," Usman Ali, a wildlife expert based in Badin, a coastal district of Sindh, told AA.
The area hosts thousands of migratory birds each year and is also a favorite spot for local and foreign hunters.
"Local politicians and landlords proudly invite their foreign and local guests to hunt migratory birds," Ali said.
"They kill thousands of birds across the province each year just for the sake of hunting," he lamented.
But Ali voiced satisfaction that a growing number of local landlords had strictly banned the hunting of migratory birds in their respective areas.
"A majority of the local people are not involved in hunting these birds, even for food purposes," he said. "Instead, they treat them as guests."