An NGO gives urban wildlife in Mumbai and its environs a helping hand during the lockdown

Print edition : September 10, 2021

A flamingo with an injured leg enjoying the sunshine at the Resqink rehab centre in Mumbai. Photo: Photograph: Courtesy of RAWW

An owl that was treated for cataracts. Photo: Photograph: Courtesy of RAWW

Pawan Sharma with a crocodile that was rescued from an urban drain in Thane. Photo: Photograph: Courtesy of RAWW

The RAWW team nets the area around the crocodile before they move in to pick it up for treatment. Photo: Photograph: Courtesy of RAWW

Baby parakeets rescued from being trafficked. Photo: Photograph: Courtesy of Resqink

Parakeet fledglings that fell off a 12th floor ledge in Mumbai. Photo: Photograph: Courtesy of RAWW

Hand-reared baby parakeets. Photo: Ritu Sharma Kurketi

Newborn squirrels that lost their mother. Photo: Photograph: Courtesy of RAWW

Two of them after a few weeks of hand-rearing at RAWW. Photo: Photograph: Courtesy of RAWW

A spotted deer that jumped on the cement sheet roof of a house and fell into the kitchen. Photo: Photograph: Courtesy of RAWW

Macaque babies that were hand-reared after their mothers were found dead. Photo: Photograph: Courtesy of RAWW

A langur that suffered an electric shock in a Mumbai suburb was rescued and treated. Photo: Photograph: Courtesy of RAWW

Kites that were battered and injured by the cyclonic winds of Tauktae were treated and released by RAWW. Photo: Photograph: Courtesy of RAWW

RAWW received a call about this macaque, which was found unconscious. She had just delivered a baby. Photo: Photograph: Courtesy of RAWW

A black-headed ibis with an injured wing. The migratory bird was affected by cyclone Tauktae. Photo: Photograph: Courtesy of RAWW

An adult macaque that was overfed by people with inappropriate food undergoes surgery. Photo: Photograph: Courtesy of RAWW

A golden jackal that had fallen inside a well undergoing treatment. Photo: Ritu Sharma Kukreti

Dr Rina Devi with an Amur falcon that was blown off course by cyclone Tauktae. Photo: Photograph: Courtesy of RAWW

A viper with maggots near its head is put in a sheath prior to veterinary treatment. Photo: Photograph: Courtesy of RAWW

The RAWW team is trained to go into inhospitable locations for wildlife rescue. Here, a team member enters a drain for a reptile rescue. Photo: Photograph: Courtesy of RAWW

Rescues require immense patience to be successful like the rescue of this injured peahen that flew up into a building in Thane after being chased by dogs. It was some hours before it could be caught and taken for treatment. Photo: Photograph: Courtesy of RAWW

In the Mumbai metropolitan area and its surroundings, the Resqink Association for Wildlife Welfare had its hands full during the lockdown, rescuing more than 750 animals—reptiles, birds and mammals—between January and June this year.

DURING the pandemic-induced lockdown, nature reasserted itself in urban landscapes. Everyone had stories to tell of trees flowering more bountifully because of less pollution, hearing birdsong because there was no traffic and seeing more squirrels and birds. Glorious as this was, there was a downside too and with it came the realisation of the complex relationship between humans and urban wildlife.

In south Mumbai’s Colaba, for instance, there was a sudden surge in the number of egrets and pond herons. They normally live and feed at Sassoon dock, where fish trawlers unload their catch, but with a halt in fishing, these birds looked for food elsewhere. Moving out of their zone meant that they were challenging other birds, and this resulted in territorial fights, especially with crows. Likewise, fledglings had a lower than usual chance of survival because they were seen as food by predatory birds and stray cats and dogs whose regular human feeders were kept indoors by the pandemic. And then there were cases of wildlife—leopards, snakes, big birds, crocodiles and even a jackal—entering densely populated but deserted urban areas and then having to be rescued.

In the Mumbai metropolitan area and its surroundings, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Resqink Association for Wildlife Welfare (RAWW) ably attended to rescue calls. The organisation carries out urban wildlife rescue, rehabilitation and conservation and had its hands full during the lockdown.

Pawan Sharma, the 29-year-old founder of RAWW, said: “We were rescuing more than four times what we normally rescue.” Even with two ambulances, vets at the ready and 25 trained volunteers, Sharma said he was struck by just “how much extreme work there was to be done with wildlife”. “We exceeded RAWW’s limit by rescuing over 1,600 wild animals in Mumbai, Thane, Navi Mumbai and Palghar,” he said. “RAWW has been responding to a record number of calls since March 2020. Since the lockdown, we catered to more cases as compared to what we annually did in normal days, and there were multiple reasons for it right from other organisations like ours having to suspend services because of travel restrictions or fear of COVID. We have had a long association with the Forest Department, and they know our work, so we were given passes.

“Owing to the closure of many industries and hotels, the supply of food and water in some areas was reduced. Wildlife used to directly or indirectly depend on such places. Also, roads were no longer busy, and so many animals started exploring the city and some of them got injured or stuck… as they do not understand man-made boundaries.”

Between January and June this year, RAWW reached out to more than 750 animals. Over 550 have been repatriated to the wild, while the rest are in the process of being rehabilitated.

Challenging months

Sharma said: “April, May and June are very challenging months for wildlife as they adapt from summer to the monsoon. We observe a spike in snake rescues as the aestivation [summer hibernation] period of several snake species ends with the onset of rains. There are also rescues of birds and mammals that get heatstroke.” During these three months this year, RAWW carried out its highest number of rescues involving 268 reptiles, 179 birds and 31 mammals.

After cyclone Tauktae, RAWW responded to about 300 calls for wildlife in distress. The calls went on for a week after the cyclone. The cyclonic winds displaced rare pelagic and migratory birds. An Amur falcon, sooty terns, bridled terns, a black-headed ibis and Indian pittas were found blown off course and exhausted.

The lockdown resulted in increased participation from citizens and coordination between different NGOs and the Forest Department. Local residents helped with the rescue of a crocodile that was stuck in a drain in Thane, a three-year-old helped save a stranded turtle and the Mangrove Cell of the Forest Department rescued an injured pond heron.

So how does a mainly volunteer-driven organisation function for such a specialised need? Sharma said that RAWW was a small organisation with a “small fostering, treatment and rehab set-up”. It has two ambulances and four people on the staff though during the lockdown they had 25 trained volunteers on hand. Staff and volunteers have been trained in handling wildlife, and Sharma feels honoured that RAWW is one of the few organisations the Forest Department recognises for wildlife rescue.

In coordination with the Forest Department

The first thing the RAWW team does on reaching the site where there is an animal in distress is evaluate the situation. Wild animals are fragile, and the team takes into consideration the animal’s fear and unfamiliarity with humans while planning the rescue, knowing that these things will add to the overall precariousness of the situation. “Post rescue the animals are taken for a medical examination where our vets examine and diagnose the injuries, which is followed by treatment. They are under observation and foster care till they recover or go for rehab. Once declared fit by our vets, they are released into the wild. The entire process is in coordination with the Forest Department so as to maintain records and transparency,” said Sharma, who is careful to work within “the legal framework during and after release” since many of the animals rescued fall within the purview of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

Elucidating further, Sharma said: “Some rescues only need the animal to be safely captured. When we see they have no injuries, they are released after examination. Orphaned animals need to be rehabilitated and trained so as to be independent prior to release. In extreme cases animals that suffer major injuries or go through complex surgeries or amputations are sent to rescue centres and orphanages. Leopards and deer are taken to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park’s Rescue Centre in Borivali in Mumbai. Some are sent to the transit facilities of the Forest Department, some are admitted in hospitals and treated, and some are hand-reared and fostered at our transit facility.

“Releases are both hard and soft depending on the animal and the situation; rare animals are microchipped and then released. Post-release monitoring of the animals is also done by our teams along with the Forest Department to ensure their safety and survival. Some are untraceable post release as they travel a great distance, and tracking them becomes impractical. Radio-collaring animals is quite rare in our country, but this year two leopards were radio-collared and are being tracked by researchers and the National Park to study them.”

In January this year, 65 star tortoises RAWW had rescued from the illegal wildlife trade were released in the forests of Chandrapur in eastern Maharashtra. This was a first since this species has so far been released only in Karnataka where the natural environs are more conducive for it. Sharma said: “This species is not native to the State, but during a recent wildlife census, they were recorded within the Maharashtra border and thus the State decided to reintroduce them in the State itself…. There is a scientific procedure of conducting DNA analysis of these species after which we are able to determine their origin and then initiate their repatriation exercise with proper scientific techniques. These reptiles are first quarantined, then released in small batches with the proper ratio of males and females at strategic locations where monitoring them is easy, and once they are well adjusted, they are released in the larger territory.”

RAWW also works with Adivasis. Sharma said: “We always believe that conservation or any change making is only successful when the whole of society participates in it and there are individuals and groups from all walks of life. Tribal people have been living with wildlife since the evolution of mankind and are very important stakeholders, thus working with them has great impact on activities. There was a time when there was no option for them other than killing animals for survival. However, with changing times, we try to motivate and educate them to opt for alternatives like farming, harvesting, husbandry, with the help of various other NGOs and government schemes, and we have seen changes in many tribal communities that once used to hunt and now protect wildlife.”

Talking about some of the lockdown rescues, Sharma described how a spotted deer had fallen through the roof of a house in a slum. “There were hundreds of people [around, and]… we had to safely rescue the animal and we did it last year… we always try and ensure that our job of multitasking is done properly as we have to make sure that the animal, the rescue team and the people around are all safe. This year, another challenging rescue was when a jackal had fallen inside a well. It was safely removed, treated and released into the wild.”

Animal rescues itself

Sometimes, all that is required is patience, and the animal rescues itself. Sharma said: “In April, a juvenile leopard cub was spotted in a defunct godown at Powai’s NITIE [National Institute of Industrial Engineering] campus. It was suspected to be abandoned, but camera traps showed the presence of the parent leopard and another cub. RAWW was part of the strategic exercise along with forest officials and researchers in providing ground support to ensure their safety. After a few days, it moved out on its own along with the cubs without any human interference.”

Sharma said: “Then we have langurs and monkeys which suffer electric shocks on the periphery of the forests which have to be dressed daily and treated till they recover. And there are orphaned monkey babies which have to be hand-reared and then integrated in groups. They have to be trained to live independently before their release.”

Sharma said: “Fortunately, rescue operations are usually successful, but real rescue is complete only when the animal is released back into the wild, and this totally depends on the condition of each case but, yes, we do have a good success ratio;... almost 80 to 85 per cent of our rescues are released back into the wild.”