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A cry from the wild

Published : Sep 24, 2010 00:00 IST

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A bear rescued by Wildlife SOS, an NGO. Though protected by the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, bears are commonly tortured into entertaining crowds with their antics.-COURTESY: WILDLIFE SOS

A bear rescued by Wildlife SOS, an NGO. Though protected by the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, bears are commonly tortured into entertaining crowds with their antics.-COURTESY: WILDLIFE SOS

A poor understanding of the relationship between animals and our ecology has led to a lackadaisical attitude towards wildlife conservation.

INDIA'S national animal is a favourite with poachers. There is a large market for every body part of the Bengal tiger in South-East Asia. Its meat, tongue and bones are used as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine and skin comes in handy for the chuba, the Tibetans' religious dress that uses tiger trimmings. Killing the animal is a lucrative and relatively risk-free business. Smugglers hide their loot in picture frames or women's clothing, and for the most part get away undetected.

Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder and director of Wildlife SOS, a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), believes that India's porous borders make it possible for this black market to flourish. Poachers have decimated China's tiger population and are now starting on India, he says. The alarming fall in tiger numbers and the anticipation of its effect on our ecosystem have rightly become cause for national worry.

While tigers are killed for profit, other animals are subjected to lifelong pain at the end of chains and ropes. Commonly known as performing animals, as they are used to dance or beg, they are captured from the wild and tortured into entertaining crowds with their antics. The most common victims are bears, monkeys, snakes and mongooses, all of which come under the purview of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, which prohibits the possession of wild animals without a licence from the Chief Wildlife Warden of the State concerned.

Forcing wild animals to perform anywhere (including circuses) is also a violation of a Supreme Court guideline that prohibits their use, and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. Kartick Satyanarayan recalls Misky, a six-year-old dancing bear in Agra that had its snout pierced and re-pierced five times until its inflamed face dissolved into a mass of infected tissue. There was pus dripping from it and maggots had begun to invade it, he says, citing just one instance of human cruelty.

Several other dancing monkeys or bears have had their teeth plucked out to render them defenceless against physical abuse. The unlawful use of these animals goes unreported and passersby who give money to their captors unwittingly encourage further violence. Ignorance of wildlife protection laws extends to participants in the nationwide bird trade. People patronising makeshift markets contribute to the problem of fast-vanishing bird species. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India estimates that for every bird that reaches the market alive, nine die en route owing to crude trapping methods and careless transportation, and adds that the fate of as many as 300 protected species hangs in the balance.

Dharmesh Solanki, Manager, Special Projects, PETA India, lists the Jama Masjid area in Delhi, Mehboob Chowk in Hyderabad and Bensen Town in Bangalore as some of the most prominent illegal bird markets in India. Munias, owls, parakeets and waterbirds are among the species to suffer, he says. The organisation's campaigns highlight the unsuitability of birds for a domestic setting and draw attention to frequent cases of birds mutilating themselves or resorting to constant screaming when denied a chance to hunt for prey, mingle socially in their natural habitat or indulge in instinctive activities like nest-building.

Rare bird species are also lost at annual festivals such as Gujarat's Uttarayan, where kites with glass-coated strings (called manja) slice the throats of birds. The number of such deaths runs into thousands every year. Vipul Ramanuj, who works with the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station in the Western Ghats, says: It is alarming and sad to see birds in the State being butchered in the kite-flying frenzy. Endangered vultures, rare falcons, majestic eagles and migratory birds that follow the same paths over generations fall prey to Uttarayan. Over 50 per cent die or are permanently grounded when their wings are cut.

The threats to India's wild animals and birds are complex and pose unique challenges to conservationists and the government alike, but the common factor is a poor understanding of the cause-effect relationship between every single wild animal and our fragile ecology. This is one of the reasons for the lackadaisical attitude towards wildlife conservation.

The web of life is such that each species is dependent on the other for its success including ours. For example, vultures are cleaners of the natural world as they survive by eating dead animals. Bats [also victims of Uttarayan] are important for seed dispersal, germination of plant species and controlling the insect population. And birds themselves are food for other creatures, says Vipul Ramanuj. As birds play a significant role in seed germination, it is estimated that for every bird in captivity, there is one tree less in India.

Bears and monkeys are also responsible for forest regeneration. Known as farmers of the forest, they contribute to the sprouting of seeds that pass through their intestines acquiring nutrients along the way.

Similarly, the tiger that has now achieved endangered status is at the apex of the food pyramid and its absence is creating a downward spiral in the wild. Tigers maintain prey density, which in turn is responsible for the tree cover. Trees hold soil, lower temperatures and prevent flooding. All this has an impact on global warming, says Wildlife SOS.

Environmentalists say that the after-effects of reckless poaching have already begun to affect the planet. They point to recent phenomena such as abnormally high temperatures and believe that damage control is long overdue. In recent years, several wildlife NGOs that are dedicated to undertaking large-scale rescue efforts while educating the general public on their role in conservation have sprung up across the country.

Modern technology plays a key role in awareness creation. Using its website (www.wildlifesos.org) and social networking websites such as Twitter and Facebook, Wildlife SOS provides real-time updates on rescue operations. Vipul Ramanuj uses his blog vipulramanuj.blogspot.com to add strength to the Save the Birds of Ahmedabad campaign. PETA uses its website, www.compassionatecitizen.org, as a humane education manual that is used in lieu of a formal syllabus on this subject for students.

On the ground, the logistical challenges are many. Feeding wildlife is one such, particularly in the case of those used to an insectivorous diet that is expensive to replicate. There is also the question of where to release territorial animals after rehabilitation. Dr Shiela Rao, honorary president of the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (WRRC), Bangalore, says: Governments must demarcate land for establishing the centres, preferably close to the forest. The lease should be for at least 30 years so that there is no fear of the centres being asked to give up the land after much time and effort has gone into establishing them. Grants for capital and operational expenses must be considered. While the government may be involved in overall management, day-to-day running should be left to NGOs.

Suparna Baksi-Ganguly, a trustee of the WRRC, adds that finding a committed team with consistent interest levels is another challenge. Unpaid volunteers step in to bridge the gap by aiding field workers or spreading the message of conservation amongst their own communities.

With the acknowledgement of the precarious position of India's wildlife comes the need to plug the gaps in the system and a truly concerted effort is vital to achieve this. Despite the wildlife protection law banning the use of monkeys, bears, lions, leopards and tigers in circuses and so on, violators are rarely held accountable. The conviction rate for wildlife-related crimes is less than 1 per cent on account of legal loopholes. This makes a case for a set of airtight laws and strict enforcement. The police too need to be trained on animal cruelty laws.

There is a total ban on trade in Indian birds but no restriction on the domestic sale of captive-bred exotic (domesticated) species, says Dharmesh Solanki. The government must completely ban all trade in wildlife and close down bird markets across the country.

While law enforcement is very important, it is also a path that needs to be navigated carefully. Situations arise where individuals (who are not registered with NGOs or the government) rescue and care for wild birds and animals that are injured or orphaned. Blanket implementation of the laws would hinder these voluntary services that ease the burden on experts. Knowledge sharing and a cooperative approach will help keep the wild animals' best interests in mind.

On the contraband front, Wildlife SOS feels the need for a powerful intelligence/surveillance mechanism to crack down on poaching. [We need] an anti-poaching squad that verifies tip-offs and takes action, and an effective legal system that does not allow poachers to get away, it says. Other potential tools that are suggested by these organisations include a toll-free government helpline and incentives to whistle-blowers.

Bird rescuers call for an unconditional ban of kites, especially those with Chinese or glass-coated strings, and a state-funded avifauna ambulance with full-facility hospitals, in Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Surat to begin with.

Conservationists agree that mass media support will go a long way to engaging members of the public. While Vipul Ramanuj hopes that the media will discourage kite-flying festivals, Kartick Satyanarayan speaks from experience when he says that even a single black-and-white advertisement can promote empathy and initiate change. When a Chennai-based volunteer of Wildlife SOS, J. Pragadeeswaran, sponsored a series of advertisements in vernacular dailies across Tamil Nadu, the NGO's helpline (+91-9871963535) was flooded with phone calls within two hours of the newspapers being delivered. With the help of Tamil Nadu's Director General of Police, several animals were rescued in less than 48 hours.

Media could devote more time to the issue and make readers and viewers aware of what is illegal, Kartick Satyanarayan says. International papers are known to give free space to causes and Indian news media can do so too.

Boycotting the bird trade, alerting the authorities upon spotting performing animals, and volunteering with grass-roots organisations on an honorary basis are steps that citizens can take to make the path of protection smoother. Wildlife conservation is a long-term strategy and will be completely successful only if traders and black marketeers are successfully rehabilitated. Alternative employment programmes for bird-sellers and owners of performing animals will ensure that they get access to legitimate ways of making ends meet.

Wildlife SOS has a programme, called Turning poachers into protectors, where former traders are recruited to be its eyes and ears in the forest and to aid in investigative operations as an alternative source of livelihood. Simultaneously, their children are enrolled in educational programmes in order to secure their future. This system can be used as a template by the government to prevent erstwhile traders from returning to their illegal activities.

Environmentalists are optimistic about the potential to recreate lost habitats. Shobha Menon, founder of the Tamil Nadu-based greening group Nizhal (shade' in Tamil), says: Being a responsible tree planter helps. Carefully choose species that bring about more biodiversity of flora and fauna. It is fascinating to see how nature regenerates if you just let her be.

Some of the destruction caused is irreversible, but if the movement to resuscitate India's wildlife is backed wholeheartedly by the administration, there is hope yet.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Sep 24, 2010.)

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