Trees of Delhi.

In Sarojini Nagar, on a fully grown Amaltas tree, this is what I spotted.

A Purple Sunbird using its delicate tongue to find nectar from the hearts of the last Amaltas blooms.

 

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The circle of life.

The function of a mature tree: calling little wings and hearts to it.

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A Purple Sunbird drinks nectar from an Amaltas Flower

 

A mature tree is like a monument. It is like a mother. It feeds, protects, extends its arms to little creatures. And to us.

The Trees of Delhi don’t need us.

We need them.

 

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Sausage tree blossoming in Sarojini Nagar.

 

There are proposals to cut down 14,000 mature trees in Delhi.

But a tree is a form of civilisation – and as we develop plans for the city, the people of Delhi have come together to say cutting mature trees is no longer an option.

 

Alexandrine Parakeet Feeding Sausage Tree
Alexandrine Parakeet eating from Sausage tree pods.

 

The way forward has to be around the trees, not without them.

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On Being a Woman in Wildlife Conservation in India

“So, what do you do?”

The guy leans forward, all city slickness, adding, “You look like a designer.”

“Actually, I am a wildlife conservationist,” I meekly say, keeping up with the ping-pong game of what-do-you-do conviviality.

“A what conservationist?” incredulousness is writ large on the questioner’s face.

“Wildlife.”

“Oh, dogs and cats.”

“No, tigers and falcons. In the forest.”

“But you don’t look like a wildlife conservationist,” he expertly avers.

“How does a conservationist look?”

“Like… more wild… more tough.”

woman-embed_030816064348.jpgLeeches bite, a lot, in the forest. But nothing that a woman can’t take.

At which point I put down my rum and coke with a lemon twist and move away from the man, because what he means – and what many other men and women mean – is that a wildlife conservationist should look more like a man.

When I was thinking of what I wanted to do, wildlife conservation was not some expertly gendered feminist choice. I love wild animals, I love the forest, I love wild spaces, and I decided to study a science degree in the field and work in wildlife conservation.

It was a personal calling, rather than a statement. But conversations around a woman taking on an “unconventional choice” because she is a “free spirit” and doesn’t care about “triple bottomlines” are invariably comical, and perpetually stereotyped.

Cut to the road leading to the Sariska tiger reserve, circa 2008. Me and a photographer friend, both of us female journalists at that time (also seen as an “intrepid field” for women, sigh), were headed to Sariska to cover a story.

The road stretched between fields on both sides, with towering and impenetrable trees, grasses and crops skirting us. We were admiring the birds in the skyline, who were settling down to roost at dusk. When suddenly, a knocking sound in the engine brought us to a juddering halt.

woman-embed-2_030816064403.jpgThe leech in question, after biting the author.

The phrase “in the middle of nowhere” was probably written for the rare occasion when you are stranded in the middle of fields leading to a forest. Our car was completely out of commission, and we got out to make some calls. As we were standing with the tough task of making sense over call drops, a group of bikers came down the road, jeering.

It’s when they came back a second time that we decided we needed shelter, and we moved down the road. Many calls to Jaipur later, a car came to pick us up. The driver had golden-dyed long hair, glass earrings, and had music playing, and blindingly-flashing blue LED lights in the interior of his car.

We got in, ruing the garishness which was completely out of sync with the surroundings. We told him our destination, and he started the car, wordlessly. His stack of CDs rocked from side to side as he took us, not too gently, down the bumpy road. At the first petrol pump he saw, he stopped his car, filled up the tank and then spoke his first words to us, asking us for a couple of thousands. “You can’t fill your tank without asking us,” I protested. “We are not that far from Sariska, there was no need for a full tank!”

My colleague added darkly that this was not professional, and it would just not do.

The man just heard us out, some incomprehensible emotion passing through his face. Finally he spat out, “I am a Rajput. I don’t talk to women.”

It was the beginning of the end. Throughout the drive, he would sigh audibly, appalled that his customers were two sharp-tongued women. Under many threats (which were grimly unanswered by the gent in question) we were taken to Sariska, but he left his car and escaped with the keys the next day. We called his boss, who called his mother, who called the driver, interestingly threatening to slap him and deny him her homemade rotis. He finally came back. But he would not speak to us for the next three days.

Not speaking may perhaps be better than blurting out prejudice. In my years in the forest, in villages, and in the middle of nowhere, I have heard the oddest of things, many of which would make Fair and Lovely proud. “Aap jaisi ladki jungle me kya kar rahi hai?” (what is a girl like you doing in the forest?) a divisional forest officer will ask.

What do you mean sir, a girl like me, I politely ask, my hackles raised. “Mera matlab aapko toh shehar me hona chahiye, jungle me aap kaali ho jayengi” (You should be in the city, you will become dark in the forest). Sometimes the firebrand in me wants to say I am more than a skin colour, but I usually end up laughing and talking about tigresses who don’t give a shit.

Another friend of mine, also a young wildlife conservationist, is often asked, “What do you eat in the forest?” followed by the priceless “How come the tiger hasn’t eaten you yet?”

I remember the time I was camping at the edge of a tiger reserve and a fellow female researcher asked me to quietly ask a field assistant to burn my used sanitary pads. Why? Because none of the male researchers should know that such a thing as menstruation happens each month.

And secondly, hyenas would come to scrunch up my pads. I wasn’t in favour of burning anything, but ultimately had to. The secrecy bothered me though. My concern was about hygiene and pollution, not shame and guilt. A couple of years down the line, I am happy to report that we now have the she-cup, which is not polluting and will have no hyenas (or city dogs) coming for it.

langur_030816064419.jpgA langur sits in Pench tiger reserve. These are naughty monkeys, carrying away lingerie and rotis with equal relish.

There was another time when a langur ran away with my bra. My field assistants were not sure if they could laugh audibly or feel deeply embarrassed. They ended up making strange sounds. But I thought it was just as funny as a monkey running away with a pair of boxers.

Because ultimately, forests and animals do not discriminate between men and women. Though natural history has been penned by men, and the forest has traditionally been seen as a masculine space, forged, hunted in, and conquered by valiant men, or pious male missionaries, reality in the forest is far from being so gendered.

One of the best things about being in the forest is the lack of discrimination, and the lack of sexism. The trees arch above our heads, and nature is the most ruthless leveller. Animals regard us all as irritants, or as another species, not as men or women. Tribal societies in many forests are egalitarian, and in the mountains, many women work harder (and are stronger) than men.

So while history says wildlife conservationists should be like men, or more offensively, always look like men, there is a veritable army of women proving this wrong. Each time I hear I don’t look like a conservationist, I say, that’s because I look like me.

Many of us don’t want to look either like a man, or like a supermodel on a forest shoot. We don’t want the men in our lives to draw hearts around us and fill us in with hot pink, drawing us into glass cages of butch or model. If I look delicate, it doesn’t mean I can’t live in the forest. And vice versa for women who don’t give a fig about looking delicate.

Many of us didn’t get into natural history or sciences to make statements or become superheroes. The forest doesn’t see us as breasts and wombs; it doesn’t see us as intrepid and amazing, or masculine and crazy. It sees us as neither the exception nor the rule. It looks at us with its green eye, judging us only by our actions, not by our looks, or body, or hue of cheek. Time men followed suit.

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This first appeared in my column for DailyO here.

It was also reproduced in Sanctuary Asia, here

 

Culture Vultures

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Silently, vultures watch us.

Their quiet gaze is cautious.

As we lace their food with diclofenac,

they watch us.

As we race over wild forest wetlands,

they watch us.

They watch, but they don’t judge us.

They expunge and expire, with no fuss.

 

(Vultures at Pench tiger reserve, photo by me)

Every Dog doesn’t have its Day- on the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act

In India right now, we are in the middle of a dilemma: there is a strong animal rights movement which advocates for the Right To Life of dogs and companion animals; at the same time, dogs and cats are wreaking havoc on wildlife.

Simultaneously, cruelty towards animals is also outraging people more, as is the case of this little brown dog, later called Bhadra, who was videographed being thrown off a roof. By a medical student! A strong protest followed, but our Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (1960) is toothless.

A thin, shivering dog, the colour of light cocoa powder, was recently picked up by a grinning man, and thrown off a roof. The man is reportedly a medical student in Chennai.

The “activity” appears to have been part of planned group leisure – another person, also a student at the same institute, documented this, and the fruit of his labour is a slow-motion video carefully showing the man’s smile, the dog’s scared whimpers, and its thudding fall onto the ground.

The video has enraged people, particularly on social media. Others have come forward and filed a complaint against the men. Kind-hearted people have come forward to foster the injured dog. They have poignantly pointed out that the dog was “still wagging her tail” when they found her.

This follows close on the heels of a man caught on camera, killing puppies in Delhi.

In both instances, a small but enraged (and perhaps, growing?) community has rallied together to snatch justice for the animals and get the perpetrators behind bars.

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The dog fractured one of her legs after being thrown off a building in Chennai.

In a country where every second news headline is a crime story, news of what is done to a single stray dog, or dead puppies with no lineage or “pedigree” parents, are finally hitting the headlines.

But what will the punishment be for these acts, described as nasty, evil, barbaric, and spineless?

Prepare yourself – if convicted under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 (PCA), the accused would be fined 50 rupees. Many are even fined ten rupees.

Yes, you read that right. What do you get for fifty rupees?

A notebook. A pen. A cup of tea (not coffee) at a Café Coffee Day. A couple of packets of cola candy. A single rose stem. A dab of rat poison. Not even a litre of petrol.

So while I am so indebted to all those people who take the time to share news stories, to collect themselves online and rally for “indie” dogs and nameless animals from all corners of our massive country, I urge you: ask for changes in the law.

Also read: How India can pay the perfect tribute to Shaktiman

The Supreme Court has recently asked for upgradation in the PCA Act. This is the right time to form a constituency – not just to shame people who behave in bullying and terrifying ways, but also to ask for common sense in our laws.

People’s outrage towards puppy killers and animal torturers has had many responses. There have been those with schadenfreude, making the jaded argument that there are too many human rights violations for us to care about animals.

This is such a tired and cynical argument that I have stopped responding to it.

Caring about animals does not preclude caring for people. Asking for a better way to treat animals does not mean that activists are misanthropes or wonky in the head.

The second is the more complicated argument that people who call for vigilante or mob justice are wrong – “kill the b*stard” “throw him off the roof”. I want to add to this thought.

People feel the need for vigilante justice, at least in most instances, when other options are exhausted. It’s really important to take this energy and channelise it towards stricter, and, appropriate punishments.

For starters, I would want penalties proportionate to a person’s ability to pay, and punishments for perverse and deliberate cruelty to an animal. A fine is meant to be a deterrent.

Would fifty bucks and a bunch of internet forwards constitute a deterrent? What of the animals who don’t get videographed? What about convictions that never happen because cops don’t consider them important?

One doesn’t even need to ask a friend for fifty bucks.

Even if one is a raving maniac who kills puppies because a relationship didn’t work out with a girl, one can escape shaming by going offline, or one can pay up.

Dear internet, you have come a long way – enough for police to make special search teams to find animal killers, in a country where even people’s lives are cheap. A few years ago, these would not even have been issues.

But please don’t stop. Please take the fight to your members of Parliament, to newspaper columns, to letters to the environment ministry.

No one can ever hope that the stricter laws would stop crime. We can hope though, that when convicted for crime against the voiceless – be it a child, a whimpering animal, a senior citizen – the perpetrator can experience a deterrent that is more than a fifty-rupee joke.

This first appeared in DailyO.

Great Beasts I: is it us versus the ‘Beasts’?

A close-up, contested look at the debates and implications around a first for India: wide-spread, state-sanctioned shooting and culling of animals like Nilgai, wild boar and monkeys. Next up: peacocks and bison?

What are your thoughts on shooting or culling wild animals in India? Leave them in the comments below.

This is the first part of Great Beasts; the next will appear shortly.

The fate of Himachal’s monkeys are sub judice. Maharashtra and Telangana have killed hundreds of boars. At the moment, it seems innovative and long-term solutions will only be found after this year’s gunfire.

Nilgai feeding on crops. Credit: Neha Sinha

A war of ideologies has broken out between women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi and her counterpart at the environment ministry, Prakash Javadekar. Gandhi, a well-known animal rights activist, has accused Javadekar’s ministry of having a “lust to kill animals” after his ministry asked states to come up with lists of wild species which can be declared “vermin” and be killed.

Wild species are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 – all except vermin. These vermin include animals like rats, crows and insects like termites. In the case of damage to human life, protected wild animals, like ‘man-eating’ tigers or leopards and ‘rogue’ elephants can be killed or removed, while individuals of others species with lower levels of protection, like nilgai and wild boars, can be killed or removed on specific orders even if they damage property. Moving from the occasional act of removing individual animals toward the more active decision to declare entire species as vermin has been seen as populist, and as coming at the cost of good management. Javadekar says he is helping farmers, while Gandhi questions the human-centric move of shooting the animals. A series of broad orders by states now allow animals to be killed, implying that they can also be trapped or tortured without the need to report back to the state.

Wild boar are now vermin in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Bihar, Nilgai are also declared vermin in Bihar and can be killed. Maharashtra and Telangana have given orders to kill wild boars; Telangana can kill wild boars state-wide, while other states have specified districts for the culling. The orders range from six months to a year.

In fact, the culling of animals is one major issue on which the global environmental movements of animal rights and wildlife conservation diverge. The first focuses on individual life while the latter is about sustaining wild animal populations, even if that means the culling or removal of individual animals. The case of Ranthambhore’s tiger Ustad (moved from Ranthambhore to a zoo on charges of man-eating) was a case in point of these two ideologies diverging. The animal rights lobby wanted Ustad to be free while wildlife conservationists argued that Ustad, who had become unpopular with forest guards, should be captured for the sake of the sustaining the tiger population in Ranthambhore. But the new orders have wildlife conservationists up in arms, who say the orders are sweeping and encourage random killing.

The first issue is the sweeping nature of the orders, which may lead to a killing spree.

For instance, the orders for killing wild boar in Telangana stated that the animals could be killed anywhere in the state, but those that appear to be ‘running back to the forests’ should be spared. “This order was full of loopholes. We already have reports that other animals, such as spotted deer, were being poached, after the wild boar culling order. Snares and traps were being laid, which do not discriminate between animals. The entire exercise is random and unscientific,” says Nimesh Ved, a representative of Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations. Responding to a petition, the Telangana high court then made the culling orders more specific. It said that protected areas would not be in the purview of the boar culling, and other animals should not be killed. However, the problem of who checks this and how poaching will be curbed still exist.

In other parts of India, there are other moral and social complexities to killing animals. “Himachal’s order on culling monkeys reduces a monkey to something like a louse. Anyone can kill monkeys,” says environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta, who is fighting a case in the Himachal Pradesh high court against the order. “Additionally the orders are broad enough to stipulate that you can actually torture the monkey, trap it, and beat it.” Monkeys have for long been fed by people who believe it is a form of the Hindu deity Hanuman. “In Shimla, it is a fact that tourists feed monkeys. First you feed them, then you want to kill them,” Dutta adds.

Hunting in India

The second problem, conservationists say, is that states will allow any citizen to kill animals because vermin by definition implies that anyone can do the exterminating. This could mean a change in attitude for the worse toward wildlife, and it may complicate the protection of other species that are still deemed protected. In Bihar, the state government first announced that people with licenses can kill nilgai, three years ago. But no one came forward. The reason? Hindus don’t want to kill an animal that resembles a cow. Further, if the Muslims in the area kill Nilgai, this could lead to communal tensions. How then would the new orders, which allow anyone to kill nilgai, sit with these traditional values – the sort ofreligious or spiritual values that have aided conservation?

“Nilgai are a real problem in Bihar. Their numbers have gone up exponentially because they have been feeding on crops,” says Arvind Mishra, a member of the Bihar State Board for Wildlife. The particular landscape that Bihar has – a floodplain – also means that the animals are far from forests, and unlike Telangana, can’t always be chased into forests. “The particular sociocultural beliefs of the state mean that most may not actually want to shoot nilgai. Thus it is best if outsiders come in to shoot them,” Mishra says. Thus, Bihar has employed the services of ‘Nawab’ Shafat Khan, who has been widely seen as glorifying hunting. Consequently, in Mokama taal in Bihar, 200 nilgai have been shot.

Outsiders shooting animals for pleasure or game forms the basis of trophy-hunting, followed prominently in many African countries as well as in the US. With crop damage by wild animals having come down, others ask if it is a hunters lobby that is behind the move. “Many farmers in Uttarakhand actually are abandoning their farms and moving to cities to find work. It is possible that this pro-hunting move is actually coming from a completely different lobby – the upper-class hunting lobby, which wants hunting to start in India again,” says Vidya Athreya, a scientist with Wildlife Conservation Society of India.

But if animals are to be killed, only state authorities should do it, and not individuals, others stress. “All laws, policies and guidelines in India suggest that whenever a conflict-animal needs to be eliminated, the forest department or police or paramilitary personnel are the ones who must do it under authorisation,” says Odisha-based conservationist Adtiya Panda. “This disturbing trend of favouring a particular lobby of trigger-happy shooters is very suspicious. Why is the law being bent to indulge them in state sponsored shikar [hunting] holidays in this day and age?”

The central dilemma still holds: by banning hunting in the 1970s, India has privileged certain wild species, particularly large mammals, and culling will change these attitudes. Thus, while generations within the country consume domestic animals like chicken (which, for instance, animal rights groups will not tolerate), we have balked at the thought of having Asian bear-paw soup, which comes from a ‘big, wild’ animal. The charge that we are misusing animals and subjecting them to our whims also stands; there was a massive criticism when media reports suggested that Goa mulled declaringpeacocks and endangered bison as vermin.

Post-culling solutions

Ultimately, culling offers revenge, but not solutions. “We cull animals for a year. Then what happens? We still need to find solutions to crop-raiding by animals,” Athreya says. Panda adds, “Given the population dynamics of India and the minuscule proportion of our land area remaining under wilderness, it is never a case of too many animals here, it is always a case of too little habitat. Shooting animals like this is just random and not solution-oriented.” In fact, he suggests moving Bihar’s nilgai to Jharkhand.

“Bihar may complain of an excess in nilgai but neighbouring Jharkhand’s Palamau Tiger Reserve is practically bereft of sufficient populations of large prey species and could easily have taken in Bihar’s ‘excess’ nilgai. The 200 Nilgai that Bihar culled could have technically formed the prey base to sustain two tigers for their lifetime!” Such experiments – of restoring populations of large animals by translocation – have been done before. For instance, Indian bisons – towering, one-tonne animals – were translocated from Kanha to Bandhavgarh in 2012. Other solutions that have been used have been crop-insurance against animals, and strip-cropping to avoid planting large swathes of edible crops.

At the same time, other problems that create conflict between animals and people remain. These include vanishing forests and fragmentation of habitat; 14,000 square kilometre of forests were cleared in the last thirty years for industrial projects and artificial feeding of animals either by people or unattended garbage.

Mishra says Bihar can consider having a holding facility for nilgai, and the state will be open to innovative solutions. The fate of Himachal’s monkeys are waiting for the court’s decision. Maharashtra and Telangana have killed hundreds of boars already. At the moment, it seems innovative and long-term solutions will only be found after this year’s gunfire.

This first appeared in The Wire.

 

 

 

White tigers and Gir lions. Republic Day thoughts: are wild animals citizens?

A giant filter coffee tumbler, white tigers, wild lions, forests, coffee plantations, human progress: the state and ministerial tableaux presented in India’s 67th Republic Day parade ranged from colourful to fantastic, from beautiful to downright bizarre.

Mind-boggling or not, all tableaux have one thing in common each year: they showcase what defines the state/agency best. A lot of this is vitally regional symbolism: arts and craft (like Uttar Pradesh’s rich zardosi showcased as a giant tableaux this year); a particularly fine custom (Bihar in the past has showcased a village that plants trees when girls are born); economic achievement (Kodagu’s coffee production shown this year); and occurring with great regularity: wildlife. This year, while many states showcased forests, Gujarat presented lions; and Madhya Pradesh showed off white tigers.

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Madhya Pradesh tableaux showing white tiger on 67th Republic Day. [Screen grab from DD National.]

The fact that Madhya Pradesh showed its tigers as white, not golden, is an interesting choice, a choice tied to a statement the state is trying to make.Tigers are not normally white, and their colours vary from amber-orange to deep yellow. But regional exceptions – with more or less melanism – do exist. Thus, certain tigers in Odisha’s Satkosia area are blacker than others, and many tigers from Madhya Pradesh’s Rewa are a pale, bony white. Similar to Gujarat using the lion as badge of state honour – and an honour it refuses to share with any other Indian state-Madhya Pradesh is asserting its own “brand” of tigers.

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 Gujarat tableaux showing Gir Lion on 67th Republic Day. [Screen grab from DD National.]

This leads us to an important issue. It is clear that wildlife is symbolically important; and it informs our citizenship.

If wildlife is part of the way we perceive our natural and regional pride, then a related question is: are wild animals citizens? As essential as they are to our nation’s experience, could you think of a tiger as Mr Khan, or a lioness as Miss Gir?

And then: do animals have citizen-based rights?

The courts have been trying to answer, at least partly, this second question. The Gujarat High Court has said that birds have the “Right to Fly” and thus should not be kept in cages. Similarly, this year, Supreme Court decreed that Jallikattu entailed cruelty to bulls and has put an interim ban on the practice. In 2013, the Supreme Court in its “Lion judgment”, said that we need to act in the best interest of species, particularly endangered species.

Thus, at least according to the courts and certain laws, wildlife appears to have rights; this implies they could also have some sort of recognition or allied citizenship. Perhaps then, tigers and lions are akin to second-class subjects, catered to when human needs are not so pressing. But like other human disadvantaged groups, not all animals are equal.

Many are more threatened or fragile than others; they need special attention, conservation action, and budgetary outlays. The Red List of species, which identifies critically endangered, threatened and vulnerable species is the basis of action on many wild species. The Red List for wild speciesflags off which “subjects” or “citizens” need more action than others, some requiring affirmative action and creation of new protection regimes, others getting by without much help.

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Animals’ rights can’t be neglected any longer at the altar of human-centric development.

But within this understanding, a huge stumbling block is vision.

Most vitally, the manner in which development and wildlife is consistently positioned is antagonistic. “Development” and “wildlife” are pitted, teeth gritted, against each other. A case in point is the Supreme Court’s recent observation that roads are more important than tigers (the case was regarding the widening of National Highway 7 through the Pench-Kanha tiger reserve corridors). There are scores of other examples, wherein environmentalism – even if while voicing clearly, the ecological needs of an animal – is shown as obstructionist and downright stupid in much of public decision-making.

Whether animals are citizens, or even second-class citizens, is a matter of further understanding. Perhaps it is even a question that is only rhetorical. But in reality, we need to stop pitting wildlife against development, as our overarching understanding. Instead of assuming hostile, antagonistic positions, we need answers that are case-specific.

Animals do not ask for charters of independence, voting rights, or parliamentary representation. Tigers are too otherworldly and cool for that, even if they do end up as pulp under railway lines, and as prisoners in jail. While animals can’t be expected to fulfil responsibilities against humans (even if granted rights), the opposite is true for us. An Argentinean court, for example, said chimpanzees are non-human persons. Within our complex democracy, the fact that animals have only occasional rights, could either be folly or fool-proof. Because ultimately, it is up to voting humans to act for the non-voting.

Whether we want to extend citizenship, or second-class citizenship, to animals or not; whether we laugh at this or will give it a think; at least we can agree on this: animals deserve more than the battle-lines that speak only and repeatedly from the “environment versus development” trenches.

In short, a tiger or lioness deserve more than being decorations on tableaux.

(This first appeared in my column for DailyO)

 

What a single paddy field reveals

The fog was heavy on the stalks of paddy. It hung like wool, spilling outside the horizon. I was in Uttar Pradesh’s badland– Chambal, for a bird fair. But at that moment, I was waiting in a paddy field at dawn, waiting for birds to reveal themselves.

I expected to see Sarus Cranes. And I did. They came stepping daintily into my line of vision, ballerinas seeming like they were holding their skirts up. The light was too poor for any sort of vividity, but the Cranes seemed like they were a very part of the fog, a dream drenched in dew, as everlasting as the horizon.

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A single Sarus Crane picks its way through the fields

But what a surprise! Just a single group of fields reveal so much. Sarus Cranes played hide and seek, in a confident group of three. Some distance away, Open Bill storks foraged. Painted storks and Sarus Crane flew overhead, not far from a Crested Bunting.

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The joy of open skies and horizons.

A crazy nutjob of an animal– a strutting male Blackbuck antelope, ran in joyous circles in the field. Further off, a group of Nilgai stood sedately in repose.

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As dawn lifts, a group of Nilgai are revealed.

All of this breathtaking diversity, in a few fields. Showing us once again how important organic agrarian landscapes are for bird and animal conservation.

Showing us also, how farmers who put up with crop damage are true conservation heroes.

All photos by me.

On World Wildlife Day, One Wish.

It’s World Wildlife Day today.

Many of my readers ask me, what is my favourite animal, or species?

There’s never an easy answer to that question, but this World Wildlife Day, I have a wish.

Not only for the most endangered and imperiled species. But for the most common ones.

Let’s keep our common species common.

When I was growing up, the little House Sparrow was a constant companion. It loved nesting just above our ceiling fans, or behind paintings. It didn’t mind the people in the family, at all. Slowly, the House Sparrow started disappearing.

And there are other birds, once ubiquitious, which are slowly fading. The Munia is one of them.

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A little Munia, on a little branch. Unbearable brightness of being! Photo by Amitabha Bhattacharya.

The Munia is poached and traded for the wild bird trade (more on that here). Living off grassy areas with low bushes, various sorts of Munias are also under threat from habitat loss. Their hard-grassy habitat does not look impressively ‘green’ and does not even get noticed when it’s gone.

Other birds that you will find all over the semi-urban/ country landscape are Black-necked Storks, Painted Storks and Openbill Storks. Painted Storks particularly have a habit of transforming a wetland with their bright colours and joyous numbers.

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Painted storks and cormorants in foggy, smokey Delhi. Photo by Neha Sinha

Common birds don’t steer conservation budgets. We like them, but like a favourite piece of furniture, we also take them for granted. My simple wish for World Widlife Day is: keeping the common birds and animals, common!

How much poorer would we be without them?!

A path through a wild woodland, and through our hearts.
A path through a wild woodland, and through our hearts. Photo by Amitabha Bhattacharya

One poisoned carcass, Fifty Five dead vultures

NEHA SINHA

Gyps vultures are a critically endangered species, having faced a 99.9 per cent population decline in the last decade.

Of the few Gyps vultures left in India, some are in Assam.

In Assam, the only known breeding colony is in Sivsagar.

And in Sivsagar, a single poisoned carcass has led to the death of 55 vultures. 

Vulture death Sivsagar Assam2

Photo: at the site, about 110 kms of Jorhat. By Mayur Bawri

The BNHS vulture team was informed about the death of more than 55 vultures. Villagers discovered the bodies on 24 January, lying all over the grass, most of them dead, and some of them just about to die.

Also found was a carcass of a cow, which had been laced with poison, presumably to kill stray dogs. The vultures fed on this single carcass and died. Tragically, killing the vultures may not have been the intended outcome. With the world’s last few Gyps vultures struggling for survival, breeding colonies– areas where vultures are known to roost and raise hatchlings–are precious. Disturbance, poisoning, or presence of diclofenac, the drug fatal to vultures, deals a staggering blow to the populations.

Of the 55 counted vultures,  22 were critically endangered White-backed Vultures. Four were critically endangered Slender-billed Vulture, and rest were the vulnerable Himalayan Griffon Vulture.

Vultures are dangerously close to extinction. Breeding sites are the last bastions for them, and here, battles are mounted to avoid poison entering their food chain. Vultures die immediately after consuming diclofenac, a banned veterinary drug; despite being banned, diclofenac is still being used, at the cost of the Gyps vultures. And like any other animal, vultures will also die if fed other poisonous chemicals.

This episode also shows us how a single carcass, poisonous for vultures, can kill so many of them. As vultures are community feeders, they eat together. And this is not the first time that vultures have died en-masse, after innocuously feeding on poisoned carcasses. Carcasses are poisoned because people want to illegally poison a tiger or leopard, because they want to eliminate dogs, or because they treat their cattle with banned diclofenac. Diclofenac is a pain-killer, not even a life-saver for the cattle. In so many ways, vultures are dying.

Is this their Last Supper?

Photo below: Always a fighter: acclaimed artist Raja Ravi Varma’s depiction of Jatayu vulture defending Sita

Jataya Vadh Raja Ravi Varma

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