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National bird on edge of danger

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

National bird on edge of danger

The export of feathers or artifacts made from them has been banned under the foreign trade policy since October 1, 1999. Still, the threats include poaching for a number of reasons, conflicts with farmers, feathers for trade, and the newly emerging attacks by feral dogs...

National bird on edge of danger

Talking Point

                       World Peacock Day- Nov 15- Special

The Indian peacock, which symbolizes glory, grace, joy, splendour, love, and pride, is threatened due to hunting for meat, feathers, predation, and poisoning by farmers to protect their crop

Sonika Kushwaha, Akhilesh Kumar and Aman Singh

Indian Biodiversity Conservation Society, Jhansi-U.P.

Although declared as the national bird of India in 1963 and protected under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (anyone killing the bird faces imprisonment under Section 51(1-A) that may extend to seven years, as well as a financial penalty), the Indian peafowl is in danger. This may be attributed to the exemption for domestic trade in peacock feathers and the articles made from them, as stated in Sec. 43 (3) a and Sec. 44 (1) of the Act. The exemption was made on the basis of the fact that the feathers used were naturally shed.

The export of feathers or artifacts made from them has been banned under the foreign trade policy since October 1, 1999. Still, the threats include poaching for a number of reasons, conflicts with farmers, feathers for trade, and the newly emerging attacks by feral dogs. While considered a sacred bird, the peacock is threatened by religious practices as well. The bare truths about the pathetic condition of Indian peafowl are much scarier than what the common man knows. The press reports that are available online reveal the shocking cases of poisoning and poaching of the national bird within a decade.

Poaching and poisoning

In February 2012, about seven feathers and remains of peacocks were found in Ranaj village of Mahuva taluka in Surat (Gujarat). They were trapped for their feathers. Again in October, 2012, about 12 peacocks were poisoned by farmers in Pavoorchathram in Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu.

In January 2013, 14 peacocks appeared to have died after consuming pesticide spread by farmers in agricultural land in Dabli village of Agra, UP.

In June 2013, 11 people were held in Mysore -Bangalore with fresh carcasses of peacocks to supply the meat to hotels in Mysore.

In June 2013, Barwala village of Makrana, Rajasthan reported the death of 17 peafowls. Forensic experts of the forest department suspected that the peacocks died after consuming poisonous food grains.

In February 2014, 10 peafowls were poisoned in Annur, Coimbatore.

In March 2014, five peafowls were found paralysed in Vansva village near Hazira, Surat, due to poisoning or heat stroke.

In July 2014, 45 peafowls were poisoned for meat in Chitur village in Lingala Ghanpur Mandal in Telangana.

In March 2015, a peacock was killed for meat in Betma, Ujjain.

In September 2015, remains of a peacock, 100 feathers, and a few bones were found in Uran, Mumbai. The bird was illegally poached and possibly consumed by someone.

In 2016, 200+ peafowl were killed in poaching and human-animal conflict, in Bundi-Rajasthan.

Again in 2016, six peafowls were killed by feeding them poisoned grains for poaching in Bundi, Rajasthan.

In March 2017, 20 peafowls were poached for meat in Villupuram, Tamil Nadu. 

In May 2018, 13 peafowls were killed by farmers in Thenur in Madurai district of Tamil Nadu.

In May 2018, over 12 peafowls died within 10 days in Bhondsi, Gurugram, and Faridabad for reasons unknown.

In June 2018, a peacock died Jalpaiguri, West Bengal after being manhandled by villagers who wanted to click selfies with it.

In November 2019, 8 peafowls died in Shadipur village, in Bijnor district of Uttar Pradesh, due to excessive use of pesticides.

In February 2020, 16 male and 13 female peafowls were poisoned by farmers in Nagaur district of Rajasthan.

In August 2021, five peafowls were poisoned by farmers in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu.

In November 2021, eight peafowls died due to pesticides sprayed by farmers in the field to protect their wheat grains from insects, in Agra, Uttar Pradesh.

In January 2022, one male and five female peafowls were poisoned in Keeranur, Tiruvannamalai (Tamil Nadu).

In April 2022, two peacocks were poisoned in Deoria Asguna village in Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun district.

In April 2022, five peafowls died of dehydration within 5 days in Davdi village of Pune.

In October 2022, 15 male and 5 female peafowls were poisoned by farmers in Musiri, Trichy (Tamil Nadu).

In a span of 10 years, more than 35 cases of poisoning and poaching have been covered by the media from 11 states of India, the maximum being reported from Rajasthan. Every year there are a number of cases regarding poaching and poisoning of peafowl and, more than the reported cases, there are those that go unreported. The trend of serving peafowl meat is also increasing in ‘dhabas’ of Rajasthan and cases have also been reported from Bangalore, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and Madhya Pradesh. Peacocks are lively birds, prone to high levels of stress and fear, which means that even a little physical injury can cause them to suffer panic attacks and die. So, when poachers roughly or violently try to pluck feathers from the tails of a live peacock, it causes unbearable pain to the peacock and leads to death because of shock. Naturally, a peacock sheds about 100-150 feathers in a year, so it is understood that the increasing and unstoppable demand for the feathers cannot be fulfilled by naturally collecting them. Therefore, the feathers that come into the market are unquestionably coming by killing the national bird. The only method to determine whether a feather is plucked or shed naturally is to examine its base for minor lacerations and deformities. However, the poachers trim the feather base and thus make it impossible to identify the feather’s origin.

The beauty of the peacock feathers attracts everyone and the trend is to get a few feathers just for this reason. The peacock symbolizes glory, grace, joy, splendour, love, and pride. Keeping the feathers at home brings positive vibes because they are associated with different religions and cultures. This role of the peacock in different religions, folklore, and mythology has two aspects-one of these traditionally acted as a safeguard against their being killed while the other led to their killing.

Peacock brooms are very common in religious places. The demand is continuously increasing in Jainism. A ‘pichchi’ is a small broom to sweep an area where the Digambar Jain Muni sits. It was decided that the broom should be made of colourful and rich peacock feathers. And now a new tradition called ‘Pichchi Parivartan Samaroh’ has started in which the old ‘pichchi’ is discarded, after really elaborate ceremonies, and another even more grand ‘pichchi’ is presented to the Muni by his devotees. Moreover, every ‘pichchi’ has half cut stalks, so no one knows whether it has naturally shed feathers or those from killed peacocks.

On September 16, 2014, peacock feathers weighing 29.8 kg were seized by customs officials from a Singapore-bound passenger at Kochi airport, Kerala. The feathers were found concealed inside towels in the checked-in baggage of the man hailing from Chennai. In 2020 alone, nearly 5.5 crore peacock tail feathers were smuggled to China by a firm named Galaxy Rider owned by a Seelampur-based exporter Ayaz Ahmed. The 2,565-kilogramme consignment was valued at Rs 5.25 crore and was packed in 77 packages. The CBI has alleged that between September 2020 and February 2021, various consignments of peacock tail feathers through 26 shipping bills were exported by Ahmed’s company using the services of Logistic Curator India Pvt Ltd to a consignee in China by concealing the package details.

Data collected from 20 states over two years by TRAFFIC (wildlife trade monitoring network) revealed that an aggregate of 25.71 crore bunches of feathers was found in godowns in Rajasthan, three crores in Gujarat, and two lakh in Tamil Nadu. Agra and Rajasthan are the major suppliers of peacock feathers to Tamil Nadu and West Bengal while Odisha is the biggest buyer of such feathers.

Decline in population

The data provided by various organizations shows a continuous decline in the population of Indian Peafowl. About 30 years ago, in 1991, the peafowl population census was conducted by the World Wide Fund for Nature which revealed 50 percent population decline, compared to their number at the time of Independence. The primary cause of their decline was poaching. With increasing threats to the national bird, a macro-level questionnaire-based information collection on the status of Indian peafowl was initiated by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun. WII initiated the questionnaire survey in 2004 to determine the population status of the Indian peafowl in the Protected Areas (PAs).

The questionnaires were sent to all the PA managers of the peafowl range states through their respective chief wildlife wardens. In addition to this, in 2006, they initiated another similar questionnaire survey through a networking approach to determine the present status of the Indian peafowl in areas outside the PA network or forested land areas (revenue, agricultural and private lands) as it was believed that a large percentage of the Indian peafowl population occurred in such areas that were not under the control of the forest or wildlife departments. These questionnaires were also sent to members of the civil society which included district collectors, members of wildlife network groups such as the Indian Bird Conservation Network (IBCN), Wildlife Rescue Network of the Wildlife Trust of India (WREN), Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and other NGOs and NGIs. As of September 2007, WII has received responses from 234 PAs (52% of 448 PAs) of which 193 (82%) have reported the presence of the Indian peafowl. The PA managers also reported the presence of peafowl in 19 other areas that included reserved forests and forest land areas. Of the 519 districts of India that fell within the Indian peafowl distribution range, the bird was reported from 345 districts (67%) and the information was not available for the remaining districts. Out of the 1,720 questionnaires sent to members of civil society, only 108 (6%) had responded. Out of 448 PAs, only 193 showed the presence of the national bird. Out of 519 districts, about 345 showed the presence of the peafowl.

Uttara Mendiratta and Pooja Yashwant Pawar, independent researchers and alumni of the postgraduate programme in Wildlife Biology and Conservation, Bangalore, India conducted a systematic review of online media reports over a period of five years (2013-2018) and recorded at least 46 instances of illegal peafowl trade being detected by enforcement agencies. These included 32 cases of poaching of an estimated 400 birds and 14 seizures of plucked feathers totaling over 370 kg. These seizures were distributed across 12 states and on four occasions, were made at international airports, clearly reflecting the large-scale and organized, commercial nature of the trade. These two researchers stated that “these results must only be interpreted as a highly conservative estimate of the trade, given that only a fraction (perhaps around 10%) of illegal trade is detected by agencies and an even smaller percentage is reported in the media.”

It is, in fact, astonishing to see that the efforts of so many organizations and conservationists have gone unheeded by the authorities.

In a directive issued on May 7, 2014, SK Khanduri, inspector general of forests (IGF) for wildlife stated: “Any case of mortality of peacocks must be enquired into and dealt with on priority, it being a Schedule I species in Wildlife (Protection) Act (WPA) 1972. In view of poaching, there is an urgent need to accord an adequate and highest degree of protection.”  Khanduri said while feathers may be collected and possessed by communities for religious, cultural, and subsistence needs, nobody was exempted from the ban on hunting. Killing and plucking feathers, within or outside forests, was not only an offense but attracted punishment, he added. The ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) asked the states to take action to check the trade of illegally obtained peacock feathers and undertake periodical checks in the stock of dealers and put it to forensic investigation for identifying the origin.

What MoEF wanted

1. Any case of mortality of peacocks must be enquired into and dealt with on priority, it being a Schedule I species in Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972.

2. Exemptions are available only from regulation within the Act on the transfer, transport, and trade of peacock tail feathers and articles made from them.

3. While feathers may be collected and possessed by communities for religious, cultural, and subsistence needs, hunting of peacocks for any reason is completely banned.

Census & efforts for protection

Rajasthan started its first peafowl census in December 2017. The results showed a maximum number of peafowl in the Jodhpur district of western Rajasthan. The Barmer district had the second-highest peafowl population. According to the census report, Jodhpur district had 95,170 peafowls -- 35,945 peacocks, 45,484 peahens, and 13,741 young birds. Barmer district accounted for 87,001 peafowls. Jaisalmer district recorded the lowest population of the bird species at 23,557. Of the total 3,43,869 peafowl, 1,26,015 are peacocks, 1,55,281 peahens, and 62,573 young birds in western Rajasthan that comprises Jodhpur, Barmer, Jaisalmer, Pali, Sirohi, and Jalore districts. The second census was conducted in June 2018. The censuses were done to get a correct picture of peafowl presence in the state so as to take necessary efforts to protect them.

Several petitions were also filed to stop the illegal trade. Ashutosh Zade sent a petition in 2019 to Dr Harsh Vardhan (environment minister, Government of India): ‘Save peacocks from becoming extinct’. Another petition was sent by Rajesh Kumar, a wildlife rescuer and a naturalist from an NGO called Wild World Conservation Trust (WWCT) in 2020 to put a ban on the sale of peacock feathers. In March 2015, an organization, Beauty Without Cruelty (BWC), wrote to the Prime Minister, as well as the Minister of State for the Environment, Forests, and Climate Change, stating that the government should seriously reconsider imposing an immediate ban on the trade of their feathers and protect the national bird just like it protects the tiger, India’s national animal and all others that are listed under Schedule I of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. Nothing happened. In fact, by 2016 bunches of loose peacock feathers were being openly taken out of the country by air passengers from Chennai as part of their personal baggage.

BWC, therefore, drew the attention of the ministry’s secretary and requested that a circular be sent to the authorities listing prohibited wildlife products. A positive response was received from the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau which said that their southern region office had been directed “to specifically take up this input at a sensitization programme conducted at the airports within their jurisdiction.” In 2016, the Indian Biodiversity Conservation Society wrote to MoEF to declare a day as World Peacock Conservation Day on July 15 every year but it was denied, stating that declaring a day was not under their authority. In 2021, the local public, activists, and members of the People for Animals raised concern over the poaching in the Aravali forest area. Peacocks were trapped in metal traps and taken away by unidentified people. Politician Maneka Gandhi tried to stop the sale of feathers by bringing an amendment to the Act during the tenure of the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Again an effort was made in 2013 but that also failed due to political issues.

What can we do?

1. First of all, say ‘no’ to purchase of peacock feathers yourself.

2. Let us dedicate a day to our national bird by celebrating World Peacock Day on November 15 every year, just like we celebrate National Tiger Day.

3. After a ban on the sale of feathers in the market, under special situations or requirements, the rule should state that the feathers can be collected only from the forest department.

4. Awareness in school children should be initiated.

5. Awareness campaigns should focus on shopkeepers as well.

6. Railway stations and bus stops should also have awareness boards that say ‘no’ to selling and buying peacock feathers. There should be warning announcements as well.

7. Traders should not be let off without any legal penalty even if they justify it with poverty. Poverty should not be responsible for cruelty towards others. Let us become a voice for the voiceless. The officials should file cases under Section 57 of the Wildlife Protection Act, which states that it can be presumed that the person is in unlawful possession of the peacock articles in huge quantities.

8. The farmers should be made aware of the ecological importance of peafowl. There can be some compensation in cases of crop loss because of the peafowl. Killing the birds by poisoning them is not the solution.

9. Involvement of local people and local NGOs is a must to stop the killing of peafowl. For example, the Basaniya village in the Manasa block of MP’s Neemuch district houses more peacocks than the total headcount of the human population in the village. The movement by the villagers started in 2012 to save the national bird from being poached by local Kanjar and Banchara tribes.  They resolved that conserving the national bird would be the responsibility of everyone in the village, right from school children and housewives to men working in the agricultural fields. They bear the loss of crops but continue to protect the national bird.

10. Every sanctuary/protected area must have display boards with a summary of the Wildlife Protection Act.

11. Every police station must have a board that shows the punishment for poaching or poisoning of the national bird as well as other endangered flora and fauna. Many people do not even know about the Wildlife Protection Act.

12. The leaders of religious communities can play an important role. They should come forward to bring about changes in the rituals that involve the use of peacock feathers in any form. They should discourage their devotees from gifting them peacock feathers.

13. Discourage the excessive use of pesticides that are not only killing the birds but adversely affecting human health too.

An increased or good population of any bird doesn’t ensure that it is safe because we have seen the dwindling population of one of the largest wild birds—the vulture—as well as the smallest homely house sparrow in India. The buying of a single feather puts the beautiful peacocks in danger. For providing a safe and healthy habitat to our national bird, we all must come together and play our roles, leaving it not just to the government, forest department, and conservationists.

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