With shrinking natural habitats, Sarus cranes have now taken to nesting in farmlands, especially paddy farms. Hence, it is only natural that they form bonds with some farmers. In this case, how much blame can be placed on man for helping out a bird in need and it becoming pally with him is a matter of debate. What is most painful is that a bird born free is now isolated and caged …
Dr Sonika Kushwaha
Even wild birds have been known to ‘adopt’ humans and live cordially with them. No man-made law can prevent this natural bond. But, when it starts to do that, difficulties for both man and bird arise because one cannot exist without the other, actually! Like Michelet, the renowned French writer put it: “Birds might live on this Earth even if there were no men, but men cannot live without birds”. He spoke the bare truth and in actual fact, this is right for all the living species. The so-called Homo sapiens with highly developed brains and intelligence have dominated all other species. Humans are social animals living in complex social structures which today threaten the survival of other species.
This debate has been again revived post the famous Arif-Sarus case! You must have heard of a Sarus crane that became a social media sensation in India for its friendship with a man in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh. It was later ‘taken into custody’ by authorities. The state bird of Uttar Pradesh, the Sarus crane is protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, and it is illegal to keep it as a pet. The crane had become a regular visitor to Arif Khan Gurjar's house after he rescued it from a leg injury in a field a year back. The visuals of the bird following Arif on his scooter had gone viral on social media, leading to the forest department officials taking away the bird on March 26 and charging Arif under various sections of the Wildlife Protection Act. However, three weeks after the officials abruptly took his bird away from his house, farmer Muhammad Arif had an emotional reunion with the Sarus. The meeting, at Allen Forest Zoo in Kanpur, lasted for “just five minutes”. “As soon as I said ‘how are you’, he (the crane) started jumping around excitedly,” Arif told us. “His reaction was the same as earlier when I used to come home after four to five hours,” he added. While Arif had set the bird free after its recovery, the crane refused to leave and continued to stay with Arif’s family for about a year. The excitement of the crane was palpable as it spotted Arif and jumped around. The videos of the meeting show the crane inside a cage within an enclosure — where it is in quarantine — while Arif stands outside. According to zoo protocol, all new arrivals at the zoo are put under quarantine in case they are carrying diseases. Wildlife officials had said that the bird would be put under quarantine for 15 days. Arif, however, said he was told by the officials that the quarantine had been extended by another 15 days. He was not told why, he added. “He (the bird) was stressed that he couldn’t meet me properly. It was flapping its wings anxiously. I was worried its wings would hit the net (of the cage) and he would injure himself,” said Arif. The meeting was emotional, Arif told, adding that “the zoo vet had become tearful”. Kanpur zoo’s chief veterinarian, Dr Anurag Singh, had previously told that the crane would remember Arif even if they met five years later. After the period of quarantine is over, the Sarus crane, which grows to a height of 156 cm and has a wingspan of about 240 cm, will be placed in an enclosure of 40 feet, zoo officials claim. The bird is currently housed in a 10-feet cage.
Just a beginning
After this incident, tales of similar bonds started to pour in, and Sultanpur (UP)’s Afroz was booked for keeping a Sarus crane. Mohammed Afroz, 27, shared a deep bond with the bird that came flying to the fishpond of his village and started staying with him in September last year. Afroz has been booked for violation of provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act. The action followed a social media post that revealed how a local in Sultanpur was also sharing a unique bond with a Sarus crane. According to Mohd Afroz, he found the Sarus crane near a fishpond in his village in September 2022. “I found the bird alone and offered it food like any other human would do. I was amazed that when I started going home the bird started following me and reached my residence,” he said. He further said: “We were already used to living with a Sarus because my father Mohammed Shafiq had a Sarus with him since 2019. He had found it in a field and later the bird started living with him and got mixed with the whole family. We lovingly called the bird ‘Sweety’.” He further added that in March 2022 that ‘Sweety’ suddenly died due to electrocution in Sonbarsa village. “The death shocked my father, affecting his health. When we found this Sarus and named it ‘Sweety’, the health of my father also improved,” added Afroz. DFO, Sultanpur, RK Tripathi said: “We have taken away the bird and booked Afroz. His statements have been recorded and a team is probing the case.”
Now, a similar story has emerged from another UP town, Mau and this time a man named Ramsamuj Yadav shares a special bond with a Sarus crane. A video of their bonhomie was shared by the news agency ANI on Twitter. The clip shows the Sarus crane following Yadav around in a field. The bird also follows the instructions given by him. “I had found it on the farm where I had fed it once. After feeding it twice initially, it started to come to me repeatedly. It roams around freely in the village,” Yadav is quoted as saying by the news agency in a tweet. The clip shared by retired Indian Administrative Service officer Surya Pratap Singh showed Arif standing next to the cage. The bird, apparently overwhelmed, was seen jumping several times and almost trying to reach him. It then flew around the cage, unable to contain its excitement. Tagging Uttar Pradesh chief minister, the former IAS officer urged him to free the bird. “Chief Minister @myogiadityanath Sir, today I am asking something from you for the first time. Free the stork, the friendship of these two is more than any law of the Wild Act. What would anyone get by separating them?” read the tweet in Hindi, roughly translated.
Appeals to show mercy
And there may be so many more such soul stirring bonds developing between the Sarus and man, how many would the law prosecute and imprison, ask humanitarians? BJP MP Varun Gandhi has also pitched for the release of the from the sanctuary and reuniting it with Arif Khan. “Their story is special”, Gandhi tweeted with the video of the crane fluttering around excitedly in its enclosure while looking at Arif, who visited it recently in Kanpur Zoo. “This beautiful bird is meant to fly freely and not to live in a cage,” Gandhi added. “It (bird) should be restored its sky, freedom, and friend,” the Pilibhit MP said. Meanwhile, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India has sent a request to the principal chief conservator of forests, and wildlife, Uttar Pradesh, Mamta Sanjeev Dubey, requesting her to rehabilitate and immediately release Sarus crane from Kanpur Zoo back to the bird’s natural habitat. PETA India Cruelty Response Coordinator Saloni Sakaria in an appeal stated: “A zoo, where even animals, who have known no other life, become neurotic and depressed from their imprisonment.”
Not all in favour
However, there are some conflicting opinions as well. Senior forest official (retired)K Praveen Rao also pointed out: “Any wild animal, when injured or when food is offered to it, becomes a pet. That is a reason why a leopard or tiger – or any wild bird or animal for that matter- is released back into its natural habitat as soon as possible after its rescue. This is to ensure they don’t get used to human beings and their company. This phenomenon is called human imprinting. From humane angle what he did appears right, but this example may be taken advantage of by poachers who may claim- if caught- that the animal/bird was rescued by them.” Lucknow Divisional Forest Officer Ravi Singh said “Sarus is a wild bird under the Wildlife Protection Act. We have a system to protect and nurture it, but one should be alert. You cannot touch its wings or hold it near you. No human touch is allowed.”
“While the story is emotional, it is unfortunately not very black and white,” said KS Gopi Sundar, co-chair of the Stork, Ibis, and Spoonbill Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). As per senior conservationist Kaushalendra Singh: “Any bird or animal can be tamed and will get attached to humans. There is no dearth of such examples. A leopard, tiger and a mongrel used to live with (late) Billy Arjan Singh and stroll in the forest with him. Decades ago, a Sarus was living in my garden in Rabindra Palli. It used to fly away and then return to my lawn. In my opinion, letting people tame wild creatures is not advisable as then there will be no end to requests citing earlier cases and it will be difficult for the authorities to take arbitrary decisions; food and behaviour changes will take place, and the bird or animal will not be able to lead normal, natural life, will in most cases not breed as human imprinting takes place.”
“This is an odd case, and there are many perspectives to consider, I think. But between the bird’s popularity soaring and its subsequent confiscation by officials, many things went wrong,” the expert said. Understanding the sarus’s behaviour, its social bonding processes, past rehabilitation experiments, and equation with farming communities, could provide authorities a better way to resolve the situation, they noted. Saras are considered to be the least social species. They can be very protective when nesting and are aggressive towards intruders. “This is a very unique situation,” said naturalist Kandarp Kathju, a leading expert on Sarus cranes. Both Kathju and Sundar agree that handling the situation successfully from this point on could set a useful precedent in cases involving human-bird relationships. While one-on-one interactions between sarus cranes and humans are rare, they are not unheard of, said both Sundar and Kathju. In fact, encouraging bonds with human caregivers used to be a popular conservation strategy, but it fell out of favour since some birds were not able to adapt to life in the wild after imprinting on humans as newborn chicks, they said.
Over centuries, the birds have adapted to co-existing with humans in rural India. Sundar, who has studied the birds for about two decades, said that some Sarus cranes in India have taken to nesting in farmlands, especially paddy fields since these are similar to their natural habitat of marshy wetlands. “Sarus cranes have been a part of Indian farming culture for some time now, and the role farmers have played in their conservation should not be underestimated. In the wake of the Green Revolution, which saw rice paddies proliferating, Sarus numbers in these areas grew. Many sarus cranes, too, have adapted to the patterns and rhythms of rural life. The birds typically nest a couple of weeks after the first rain of the monsoon, but in fields around Haryana and UP, they take their cues from farmers. These cranes don’t wait for rains. They start nesting two days after the first farmer has flooded his field.” Sarus cranes have been able to find new habitat and nesting sites in farmlands, but urbanisation has also shrunk their natural habitats and territories. An indicator of this, Sundar said, was birds living not only in pairs but sometimes in “triets”. This refers to groups of three, where an unrelated ‘nanny’ bird helps raise the chicks of the breeding pair. “This acceptance of a third bird into a territory is a brand new behaviour change and shows that territories are shrinking due to concretisation,” he said.
What to do with Arif’s crane next is unclear, said experts. “This is a very odd case,” said Kathju. “What to do next will depend on the age of the crane and whether it is breeding.” If it is a non-breeding crane — which Kathju thinks it likely is, as it has reportedly flown away in the past but returned to Arif — it would ideally be released into a wild space occupied by flocks of other non-breeding, young cranes. However, the situation becomes slightly more complicated when the crane is of breeding age. “Then the alternative is to try and find a good home for it in a healthy zoo with a viable mate, because we know there are many cranes that need pairing,” Kathju said. “The authorities would have to determine its gender through testing and fix the bird with a potential mate.”
Where did things go wrong?
Being the State bird of Uttar Pradesh and listed as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red data list, the forest department not only separated Arif and the crane but also filed a case against Arif under Section 2, 9, 29, 51 and 52 of Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The action received mixed reactions by the public. Where did Arif go wrong? When approached by various media people and conservationists, Arif said that he and the Sarus became friends when he rescued the injured Sarus from his farm. The leg of Sarus was broken and it took more than a month to recover. Arif further said he never kept the sarus tied or captive. The sarus moved freely in the fields, its natural habitats and also visited Arif whenever it wanted. The bond appeared to be a strong one to everyone and his kindness was appreciated by the people. When asked about the action taken by the forest department, he said he did not know about the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 or the Sections of the same but what worried him was the separation with the Sarus. When we look back just a decade back, Sarus Crane Conservation Project started in 10 districts of Uttar Pradesh by Wildlife Trust of India in collaboration with Tata Trusts supported by the UP Forest Department. The project achieved its targets through local volunteers (called ‘Sarus Mitra’ or Friends of the Sarus) and Sarus Protection Committees (SPCs) formed from village communities that volunteered to conserve this iconic bird without financial incentives.
The forest department had its point of view when targeted as being inhuman towards the two friends. The forest official said the photographs and videos on social media had influenced the public and they might try the same. This would lead to threat to the lives of not only Sarus cranes but other species as well. Unfortunately, a case that was seen in the first week of April in Ayodhya district of Uttar Pradesh was just the reverse. An electrocuted Sarus lost its life because the local people were afraid to help it out remembering what happened to Arif. They couldn’t inform the forest department for lack of contact numbers. However, they tried and contacted the NGOs for help and through them the forest department was informed. The team reached the spot and took the Sarus to the veterinary hospital. The delays in helping the sarus led to its death. Nobody is to be blamed as the intention of neither Arif nor the forest department is incorrect. We need more awareness amongst the public as well as consideration by forest department in certain cases. After all, no conservation is actually possible without the involvement of local communities. To quote Anatole France, “Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened”.
Conservation through communities
India is a home to a number of indigenous people. The 2011 census states that there are 700 tribal groups with a population of 104 million. The tribes of India and the local communities have always played an important role in the wildlife conservation. Sometimes it so happens that there is urgent need to save the bird/animal. The locals may not be able to contact the forest department as they do not have the number. Sometimes the forest department does not have any veterinary doctor who can help in rescue operation. The only option is to help out the injured animal. In Rajasthan we have world famous “Bishnois” derived from the words “bees” that is twenty and “noi” that’s nine. They have 29 principles in their life, the main one is ‘praan daya’ or compassion for all living things. The religion of Bishnois is nature conservation. It was started by Lord Jambheshwar about 500 years ago. The Bishnois even sacrifice their lives to protect the flora and fauna. They take care of injured animals and birds like chinkaras, nilgai, peacocks, vultures. They even feed them twice. The animals are free to roam about without the fear of poachers or any other threat to them. There is arrangement of water of all these animals. Many people are against the feeding of wild animals particularly the monkeys. But Bishnois have a different perspective. Being nature lovers to the core, they complain about the Indian Wildlife Act since animals are accorded various levels of importance in the Act. However, to a Bishnoi, killing a monitor lizard is as hideous a crime as killing a tiger. They give the same value to all forms of lives. Their lives have more strict rules for the protection of nature. Their dedication is much beyond the clauses of Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The results of their efforts are known worldwide. Radheyshyam Pemani Bishnoi, is one such conservationist who is also working as nature guide in the Desert National Park, Rajasthan. Radheyshyam has been encouraged for his outstanding efforts by Mud on Boots programme by Sanctuary Nature Foundation.
In Arunachal Pradesh, a local tribe, Buguns, earmarked 17 km2 of their community land as Community Reserve (under Wildlife Protection Act, 1972) in 2017 and named it Singchung Bugun Community Reserve (SBCR). The process was further facilitated and negotiated by the present Divisional Forest Officer and the researchers working in the area. In 2018, the Singchung Bugun Community Reserve received the prestigious India Biodiversity Award in the category Institution–based biodiversity conservation. There are a number of such cases where the villagers and communities have together conserved a number of species such as the breeding of 1000 Asian Open-bill in Sareli village of Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh, zero-hunting of Amur Falcon in Nagaland, Orissa has more than 10,000 village forest protection committee.
Be it our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi who is seen working in his residence while the India’s National Bird is feeding from a plate next to him; be it the devotion for cows of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath; be it Jane Goodall’s devotion for the chimpanzees, be it the motherly care by the Bishnoi female feeding the young deer or be it the indigenous couple Bomman and Bellie who devote their lives to bring up an orphaned baby elephant, Raghu, the affection is appreciable. Everyone cannot create a bond, a family or friendship that breaks the barrier between the human and the animal world. For this you have to have a kind heart that knows no boundaries. Wildlife authorities should use the present case of Sarus crane to educate people on living with nature and being kind to sentient creatures and build on this story to educate society on what to do on coming across an injured animal, domestic or wild. They must educate people to not buy or keep exotic birds and animals, and sensitise people on rescuing wildlife and alerting the right authorities to step-in. Instead, the action taken is to cage the bird and book the rescuer. Wildlife authorities should be rooting for the crane’s freedom and not be involved with confining it, or any other animal. They should work with the rescuer to keep this Sarus crane free and safe from miscreants; tag it, so it could be tracked if it continued visiting its rescuer or decided to fly away.