Wildlife trade, including that of birds, is a menace for everyone. Capturing and selling birds does no good to the rural communities that are involved. They get very little monetary benefits, obstructing their development and destroying the ecosystem that provides them with everything. They hardly realize the loss that they are doing to Mother Nature which is the source of their livelihood. Another threat is the outbreak of zoonotic diseases that are spread from animals to humans…
Dr Sonika Kushwaha & Dr Akhilesh Kumar
Dhruv is just 4 years old; he feeds more than 80 birds in his garden. These include parakeets, house sparrows, bulbuls, mynas, baya weavers, and many more. He doesn’t like to see any bird in the cage. When he sees any parrot in the cages, he asks why is the parrot in a cage. Let us set it free when no one is around. Since childhood his definition of birds is something that has wings and is free to fly, to come and sing and feed in his garden.
Freedom is often symbolized by the birds soaring in the sky with open wings. The famous quote by Maya Angelou states: “A bird does not sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song” referring to their ability to sing without worrying about the world. The rich diversity of birds all over the world inspires humans to have freedom in all aspects to live a worthy life. Shockingly, man doesn’t hesitate to take away the freedom of these majestic feathered friends, making their lives miserable. Birds are increasingly becoming victims of illegal trade- captured, caged, and put behind iron bars for the rest of their life. To stop this cruelty, the ban on trapping and trading of Indian wild birds was enforced in 1990-91. The Wildlife Protection Act, of 1972 bans the capture, imprisonment, and trading of all indigenous bird species, and disobedience can lead to imprisonment for at least three years, a monetary fine of up to Rs 25,000, or both. Due to faults, mass communication, and loopholes, the illegal trade of birds continues to thrive. There is, however, no restriction on the sale of captive-bred exotic and domesticated species.
Let us understand bird trade
Bird trade is not a new concept. It has old history. For centuries birds have been trapped for a number of reasons that can never be justified by a conservationist. Parrots were probably the first birds to be kept as pets and Egyptians were the ones to start this trend with the African grey parrots as pets about 4000 years ago. In Indian literature, the first written reference to parrots is mentioned in the “Rigveda” more than 3,000 years back. During the first millennium B.C., the Asians and the Africans kept parrots as companions to embark on their royalty and superiority. In 327 B.C., when Alexander the Great conquered India, he took back to Greece with him ring-necked parrots. These parakeets were named after him as Alexandrine parakeet which is now in the Near Threatened Category of the IUCN Red Data List. Bird Trade is not just about the Indian markets. According to BirdLife International, the trade is in multi-billion dollars no less than 7-23 billion dollars annually at the global level. In America, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) fails to stop the sale of parrots that are captured from the wild. Similar is the situation in Mexico. Every year 65,000 to 78,000 parrots are caught from their natural habitats. Due to the extensive and uncontrolled hunting and trading the population of many species is declining, leading to a hike in their price and demand, for example, the Eurasian Goldfinch. This involves all criminal activities and inhumanity. Wildlife trade including that of the birds is a menace for everyone. Capturing and selling birds does no good to the rural communities that are involved. They get very little monetary benefits, obstructing their development and destroying the ecosystem that provides them with everything. They hardly realize the loss that they are doing to Mother Nature which is the source of their livelihood. Another threat is the outbreak of zoonotic diseases that are spread from animals to humans.
The species traded
According to the study by Abrar Ahmed under the project by WWF in 1997, at least 250 native and 70 exotic species were being traded in Northern Indian markets. Another report by TRAFFIC on illegal owl trade in India titled “Imperiled Custodians of the Night” released in 2010 had highlighted that out of 30 owl species in India, 15 have been found in illegal wildlife trade. Some of the most common species traded in India includes Owls-Barn owl, Rock Eagle owl, Owlets-Spotted owlet, Parakeets-Rose-ringed, Plum-headed, Red-breasted parakeet and Alexandrine parakeet, Mynas-Hill mynas, Bank Mynas and common mynas, Munias-scaly breasted, black headed, White-throated munia, red, Green avadavat, Canaries, Buntings, Weaver birds, Softbills, House sparrows, Indian Peafowl, Kalinj pheasant, Grey francolin, Strawberry finches, Black kite, Great pied hornbill (Buceros bicornis), Large grey hornbill (Ocyceros birostris),Yellow bill blue magpie (Urocissa flavirostris),Yellow footed green pigeon (Treron phoenicoptera), Emerald dove, Saheen falcon, Black shouldered kite, Duck species (Pintails, pochards), pigeons, Indian Roller, Goose, black francolin , cranes and in 2022 a first case of smuggling Endangered Egyptian vultures. The Railway Police and the forest department had arrested a smuggler at Khandwa railway station with seven Egyptian vultures. The Endangered species was being taken to Malegaon, Maharashtra from Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. The middle man offered Rs10,000 to the catcher. The rare vultures were probably destined for traders dealing in exotic species who sell rare species to exotic species lovers (who keep these as pets) at high prices. There are possibilities of further being sold abroad (including the Middle East).
Buyers frequently demand ‘rare species’ that are difficult to provide by the sellers. In such cases, the sellers camouflage the easily available species by using dyes. For example, the Hill Myna (Gracula religiosa) is a particularly admired species, but it is difficult to get in the domestic markets and the buyers are fooled by giving the Bank Mynas (Acridotheris ginginianus) or Common Mynas (A.tristis) that are cleverly coloured to make them a lookalike of hill myna. The male house sparrows are in demand for medicinal purposes. The Yellow-throated sparrows are marked with black throats and made available to the customers. Similarly, to meet the demand for horned owls, the Spotted Owlets are also concealed with dye, tea, and lamp-black mixed with mustard oil. The feathers are stuck with latex to the head and red colouring agents are injected into the eyes of the bird, as per the report by Abrar Ahmed. This illegal trade doesn’t spare even the peacocks, our National Bird. Peacock poaching is increasing day by day for the feathers and meat that are served in various restaurants. The steep decline in their population lead to the declaration of World Peacock Day on 15th November 2022 for the first time by the Indian Biodiversity Conservation Society.
Reasons for bird trading: humans have always been fascinated by the appearance, habits, and vividness of birds. Bird watching is an emerging hobby to connect with nature and bring peace to the mind and soul. In spite of this amazing bonding, there is the bare truth of the cruelty that these feathered friends experience to fulfill the unappeasable motives of people. The most common reasons associated with bird trading are for keeping them as pets, for folk medicinal uses, black magic, street performances, taxidermy, private aviaries/zoos, food, use in folk medicines, use of claws and feathers in making ornaments such as plumes in headgear, and eggs which are often used for gambling. Some people keep them caged because they find the birds entertaining, particularly the parakeets. Are these people lonely? Do they crave companionship? The answers may vary from person to person. Some people just don’t have any specific reasons to cage the free birds behind iron bars. They just like it. Dr Vikram Singh, an Indian educationist and retired IPS shares that people even keep cranes after clipping off their wings, as pets just to flaunt their standard and boast of their lifestyle.
Various reports and sources unveil the route of the bird trade. It mainly starts from the Terai region of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Then the birds are sent to Lucknow and Patna and then to Kolkata. Another route followed stretches from Assam to Siliguri to Kolkata. The birds are easily transported to other neighboring countries through the border of West Bengal and smuggled all over the world through the traders in Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Some of the well-known markets in India include:
• Hathibagan, Kolkata
• Galiff Street or Bagbazar Sokher Haat, Kolkata
• Kabootar market, Delhi
• Nakhass, Lucknow
• Hazimastan bazaar, Allahabad
• Jahagirabad Fish and Bird Market, Bhopal
How the bird trade runs
Dr Vikram Singh explains the chain with the involvement of four categories of people. To start with, the hunters/shikari, then the middle-men/bichauliya, the sellers/vikreta, and lastly the buyers/khareedaar. The hunters, who are mostly the tribal or people associated with the forests, are active in the breeding season or the migratory season. They use various methods for trapping and killing the birds like local guns, electric fencing, Compaq bird traps, poisonous seeds, and a very unique method of using the grams and peas soaked in liquor that make the birds unconscious and inactive. Azad Singh, wildlife photographer, and conservationist, also shared his experiences to reveal the grassroots level facts: “In this work, males mostly trap the parrots from orchards and forests. For this, they fix the time in the morning and evening when the parrots move out of their roosts in flocks or return in the evening. Crop nets are placed between two distant trees and when the birds are roosting, they make a loud sound of predatory birds, due to which the whole frightened flock gets trapped directly in their trap. I have seen this method in many rescue missions. In the breeding season, these ruthless fowlers take out small chicks from parrots' nests and sell them in the market. Fearing the action of the forest department, they engage their children and women in selling in the main market so that they can escape the actions. Along with parrots, they also sell other birds secretly in these illegal markets, which are also used for rearing or eating their meat, in which wild quail, pheasant, heron, jungle fowl, red jungle fowl, cormorants, owl, etc. are prominent”. The middlemen pay very little to the bird catchers, even less than Rs100, and the seller may sell the bird for Rs 300 to 3000 or even in lakhs depending on the species.
The whole process is brutal. Starting from the capturing to transporting and the final fate of the bird whether ending up in a cage or on a plate. The process of transporting them is also very inhuman. They are just dumped into the boxes with no space even to move. The chicks mostly fail to survive during this journey without any care. “A dozen or even more are stuffed in one box and fed forcefully through the syringes. In such painful conditions most of the birds die before reaching the market,” an activist explained. Natural bird behaviour comprises a number of activities that have scientific reasons. These include dust baths, water baths, social activities, preening, pre-mating activities, mating, nest construction, incubation, and feeding on the type of food depending on their physical features, some birds are granivorous, some are frugivorous, some insectivorous and some may be omnivorous or scavengers. However, when caged, these same lively birds become depressed and withdrawn. They are often seen over-preen to the extent of injuring themselves. Most people force birds to suffer wing clipping so that they can’t fly away. This is like taking away the most important feature of the birds. In such cases, even a rescue doesn’t get the birds back to the open skies.
The everlasting problem as long as there is demand
The basic concept of the market of anything depends on the concept of demand. As long as there is demand, the bird trades will prosper. Laws remain on paper until they are implemented. The majority of people are unaware of the Wildlife Protection Act. Rahul J, wildlife rehabilitator at PFA Wildlife and Conservation Centre, says the responsibility lies on the consumer in the end. “The survival of these birds is played with for decorating a human house. This not only affects the bird species but is also detrimental to the environment as birds are important in the food chain and play an important role of pollinators and seed dispersers as well,” he said.
But why is the Wildlife Protection Law failing totally? Dr Vikram Singh says: “There are no actions taken against the bird catchers and the buyers. The interrogation should involve the basic question that how they get the weapons for hunting the birds. The buyers should be punished for violating the Act. But there are no such actions. Hence there is no fear in the culprits. The trade is flourishing because of a deliberate violation of the existing law. We need more dedicated people like Dr Aravind Chaturvedi, Superintendent of Police, Vigilance Department in Lucknow.” The bare truth is that the officials of the State Forest Department know about the ongoing illegal trade in the market but do not take the required actions, and their staff will have to become more vigilant. According to the Traffic studies, loopholes exist at all levels. Be it the forest officials, railwaymen, or airline and customs staff, no one is really concerned. Another problem is that the concerned people are themselves unaware of the species being traded. They cannot differentiate between a baya weaver and a munia.
The data from various studies show that there are at least 10,000 people who are directly involved in bird trapping and trading in north India. The government says it is not possible to take away the livelihood without providing the other source of income. The promises are made to do the needful but it remains pending. With the increasing awareness, and stricter enforcement of the wildlife laws, the availability of native birds in the open market has decreased but the sale of exotic species continues. The bird trade of indigenous species has also been affected by the destruction and decline in the population of birds in their natural habitats. This might be due to various reasons such as over-trapping in earlier years, habitat destruction, insecticides, changing lifestyle, urbanization, pollution, and many more.
The permanent solution lies in changing the bird-catching profession to some other means of livelihood which is a time taking process and needs immediate starting. Conservationists also suggest rehabilitation of these communities for long-run solutions. Ahmed said: "No government policy has ever tried to solve the problems of the bahelias/bird catchers and others involved in the trade". Supporting the outlook that the government should care for the livelihood of traditional bird trappers, Ahmed said they had a deep knowledge of bird habits and behaviour that even experts fail to avail. “So, an option is to employ these traditional people in places like interpretation centers, zoos, or sanctuaries.” Ahmed also suggests that captive breeding of popular exotic species should be encouraged. Large-scale captive breeding will reduce prices and bring down the demand for wild Indian birds. However, this will continue the trade of native species secretly. Awareness amongst buyers is vital. They should know what the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 says about the bird trade and should follow it. To curb trade completely it is imperative to change the attitude of the local people. The public should be kind towards the innocent winged prisoner suffering for their amusement and happiness. While there are provisions in the law to prosecute buyers of these birds, it has not been implemented so far. There should be helpline numbers. At times people know about the birds being transported by buses, trains, and trucks but they do not how to contact the forest department or the police. There should be awareness boards with Wildlife Protection Laws, 1972 in all the police stations so that the public becomes aware of the punishments and fines for harming the birds and animals.
When immediate actions are taken, the results are positive and the effects are long-lasting. For example, on 12 December 2021, acting on a complaint by PETA India, the Lucknow police and the forest department rescued 11 rose-ringed parakeets from illegal traders in the Nakhas bird market. The police registered a First Information Report under Sections 2, 9, 39, 49, 50, and 51 of the Wild Life (Protection) Act (WPA), 1972, and Section 11(1)(e) and 11(2) of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (PCA), 1960. Parakeets are protected under Schedule IV of the WPA, and capturing, trading, or keeping them as “pets” is a punishable offense. Such actions are vital.