'Bird trappers make good zoo keepers'

ABRAR AHMED senior programme officer at Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce-India/World Wildlife Fund-India lashes out at the unrealistic approach of conservationists towards bird trade. Traditional bird-trapping communities, he tells NITIN SETHI, need to be integrated into the mainstream

By Nitin Sethi
Published: Wednesday 31 July 2002

What is the first available record of bird trade in India?
The pioneering study on bird trade was conducted in 1971 at the Heathrow airport in London. It showed that nearly 275 bird species were being exported.

Then came the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 (wpa). It restricted trade to 200 species. But in reality, more than 300-350 birds were being exported from India. In fact, until 1991, India was the largest exporter of birds internationally. In 1991, an amendment to the wpa completely banned trade and trapping of all indigenous wild birds, except the common crow (Corvus splendens), which is considered vermin. However, trading in exotic birds within India was not banned.

How effective was the ban?
It was not quite effective. The illegal bird trade in India flourishes. And bird trade constitutes one of the largest chunks of wildlife trade, due to the sheer numbers of birds and species in trade. The only difference the ban has made today is that the trade has gone covert.

When did you get involved in studying the trade?
I am interested in aviculture and am an ornithologist. I was the principal investigator of the Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce (traffic)-India countrywide study on illegal bird trade. The first phase of the study revealed that at least 300 Indian bird species were being traded in the northern Indian markets alone. In the course of the surveys I observed nearly 200,000 individual birds being traded.

What's the size of the trade?
It's really difficult to put a number or volume to the trade. The localised demand for meat birds goes unrecorded -- that constitutes trade in a minimum 150 species. For example, in only one particular locality, we found, the average number of birds traded averaged about 2,000 birds sold over one winter season from a single haat (village market place).

And what else are the birds used for?
They are caught and sold for at least seven different purposes. They are used for medicinal purposes, for scientific and kept as pets. They are also unfortunate participants in religious rituals. Several bird species are now regularly captured for 'bird release' charades. A large number of falcons are still smuggled to the Middle East. But the bulk of the trade is in parakeets and munias.

And who are the traders today?
There are two groups in the trade. The urban retailers and businesspersons, who are like city-based go-betweens. I have no sympathy for them. They care only for the money, not the birds. But then there is the other set of grassroot communities. These are the trappers -- the Mishrikars, Pathamies, Bahelias or Chirimars and Hakki Pukki -- communities that have traditionally caught birds. For them it's a matter of livelihood, and catching birds is an art form.

Where is the hub of the trade?
The trapping is done in the Gangetic plains, an area dominated by Mishrikars and Bahelias. The main markets are Crawford market in Mumbai, Mehboob Chowk market in Hyderabad, Gallif Street market in Calcutta, Jama Masjid market in Delhi, Mishrikar-toli market in Patna, Bahelia-toli market in Varanasi, Nakhas market in Lucknow.

How many of these trappers are involved in the trade today?
A very conservative estimate would be that at least 5,000 families are fully dependent on bird trade.

But surely they too have changed profile over the decade-long ban?
Yes, many other non-traditional trappers have also entered the arena now. More importantly, the traditional trappers have had to change tack. Their traditional methods of catching birds were sustainable and based on indigenous technologies. Like, they would use a blade of grass to make the noose. Artificial materials, such as fine nylon threads that could hurt the bird, were always avoided. But, ever since the ban, the stakes have gone up for them. They are resorting to more easily available material.

Many have stopped following the unwritten rules of the trade. Earlier, they never caught birds in breeding. Elders in the trade ensured that younger members of the community did not catch an adult parakeet perched at the cavity of a tree -- the bird is taking care of its brood. Now these considerations do not matter. Mortality rates have also increased due to higher degree of concealment during transport.

You say the trade goes on unabated. Is it because of a lack of manpower?
Certainly not, the entire country is dotted with forest checkposts. Such large machinery is at work to stop wildlife trade. But the trade will not stop unless you think from the bird trappers' point of view, think of their rehabilitation and combine it with stricter enforcement.

Elaborate upon this...
We tend to forget that most of these trappers are quite knowledgeable, maybe even more than many of our formally educated scientists and zoo-keepers. When they go out to trap birds, they know when which tree bears fruit and which bird likes to have it. How many conservationists understand these interrelationships?

In fact, I feel pained when a seizure of traded birds is made. The seized birds are sent to a zoo in the absence of a rehabilitation centre. These zoos often end up being mortuaries for the caged birds due to lack of infrastructure and expertise on care of birds in captivity. Of the birds seized at Mumbai airport in 2000, not even 10 per cent survived. And, this is not a one-off case. Seized birds are released in wrong habitats and the wrong distribution areas, and a number of them perish because captive birds can't survive in the wild .

What's the solution?
My countrywide report on India's illegal bird trade will be released shortly. It will expose the extent of bird trade in India and suggest remedies. Some of the recommendations in my earlier report are:

Strict enforcment on illegal bird trading points with harsh penalties. There is also a need for rescue and rehabilitation centres.

Encourage captive breeding of domesticated exotic birds for trade.

Rehabilitation of some traditional animal trappers in zoos as animal keepers. They, more than anyone else, know how to take care of birds in captivity.

Documentation of traditional trapping skills as it is a dying art.

Trade in selected species can be allowed on a regulated basis, but the fear of other birds traded in their garb remains the biggest apprehension.

It appears you are not entirely against keeping birds in captivity...
I am strictly against keeping any wild bird in confinement, unless it is for a captive breeding programme to bolster wild populations. A bird may notundergo physical death in captivity but in most cases it undergoes a repro-ductive death. At the same time,I am very keen that the science of aviculture, which is breeding birds incaptivity, should be promoted. Several species which have very little chances of surviving in the wild will requireassistance. It is also highly likely thatthe propagation of captive bredbirds would contribute towardsminimising the trade and trapping of wild birds.

(Abrar Ahmed can be approached only via email at abrar_bird@hotmail.com)

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