Wildlife & Biodiversity

Sambhar tragedy: Are birds second class wildlife, ask experts

Not only are bird species not monitored properly but information about instances of their mass death is suppressed, they allege

By Ishan Kukreti
Published: Friday 15 November 2019
Dead birds being lowered into a mass grave in Sambhar. Photo: Vikas Choudhary

Experts have flagged the official apathy towards birds in the aftermath of the mass avian die-off at Sambhar lake in Rajasthan, with many likening them to second class wildlife.

Not only were bird species not monitored properly but information about instances of their mass death was suppressed, a section of the scientific community alleged.

Since November 12, as many as 4,000 birds of around 25 different species have died in Sambhar, which according to media reports, are attributed to paralysing illness caused by botulinum toxin.

“This time, bird watchers were present in the area and conveyed the information to journalists. Therefore, everybody came to know about it. Otherwise such incidents don’t become known,” K Gopi Sunder of the International Crane Foundation, an international non-profit working on conserving cranes, said.

Sunder said the last such big incident of avian mass death was during the bird flu outbreak in 2006, but other instances and information related to them are too few and far between to do any kind of analysis.

Others, like Anand Pendharkar, a Mumbai-based wildlife biologist, said most of these incidents were either hushed or the governments played the blame game.

“A couple of years back, we found that around 12-13 flamingos had died near the Thane wetland. Initially the reason for it was decided to be the pollution in the wetland,” he said.

“But finally it was concluded that the birds had become infected at the breeding ground in Gujarat itself. So Maharashtra shifted the blame to Gujarat and nothing happened. I’m sure a similar case can still be made regarding the migratory birds which have died in Sambhar,” he added.

While countries like the United States maintain a database of all mass bird deaths, in India there is no such exercise.

“Die-offs of water fowl is relatively common. We had a similar instance of mass death in the Chilika lake some years back and the reason was found to be avian flu. Such instances are regularly recorded in European countries. What we lack here is a monitoring and tracking mechanism of such instances in the country,” S Muralidharan, senior scientist at Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, Coimbatore, said.

Unlike tigers and elephant, there no monitoring of mass deaths of birds. There are also no population estimation exercises for them. There are no exclusive government authorities for birds.

This is despite an active interest among common people when it comes to bird watching and monitoring. In fact, the only kind of bird monitoring that is done in the country is by citizen groups, the most prominent of them being the Bird Count India, a group of organisations working together to increase the knowledge about bird distributions and populations.

“India has a big responsibility when it comes to migratory birds as many species migrate to India, and with some species, the entire population migrates,” Sunder said.  

“It is clear from this incident that we don’t have proper veterinary and forensic labs to deal with such incidents. It has been four day since the incident came to light and the reasons for it are still not clear,” Pendharkar said.

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