Other States

Bengal a hub of soaring trade in wild Indian birds

Rose­ringed parakeets,common myna and munia are among the most­traded species in West Bengal.

Rose­ringed parakeets,common myna and munia are among the most­traded species in West Bengal.

It was like a scene from Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s National Award-winning film Charachar (‘Shelter of the Wings’, 1994), where the protagonist Lakhinder, played by Rajat Kapur, a bahelia (bird-catcher) by profession, releases his catch in the forest. Forest officials of the Kharagpur Divisional Office, too, had never witnessed anything such as this before.

In mid-January, hundreds of wild birds with bright plumage flew out of iron cages in a burst of colours into the freedom of the sky. There were so many of them that it took several minutes before the cages were empty. The release followed highest ever seizure of wild birds in West Bengal in the preceding week. The birds were set free in the forest of Nayagram in the Pashchim Medinipur district, where such a large population of birds could be sustained in wilderness.

The seizure included 1,782 rose-ringed parakeets and plum-headed parakeets, 80 hill mynas and 892 munias. They were stuffed in cages and being transported to a local fair in two vehicles when they were intercepted by the forest officials.

According to investigators, the birds were trapped along Uttar Pradesh’s border with Nepal. They were transported by short train journeys to ensure that the maximum number could be kept alive. Forest officials tracked them from the time they arrived in West Bengal’s Bardhaman Station, based on a tip-off.

Last year, too, when a similar consignment arrived in West Bengal, the perpetrators managed to slip away. Wildlife officials were ready this time, and intercepted the cages en route to Dantan, a block bordering Odisha.

Wild Indian birds are in demand in international markets also.

Wild Indian birds are in demand in international markets also.

“On January 13, we arrested five persons, all residents of West Bengal. Thankfully, most of the birds were alive and we released them at a spot where they could thrive,” said Arup Mukherjee, Divisional Forest Officer, Kharagpur.

Agni Mitra, Regional Deputy Director-Eastern Region, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, says that residents of a village near the Bardhaman Station are in touch with bird-catchers in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.“Once these birds are brought to West Bengal, they are stored for a brief period with shop-keepers, whom they call mahajans . Another group of hawkers takes these birds on credit from the shopkeepers and sells them in village fairs,” Mr. Mitra explained.

Mr. Mitra said that this seizure of 2,754 birds was not the only one of its kind in recent times. Other seizures of wild Indian birds have been reported not only from Kolkata but also from market fairs in districts such as Tarakeshwar in Hooghly, Uluberia in Howrah, and in Purba Medinipur.

Clandestine trade

Experts observe that Kolkata, and West Bengal, have for the past several years been a hub for the trade in Indian wild birds despite laws prohibiting it. After a 1991 amendment to the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, except for the house crow (Corvus splendens), which is listed as vermin, no Indian bird can be hunted, trapped, caged or traded.

But in markets like Ghalif Street, Moulali and Boral across the north and south of Kolkata, and in the numerous haat s in villages and suburbs, trade in wild Indian birds continues to flourish under the garb of trade in wild exotic birds, which is legally allowed.

While the focus is on protecting threatened species, many of the bird species that are being exploited do not fall in such categories, the bird expert said.

While the focus is on protecting threatened species, many of the bird species that are being exploited do not fall in such categories, the bird expert said.

Abrar Ahmed, ornithologist and former consultant to NGO Traffic International’s Bird Trade Project, said that his studies over the past two decades have shown that of the 1,300 Indian species of birds, about 450 are being traded in domestic and international markets.

Some of the most traded species are the rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri), Plum-headed Parakeet (P. cyanocephala) and Alexandrine parakeet (P. eupatria), followed by these passerines — black-headed munia (Lonchura malacca), red munia (Amandava amandava), white-throated munia (Lonchura malabarica) and hill myna (Granula religiosa).

Mr. Ahmed pointed out that over the course of his studies on the Indian bird trade since 1992, he recorded 23 species listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Birds, and 19 species listed as Near Threatened, being exploited for trade.

While the focus is on protecting threatened species, many of the bird species that are being exploited do not fall in such categories, the bird expert said. He describes them ironically as “species of lesser gods”.

Explaining how the bird trade racket is spread far and wide Mr. Ahmed referred to a recent seizure at Lucknow, where about 800 wild birds were seized in the first week of January and seven persons were arrested by the Uttar Pradesh Police. He also pointed to another seizure Nepal in October 23, 2017, where three Indian nationals and a Pakistani national were arrested with a large number of animals and birds. Kolkata is the end point for the trade.

“In Kolkata, the birds are brought from the terai region and the Gangetic plains. The route goes from Lucknow to Patna and then to Kolkata, over short distances by train. Winter is a preferred time for the trade as the birds can undertake longer journeys without food and water, and can be stored in smaller spaces to avoid detection,” he said.

Another route followed is stretches from Assam to Siliguri to Kolkata.

Since West Bengal shares a porous 2,216 km border with Bangladesh, the birds are easily taken to the neighbouring country, and smuggled all over the world via traders in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal.

‘Unending problem’

A senior official of the West Bengal Forest Department, who has been involved in the seizure of thousands of birds and the arrest of over 100 persons for the crime, described it as an “unending problem” as long as there is demand for wild Indian birds in local markets.

People keep parakeets as pets without realising that they are violating the law,says a forest official.

People keep parakeets as pets without realising that they are violating the law,says a forest official.

 

“People who buy these birds should realise that the common mithu (parrot) is a protected species in India,” the officer said, emphasising that many people try to keep birds as pets without even realising that they are protected by law.

While there are provisions in the law to prosecute buyers of these birds, it has not been implemented and law-enforcers are of the opinion that prosecuting buyers would amount to taking the matter “a little too far”.

The clandestine nature of trade in wild Indian birds makes it difficult to enumerate it. Mr. Ahmed estimates 20,000-50,000 wild Indian birds are sold annually at each of the trading points.

The researcher says there are at least 5,000 families, including traditional trappers such as Mishrikars, Pathamies, Bahelias or Chirimars, who depend on bird-catching as a means of livelihood. Conservationists fear that any attempt to stop the trade in Indian wild birds will not bear fruit in long run without the rehabilitation of these communities.


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Printable version | May 20, 2022 10:59:36 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/bengal-a-hub-for-soaring-trade-in-wild-indian-birds/article22715812.ece