Karuna Abhiyan: A Mission To Save the Birds

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“All souls are equal and alike and have the similar nature and qualities”- Mahavira Karuna Abhiyan

Since ancient times the birds have had a deep spiritual meaning. A popular story goes where the sitting of two birds is the personification of the soul or the atma and the jeeva or the paramatma. One bird consumes fruit while the other bird looks on. The bird that’s consuming the fruit is the atma while the other bird which has wisdom as its source of nourishment is the paramatma. Even in Indian Mythology, birds have been associated as vehicles of Gods. Mahavira, the founder of Jainism had once said, ‘Live and allow others to Live; hurt no one; life is dear to all living beings’. This sentence rightly justifies the importance of every living element in the environment. Every living being must be expected to be treated with the same compassion, empathy and everyone must learn how to peacefully coexist with different living beings.
Keeping the principle of equality between man and other living beings in mind, the Government of Gujarat, 13 years ago, had launched the ‘Karuna Abhiyan’ which literally translates to ‘Mercy Mission’. This unique program was launched specially for the conservation of birds. This program was initiated by keeping bird protection at its heart and was exclusively designed to protect the lives of birds and aid in their treatment when injured in unforeseen circumstances. It is a proactive program that considers the possible threats that could endanger the lives of birds and take suitable actions accordingly.

Necessity of Karuna Abhiyan

It is one of the fondest memories of childhood to be awakened by the chirping of birds outside our windows. For a long time, watching birds frying free in the sky had been a common sight. A great many people have drawn inspiration from them, be it scientific or spiritual. Watching birds inspired man to think of flying, thereby resulting in the invention of one of the greatest achievements of mankind: an airplane. Similarly, watching birds had also inspired man to always look up and to have faith within himself in order to reach greater heights. Watching birds in the sky has become such a commonplace and is a phenomenon that has been taken for granted. Imagining a world without them would be indeed an improbable task.

Birds and Their Relation with the Ecology and Environment

Birds come in many shapes, sizes and colours. They are not only a treat to the eyes, but are also important elements of the environment, for without them, the environment as we know would cease to exist. Birds mainly feed on food from plants, small animals, insects and earthworms. The birds themselves serve as food for other larger animals thereby becoming an important link in the delicate food chain in the ecosystem. They are natural pollinators and controllers of pests and some fruit eating birds such as hummingbirds aid in the dispersion of seeds. But most importantly, birds are excellent indicators of state of environmental.

A popular saying goes as ‘canary in a coal mine’ which indicates towards someone or something that is capable of sensing danger in advance. This saying was born as a result of miners taking canary birds to mines in order to assess the levels of dangerous gases such as carbon monoxide and thereby allowing them to take the necessary precautions. Some birds are capable of indicating habitat quality. For instance, read-cockaded woodpeckers are known to nest only in well-developed pine forests where the trees have reached a certain height and are of a particular diameter. They are also known to abandon their nests when the plants growing at the bottom of the trees reach a certain height. In a pine forest, burning of such plants is an indicator of a properly functioning ecosystem. Therefore, their abandoning of the nests is an indicator of the habitat quality.

Birds are also excellent indicators of pollution. Their droppings tend to contain significant levels of heavy metals if the bird had been in the vicinity of an area polluted with heavy metals. Some birds are also excellent indicators of the presence of DDT, which is a commonly used pesticide. DDT causes female birds to lay eggs with thin eggshells which causes them to be crushed during incubation, thereby resulting in a decrease in their population. They are also capable of indicating outbreaks of diseases. For instance, prior to the outbreak of the West Nile Virus in Europe, copious numbers of crows had started to die. When these corpses of the birds were tested in laboratories it was found that they were infected with West Nile Virus. This ensured establishment of proper precautions to contains the outbreak of the virus.

Threats to Birds and Their Survival

The existence of birds has helped the survival of humans. People take delight in watching and photographing them. However, due to certain human activities, the existence of birds is collapsing. For instance, in the past decade, the population of vultures has rapidly declined in India. The reason behind their decline was the presence of the popular pain-killer Diclofenac in the carcasses of livestock. Livestock would be often given these painkillers to aid the healing of their wounds. However, the same pain-killer was toxic for vultures. In 2006, the Government of India had banned the use of the painkillers for animals. However, the painkiller soon found its way back to the market through large vials designed by pharmaceutical companies under the label of ‘multi-packs’ for humans. Soon, the Government banned these large vials as well. However, the risk of these painkillers has not yet decreased. Common activities such as flying kites also prove to be harmful to the birds. The thread or ‘manjha’ is extremely sharp and cuts into the bodies of birds that inadvertently fly into them. This results in grievous injuries and even death. Also, certain activities are known to affect the migratory pattern of the birds as well. Other factors such as climate change, coastal development, disturbance of breeding birds, environmental flows, fire & Burning regimes, Habitat clearance and Fragmentation, Invasive Species, and Nesting Hollows deeply affect the birds.

In Coastal Development, saltmarshes are often seen as wastelands and are usually marked for industrial development. However, the same saltmarshes serve as a home to many migratory birds. Some species of birds are incredibly prone to human activities. For instance, Crested Shrike-tit is a bird that beautifully builds a deep cup shaped nest. However, the bird abandons its nest the moment it realises that there is disturbance in its nearby area. Even when friendly humans such as bird-watchers approach the nest, the birds abandon the nest. When this happen during their breeding season, the birds do not breed till the following breeding season comes. This puts an axe on their population.

Environmental flows are carefully structured channels often constructed for increasing the flow of water in a river or to maintain its health. However, by providing extra flow, vital populations of birds living at the river banks are destroyed which in turn puts a serious affect on the survival of such birds. Extensive clearing of forests and other wildlands also seriously damages the livelihood of the birds. In some cases, invasive species tend to compete for common food sources and prey on birds.
Such actions have forced the Government of Gujarat to take the necessary steps to implement Karuna Abhiyan designed specifically for the conservation of birds.

An Insight into the Bird Protection

The ever increasing human population has always had a profound impact on the survival of other species on this planet. The various species of birds have also got severely affected due to different human activities. Over the years, more than hundreds of species of birds have become extinct. In recent years, many species of birds have been listed as critically endangered or threatened species. There is a worldwide decline in the population of many birds, with approximately 1200 bird species on the verge of extinction in the coming century. The major reasons for the decline in the bird populations are:

  • Habitat loss
  • Overhunting
  • Climate change
  • Pollution
  • Accidental mortality due to structural collisions
  • Long-line fishing bycatch
  • Oil spills
  • Pesticide usage
  • Competition and predation by pets such as cats and dogs

Bird conservation professionals and scientists have developed various types of techniques for the protection of different species of birds. Some of the major techniques are:

  • Captive breeding:
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The technique of captive breeding, also known as ex-situ conservation involves the principle of protecting the species in either zoos or breeding facilities, which can be later reintroduced into the wild.

  • Reintroductions:

The reintroduction of captive bred species into the wild can aid in increasing the population of endangered bird species, or to create new population of the extinct species from the wild. However, the technique is associated with the limitation that the captive bred species may lack the sufficient knowledge and skills required for their survival in the wild.

  • Translocations:

The technique involves the movement of populations of threatened bird species into some other suitable habitat, which is not being currently used by those species. In rare cases, the technique fails if the species are not able adapt properly with the new location and start declining in numbers again.

  • Habitat protection:

The protection of birds in their natural habitat can be the best solution for the problem of declining number of bird species. This can be done by purchasing the land which is of conservation importance and gazetting the land as national park or any other protected area.

Kite Festival in Gujarat and Its Effect on Birds

In Gujarat, the onset of spring is celebrated as Uttarayan. Ahmedabad, the capital city of Gujarat hosts the International Kite Festival from many years. The festival is considered to be one of the biggest festivals hosted the Indian state of Gujarat. During the festival, the sky is filled with numerous kites, flying very high in the air.

These kites many a times severely injury different birds flying in the sky. The threads (manja) used to fly kites are sharpened dangerously by gumming and then layering with powdered glass, so that the thread can slash the manja of opponent’s kite during the kite flying competitions. People also use ‘Chinese thread’, which is made up of nylon for providing better strength, instead of cotton thread. Birds often fly into such dangerous strings or get entangled into them, thus leading to deep cuts into the wings, fractures, nerve injuries, dislocations and death in most cases.

Birds living in the urban areas such as rose-ringed parakeets, pariah kites, pigeons, crows and barn owls are commonly injured during the festival. The declining population of vultures due to the diclofenac drug face an additional danger during the Kite Festival. January is the month for the eggs of white rumped vultures to hatch, and the parent birds scout for food to feed the new born, at least thrice a day. The injured parent vultures during the Kite Festival leave their fledglings starving, which further becomes responsible for their declining population. The Wildlife Trust of India’s Emergency Rescue Network (ERN), which usually responds to natural calamities such as floods and cyclones, view Kite Festival as a man-made disaster.

Past Efforts Made for Protecting the Birds During Kite Festival

Several NGOs have worked in the past for the protection and treatment of birds, which get injured during the Kite Festival. These NGOs have provided their individual efforts along with various medical facilities for the proper treatment of injured birds. However, the operations of these NGOs had several gaps and limitations.

Gaps and Limitations of Past Initiatives/Efforts:

  • Lack of proper coordination between the various NGOs
  • Dearth of funds
  • Lack of ample amount of manpower
  • No support from Government organizations
  • Less efforts towards advertising and spreading awareness among people

These limitations and gaps have hindered in the proper and effective treatment of injured birds, and decreasing the number of such events of bird injury and death over the years.

Karuna Abhiyan for the Betterment of Bird Protection

Kite Festival in Gujarat is celebrated during the winter month of January, which is also the season for many migratory birds to come to India, especially to different regions of Gujarat. Some of the species of migratory birds which come to the Indian state of Gujarat during winters include peregrine falcons, flamingos, pelicans, ibises, Steppes eagles, sarus cranes, etc. According to the officials from the Bird Conservation Society of Gujarat, more than 100 species of these migratory birds get injured during the Kite Festival.

The Gujarat Government has taken the initiative to save these feathered souls from injuries and death by launching the Karuna Abhiyan. The initiative has been undertaken in a well-coordinated manner under the guidance of Forest Department, Gujarat. Other governmental organizations such as GEC, GEER Foundation, GPCB, Fire Department, AMC, Police and Traffic Department have also provided the helping hand in making this campaign a great success. Birds, which get injured during the festival are immediately rescued by the volunteers and taken to the nearby medical care centre.

Merits of Karuna Abhiyan

  • Protection of migratory and threatened species of birds
  • Good coordination among the Government Organizations and NGOs
  • Proper facilities for the immediate rescue and treatment of injured birds
  • Efforts made towards making people aware about the importance of birds through advertising and social media.

Achievements of Karuna Abhiyan

  • In the last 13 years, Karuna Abhiyan has saved more than 32, 000 birds.
  • Karuna Abhiyan 2018 saved more than 9000 birds, having a success rate of around 92%.
  • During 2017, more than 6000 birds were saved out of 7300 birds, which were injured.

Measures to Be Taken by People for Bird Protection

  • Do not use Chinese (nylon) threads for kite flying
  • Fly kites in open grounds
  • Use uncoated cotton threads
  • Carefully dispose the strings, which are entangled in trees in the neighborhood
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