Wildbuzz: Minefields of poison

  • Vikram Jit Singh, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Feb 28, 2016 09:34 IST
CONFERENCE OF BIRDS: A migratory Common kestrel sits on a mustard field fence, flanked by a Drongo and Pied mynas, near Sultanpur (Haryana). (Courtesy: Tarun Choudhary)

At first sight, the picture is idyllic. A migratory raptor, the common kestrel, sits on a fence with local avians for company amid the blooming ‘basant’ of mustard. These fields of green-golden are wombs of abundance for humanity and also provide cheap wheat for ‘double-roti’ and ‘biskut’, so that dog lovers can propitiate their conscience by feeding strays in cities. But these fields carry an uncalculated cost as they are dosed with pesticides/insecticides/rodenticides.

Urbanites may not entertain even a vague idea of how expanding agricultural zones are supporting less and less of biodiversity due to agrarian poisoning and sprays. These diverse creatures are the expendable life-forms in the greater quest for human food security.

Raptors or birds of prey take the first hit. These birds are specialists, large-bodied, most sensitive to changes in habitat and prey base, and are consequently declining as a group. Conservationists find these birds lying dead or struggling in fields or missing altogether. I sought the perspective of India’s leading authorities on raptor conservation, Rishad Naoroji and Dr Vibhu Prakash, on the threat that modern agriculture poses to raptors.

Mind you, Punjab’s State Bird, the Northern goshawk, is a venerated raptor associated with the Sikh Gurus. Inquiries in the field reveal that farmers are unconcerned about the harmful effects of pesticides on biodiversity or even on non-harmful species like raptors. A section of the farmers buy cheap, ‘desi’ pesticide brands, which enjoy a high retail margin and are pushed by dealers. Over-application of pesticides is a correlated complication.

Naoroji has studied pesticide effects on breeding of lesser fish-eagles at Corbett National Park. ‘’We must reach out to farmers and convince them that raptors are doing the job for them by killing rodents. Why, then, use such poisons? I can understand that farmers want the highest output but we must win them over without alienating them. For years now, we have raised such concerns but no one seems to bother,’’ said Naoroji.

Dr Prakash heads the pioneering Jatayu Conservation and Breeding Centre at Pinjore, which deals with vultures poisoned by veterinary drugs and has run a successful advocacy programme to convince government to ban diclofenac.

“Fish-eating raptors are the worst hit because fish accumulate pesticides due to a run-off from fields. Similarly, rodents also ingest pesticides, among others, leading to bioaccumulation and raptors die quickly when they ingest rodents primed with such poisons. Plus, deprivation of rodents killed in the fields by rodenticides means less food for migratory raptors. The need is to carry out long-term studies, and take action to prevent farmers from using such high levels of pesticides. Mere convincing campaigns and awareness will not suffice,’’ said Dr Prakash.

Commenting upon the death of a Eurasian hobby in the fields of a Faridkot village, Bargari, Dr Prakash said: ‘’It would be good to get samples from such mortalities analysed. Monocrotophos, furadan, chlorpyrifos all could have killed this hobby. Monocrotophos has probably killed more birds than all the other pesticides put together.’’

Phoolz for love

Rhododendron flowers appear in clusters. The black spots on the inside are clearly visible. (Ashwini Bhatia)

From far and near, high and low, we hear tales of blooms early this spring. Like maidens imprisoned by medieval kings in castle attics, their joyous faces glimpsed as they lean out from barred windows having been granted early parole!

The almond blossoms have got butterflies awake early, happy and sipping nectar in the famed Badamwari gardens of Srinagar.

The silk cotton have draped their bare boughs in fiery bridal finery a few weeks in advance in the tricity. The mango ‘boor’ seems to be a willing suitor draped in the richness of cream-white ‘bandgallas’!

Up in the hills of Dharamshala, botany enthusiast Ashwini Bhatia watches the blooms carefully and clicks charming pictures. His series on the Rhododendron blooms above McLeodganj, with close-ups of ‘’anthers showing pollen dissemination through apical pores’’, attracted tributes from the vibrant online community of eflora of India.

I asked Ashwini to recapitulate the bloom timings this warm winter of 2015-’16. ‘’Semal (Silk cotton) trees have been flowering since early January in the lower town of Dharamshala.

I photographed a tree on January 10 but I guess they had been flowering for some time by then. Individuals of some flowering plants such as balsam (Impatiens scabrida), viola (V. canescens), buttercup (Ranunculus laetus) and daisy (Gerbera gossypina) arrived earlier this season, too. I also saw several wild pears (Pyrus pashia) in lower Dharamshala town flowering, too, which is again early,’’ said Ashwini.

Ashiwini was born in Haryana, worked in Delhi and has since 1997 resided in Dharamshala’s verdant hills. The Rhododendron arboreum or Rose Tree grows above 1,750 m. On February 24, Ashwini wrote: ‘’I was away for two weeks and in my absence rhododendrons appeared and almost vanished (locals collect them for various delicacies and I have had chutney, pakoras, wine and sherbet made from these flowers). I had seen some trees flowering as early as late December.’’


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