Wildlife hit as plastic finds way into parks, reserves
Animals eating plastics is not uncommon. In July, a photograph, shared by a wildlife official, of a leopard eating leftovers in a polythene bag near Corbett Tiger Reserve went viral.
The death of a Cape Buffalo from eating polythene in the plastic-free National Zoological Park in New Delhi this August not just sent shock waves through the community of environmentalists and wildlife experts, but also raised questions about how clean so-called plastic-free zones, such as national parks, sanctuaries and wildlife reserves, are.
Animals eating plastics is not uncommon. In July, a photograph, shared by a wildlife official, of a leopard eating leftovers in a polythene bag near Corbett Tiger Reserve went viral. In the past, remains of plastic carry bags, gutka packets, and chips and biscuits packaging have been found in elephant dung in the forests of north Bengal.
“Plastic is being increasingly found in the dung of herbivores in protected areas. Our national parks and sanctuaries are not at all safe from this menace. Even the marine protected areas are under threat. It is a matter of great concern,” said ecologist Raman Sukumar, professor at the Indian Institute of Science Bangalore and a member of national board for wildlife.
Sixty major cities in India generated around 4,059 tonne of plastic waste per day in 2010-11, according to data from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). The Lok Sabha was recently told that extrapolating CPCB data put the estimates of plastics generated daily in India at 25,940 tonne.
“Even though visitors usually don’t discard single-use plastic bags during animal safaris, there are several roads that crisscross these plastic-free zones and people often throw plastics on roads while travelling. There are several hotels and resorts in the vicinity of protected areas. But do we have a mechanism to check how they dispose of their waste, including plastic? No,” said B Meenakumari, former chairperson of the National Biodiversity Authority.
Senior forest officials in Uttarakhand, which houses the Corbett and Rajaji national parks, said plastic finds its way into parks because of wind, water, locals and tourists.
“From the next tourist season, stickers will be pasted on all plastic items being carried inside the national park against a security deposit. On return from the park, tourists will have to show they have carried back all the marked items to take back their security deposit,” said PK Patro, field director, Rajaji Tiger Reserve.
Subhash K Malkhed, additional conservator of forests in Karnataka, said though plastic was banned in reserve forest areas, some plastic waste inevitably found its way in. “The problem zones are the roads that pass through reserves. Of course, plastic waste has reduced drastically but it is impossible to check every vehicle. We have put up signboards at regular intervals and team make regular rounds to pick up waste,” he added.
In the Sunderbans in West Bengal, home to the Royal Bengal Tiger and a world heritage site, the challenge is much more as it is a delta and criss-crossed by rivers, which bring in loads of plastic from the upper stretches.
“Licensed tour operators have been asked to replace thermocol plates and glasses on their boats with glass cutlery. Villagers and forest department collect plastic that flows done the rivers as a part of joint forest management. Forest officials are also replacing water bottles of school children and other kinds of plastic. We are yet to achieve 100% success, but the initiative has started,” said Rabi Kant Sinha, chief wildlife warden of West Bengal.
Plastic packets, aluminium foils and food packets being discarded by tourists and passersby is a huge challenge. “The smell of rotting food attracts wild animals. If the leftover has any non-vegetarian items, it attracts carnivores. Unlike domestic dogs and cats, wild animals are not adept in removing the plastic to eat the leftovers. They eat it along with the plastic, which ultimately starts accumulating in their stomach and intestines, leading to death,” said AM Pawde, head of the wildlife department at Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI), Bareilly.
The Union ministry of environment and forest had earlier tried to curb plastic in at least 20 protected areas in India, but was not fully successful. “On October 1, we have written to all the national parks and sanctuaries to phase out single use plastic,” said S Dasgupta, IG Wildlife in the ministry.
The plastic menace is not even sparing birds. In 2018, birders from Delhi-NCR spotted a black-necked stork with a part of a plastic bottle cap stuck around its beak. The bird was rescued almost after a weak from near Basai wetlands in Haryana.
Yash Shethia, associate director (species and landscape program) at WWF said, “Plastic is banned in most of the protected areas and the authorities are doing their bit. Visitors are discouraged from entering the national parks and sanctuaries with plastic. The onus also lies on the tourists.”
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