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Wildbuzz: Of a grassroots hero, partridge PM, and bird who saved many

This winter a lone female grebe also landed at Dhanas lake, a first record for the species at the neglected and polluted water body.

punjab Updated: Nov 26, 2017 14:03 IST
Vikram Jit Singh
Vikram Jit Singh
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Wildbuzz,Sarus Crane chick,Dhanas lake
Sonu Dalal with a Sarus Crane chick he saved from stray dogs at Mandouthi in Haryana.(Rakesh Ahlawat)


“I am a wildlife lover, not a bird photographer.” About that, Sonu Dalal is emphatic. I had asked what impelled him to display pluck and initiative to take on four poachers suspected to have poisoned one migratory Northern Shoveler and 34 Common teal at the wetland outside his village of Mandouthi (Jhajhar, Haryana) on November 21.

Sonu went on to underscore an uncomfortable but truthful distinction between himself and the burgeoning tribe of photographers and hobby birders: “For some bird photographers and watchers, it is just a pastime. They are least bothered about the species and the threats they face. Some even disturb birds to get photographs of them flying, or in unusual postures etc. After that, they turn their backs and return to their homes in the city. However, bird species are declining and if Mandouthi’s villagers won’t protect their winged guests, who else will?”

Sonu maintains a vigil on the 150-acre wetland. Just a day before the poaching incident, Sonu invited district forest/wildlife officers to visit the wetland, where 3,000 migratory birds were in attendance, to secure official patronage as it falls outside the protected area network. At 5pm the next day, Sonu spotted poachers and summoned his brother, Vicky. The siblings pinned down the gang before cops and wildlife staff could reach there and arrest them.

Sonu’s passion for wildlife conservation was sparked by Discovery Channel documentaries on snakes. He took to snake rescues from neighbouring villages — a dangerous, tedious task — saving both humans and serpents from fatal conflicts. That led to an association with the Nature Conservation Foundation and his interest expanded to birds and motivating youths to lend a shoulder to his noble cause.


The Great Crested grebe is grace personified, a reticent migrant that appears out of the blue every winter at Sukhna Lake. This winter a lone female grebe also landed at Dhanas lake, a first record for the species at the neglected and polluted water body. The bird prefers deep and prolonged dives into icy waters to rake in fish. The grebe is no ordinary bird; it is an inspirational figure that has risen Phoenix-like from the ashes of a deeply-troubled history. It was the plight of the grebe, amid the then routine and accepted plunder of nature, that led to the first organised efforts to save the bird and the foundation of the modern-day conservation movement.

History tells us that the grebe was hunted to near-extermination in 19th century England for pluming ladies’ hats with ornate crests and feathers. However, a group of English women, moved to copious tears by the plight of the fledglings left orphaned in their nests, formed the ‘Fur, Fin and Feather Folk’ in 1889 to stop the slaughter. That group led to the birth of the world’s biggest bird conservation NGO, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

The RSPB has an India connection. It has partnered the Bombay Natural History Society since the 1990s by funding and lending technical support to the vulture conservation breeding programme at Pinjore, establishment of the Indian Bird Conservation Network, and assistance in saving the critically-endangered Jerdon’s courser.


Not only has political will to conserve nature waned but a definitive hypocrisy has come to pervade the mighty ‘establishment’. Leaders wax eloquent on India’s ancient ethos of environment protection when abroad and spare time to plant saplings back home when media is in good attendance. However, when it boils down to decision-making, thousands and thousands of hectares of natural forests are diverted by executive fiat to “facilitate ease of business”. It would be instructive to recall, in the current green gloom, the passion and commitment of the then Prime Minister (PM) Indira Gandhi to nature conservation.

A champion of creatures, mute trees and stones, Gandhi’s birth centenary fell on November 19. Her abiding legacy has been detailed in a seminal volume by former Union minister Jairam Ramesh, ‘Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature’. It includes hundreds of her personal directives to chief ministers (CMs) on wildlife, environment and pollution. However, Ramesh missed out on Gandhi’s missives to the then Punjab CM Darbara Singh over the plight of what would seem a minor, humble species. Partridges!

In the book, ‘Wildlife in Punjab’ (published in 1984, edited by AS Atwal, SS Bains and MS Dhindsa), the then Principal Secretary to Darbara Singh, Tejendra Khanna, stated: “We have issued a large number of hunting licences and despite certain specific seasons being notified for hunting, there are a very large number of infringements. In fact, you may recall there was a (news) report that for a particular feast in Chandigarh, some hundreds of partridges were killed....he (CM) received very agitated letters from the PM asking for a detailed report as to how this thing had happened and that, too, in a season when shooting is disallowed by government.”

Khanna, who later rose to hold office of Delhi Lieutenant Governor for two terms, recalled Gandhi’s disapproval of obsessive (and persisting) monoculture. “The PM, when she was in Chandigarh 2-3 days ago, pointed out that the effort in many states was to go in for plantations under eucalyptus or subababul but that was not the correct approach at all vis-a-vis afforestation providing multi-species forest cover... as you find absolutely no shrubs growing underneath these trees. Low shrubs, grasses and creepers, which grow in natural forests, provide shelter to many kinds of bird species and small animals. There can be mice and snakes there, which have their own part in the total balance of nature,” wrote Khanna.

First Published: Nov 26, 2017 14:03 IST