Monday, April 14, 2014

A falcon and an elephant

(An unpublished piece written in December 2013)

The months of October and November 2013 saw what was, arguably, one of the most intense conservation campaigns in recent times – NGOs, the media, the Nagaland government and local communities came together in a high decibel, high visibility effort to protect the migratory Amur Falcons as they transit through Nagaland on their journey from south eastern Siberia and northern China across to the continent of Africa. The campaign that was a combination of enforcement and awareness, was fuelled by reports from previous years that 1000s of these birds are hunted during their stay in Nagaland. And if available information is anything to go by, it has been considerably successful with the hunting threat having been successfully mitigated this year.

            Then on November 6, in what was a fitting culmination to the campaign as also the short stay of these millions of birds in Nagaland, three falcons were fitted with satellite transmitters to help track their monumental onward journey. At the time of writing, about two weeks after the fitting of the transmitters, the birds are very much in the middle of their spectacular journey. From Nagaland they travelled south to somewhere along the east coast, then turned west, flying across the Indian subcontinent, past the west coast of India (birders in Goa reported seeing a few Amur falcons around November 9) and across the oceans to Africa (Amur falcons, satellite-tagged in Nagaland, tracked over Arabian Sea, Susanta Talukdar, The Hindu, 15/11/13). On November 20 the three birds with the satellite transmitters had all reached the African coast – two of them were on the Somalia-Kenya border, while the third was on the Somalian coast. It’s a voyage that has enthralled bird lovers in India and across the world. It’s helped keep alive the magic of nature’s wonder and a sense of achievement in an otherwise beleaguered conservation scenario (see for migration maps and more on the project)   

            The respite, however, was only momentary. Just a week after the falcons were fitted with the transmitters, and about the time they were probably flying the skies over the Wankhede stadium where Sachin Tendulkar was playing the last test of cricket career, came the tragic news of another train accident in North Bengal involving an entire herd of elephants. In what is by far one of the most ghastly such accidents ever, the Guwahati bound Kabiguru Express running at nearly 80 kmph rammed into a herd of nearly 40 elephants as they were crossing the tracks in the Chapramari forests. Seven animals including a pregnant female were killed and several others were injured. Nearly 50 elephants have been killed in the last decade on this killer track in North Bengal that connects Alipurduar and Siliguri; 17 of them in 2013 alone.
            There really are no words to describe what happened and the criminal callousness with which these accidents continue to occur. Perfunctory noises are being made as always – charges are being traded, an FIR has been filed, the FD has said that watchtowers will be put up to keep a watch and there have been reports of some technological solutions being put in place to avoid another such disaster. We have to wait and watch to see what will finally happen and how these solutions will finally work, but if history is anything to go by, we can only continue to expect the worst.
            A falcon soaring high above the Arabian sea; an elephant dangling lifeless from a railway bridge (the photo can be used with the article) – one, we can only imagine, the other brings us back hard and painful to solid reality. Moments of hope continue to be drowned out in oceans of despair as we seem to continue with a death wish we’ve made out for the other denizens who came to this planet much before we did.
It is ironic that the elephant is the India’s National Heritage animal and Bholu, the elephant with a cap and a green light in his hand, the mascot of the Indian Railways. It is tragic then to realize that the one wild animal that trains of the Indian Railways have killed the most is the endangered Asian Elephant. We are surely capable of much better than this!

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