Flights cut short

Over 139 flamingoes died after being electrocuted from flying into newly installed wires in a small island in Gujarat. Experts speak on the lessons we can learn from the tragedy, to help ensure the peaceful co-existence between nature and man

The breeding ground for flamingoes turned into a killing field a fortnight ago when scores of the long-legged pink beauties were electrocuted after flying into high-tension cables. The birds are likely to have flown after being startled by traffic sounds at night.

Flamingoes make their annual stop to Porbander's marshlands.
Pic/Nimesh Dave

As a precautionary measure, forest officials have since put up reflectors and flags to ensure that the birds stay away from the wires. The Gujarat government claims that the cables will eventually be laid underground to prevent a repetition of the incident.

Long way from home
The pink birds migrate from Siberia from late-October to escape the bitter winter and flock to the warmer climes of an island in the Rann of Kutch, where they stay till February and March, until the end of the breeding season. 

Dr Balachandran, deputy director, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) says that the main cause of sudden deaths of birds and animals is a dramatic change in the animal's habitat. He says, "For instance, if neighbouring industries suddenly release certain effluents into the area. Otherwise, it is a slow process eventually leading to destruction."

Balachandran says that changes in natural habitats can often go unnoticed, especially if -- as in the case of the flamingoes -- the environment is difficult to observe. Typically, the carrying out of infrastructural work is the primary cause for the destruction of habitats. An example of this can be the construction of ports, where the use of the floodlights or light from lighthouses can disorient birds.

Counterproductive policy
The policy of greenbelts or designating areas of land that are hospitable to birds and animals in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Orissa is often a counter-productive measure. "The making of these belts results in the alteration of the natural habitat of various coastal birds and animals such as the turtles who make their nests in these regions and several birds who depend for their food on the various small insects found in the marshes," says Balachandran.

The problem, Balachandran believes, is that the damage occurs over time. "One does not see immediate deaths, but by the time we notice the disappearance, it's too late," he says. Balachandran adds that even mangroves, considered to be an important part of the environment, can be harmful, if grown in places as a part of restoration efforts. "Mangroves are useful only when they grow in their natural locations. Similarly, one cannot grow a woodland in place of mangroves, in the name of afforestation."

Research necessary
Humans are, not always to blame every time there are animals or birds dying on a large scale. Balachandran says that it is important to research the cause of death before coming to a conclusion, citing the 2006 case of bird deaths in Chilika Lake in Orissa as an example. "Pollution was deemed the cause of death, but it was not until later that officials realised that the birds were dying because of suspected Bird Flu that turned out to be an infection," he adds.

Measures to follow
"Fresh water habitats can be cultivated, but salt-water ones cannot. The government should take efforts to protect these sections of the eco-system in order to protect the large number of resident and migratory species who thrive in these areas," says Balachandran.

Environmentalist Debi Goenka reinstates Balachandran's point about the gradual degradation of natural habitats, and it resulting in the wiping out of the birds and animals who survive in them.Citing the case of leopards who wandered into housing societies in the city several years ago, Goenka says, "An animal does not understand a line on a map. It just knows the boundaries of its habitat. It is us who have wandered into their territory."

"House sparrows have almost disappeared from the city and the world. Some say it's because of radiation, while others blame the use of pesticides in grains," says Goenka, adding, "Though, it surely has not happened all of a sudden."

Vultures too face problems. "Vultures essentially use tall trees as nesting places. With the real estate boom in the city, their habitat gets destroyed," Goenka points out. "Flamingoes have been found electrocuted in the city too.

It is just that the incident in Gujarat involved a large number of birds," says Goenka, ruing that despite there being several environmental rules in place that adequate measures are not taken. "The installers of the cable wires must have got all environmental processes cleared. Our ministry must never have imagined that something like that could happen. They don't even learn from their mistakes," concludes Goenka.

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