In the heart of West Bengal’s expansive wetlands, migratory birds have long found sanctuary during their winter sojourns. However, a dark shadow looms over these avian havens as illegal poaching threatens their survival. The districts of Murshidabad, Malda, Birbhum, and Purba Bardhaman in south-central West Bengal have become hotspots for this unlawful trade. Local non-profits and the state forest department have united to protect these precious birds and their fragile ecosystems.
The Poaching Menace
The year started with a significant breakthrough when West Bengal forest officials intercepted a middle-aged man transporting three nylon bags filled with migratory birds from Patan beel, a vast wetland in Murshidabad. He was en route to deliver them to a buyer. The arrest and subsequent judicial custody for seven days underscored the severity of the poaching problem.
For several years, these districts have witnessed migratory birds falling prey to poachers who ensnare them in nets, later selling them as exotic delicacies. This illegal practice has not only jeopardized the bird population but also threatened their habitats.
Rescue and Vigilance
Recent winters have seen an upsurge in vigilance efforts by the state forest department, bolstered by intelligence provided by environmental non-profits. Between December 2022 and April 2023, volunteers from the Kolkata-based Human & Environment Alliance League (HEAL) joined forces with local administration to dismantle 47 kilometers of trapping nets in Murshidabad and Malda. Their relentless efforts led to the rescue and release of over 900 birds, representing around 30 different species, primarily short-toed larks—a migratory species that seeks refuge from the frigid winters of Mongolia, China, and Russia.
During this period, at least 11 individuals involved in bird poaching were arrested, booked under the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972. After spending seven days in judicial custody, they were released on bail.
Protecting Migratory Birds
Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer Pradip Kumar Bauri, the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) for Nadia-Murshidabad, emphasized the distinction between exotic and wild birds. Exotic birds, bred in captivity, can be sold with a breeder’s license as per a change in the Wild Life Protection Act in 2022. On the other hand, wild birds, including migratory species like short-toed larks, are strictly off-limits for capture, sale, purchase, or killing.
Raids are conducted when the forest department receives information from their network, often in coordination with local police stations. Environmental non-profits like HEAL, in collaboration with organizations such as the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), have played a pivotal role in providing information that has led to several arrests.
Migratory Birds and Vital Habitats
West Bengal, especially the Ballavpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Birbhum district, plays a crucial role in conserving migratory birds. The 2020 Asian Waterbird Census recorded the highest number of waterbirds in India, with Ballavpur Wildlife Sanctuary hosting a substantial population. While protected wetlands and lakes provide relative safety to these avian visitors, numerous unprotected wetlands and agricultural fields prove to be perilous. Birds like the short-toed lark often fall prey to these treacherous traps. Bright lights are used to guide the birds into these deadly nets.
HEAL members have emphasized that south-central West Bengal has emerged as a well-established hub for the illegal trade in migratory birds, with larks being sold live, their prices varying in different markets. This trade has turned secretive due to recent campaigns against it. Poachers now maintain secret contacts with consumers and restaurant owners, arranging transactions at their convenience.
A Long Road Ahead
The battle against bird poaching remains arduous. Local anti-poaching campaigners attempt to persuade poachers to release the birds and remove the nets, but if persuasion fails, they notify the forest department. The fight to protect avian treasures in West Bengal continues, with Karul beel, one of the region’s avian hotspots, attracting thousands of migratory ducks each winter.
The concerted efforts of non-profits, local communities, and the forest department are essential to ensure the well-being of these migratory birds and their habitats. Public awareness and education will play a pivotal role in eliminating this deeply ingrained practice, which has persisted for far too long. The future of protected birdlife in West Bengal depends on unwavering conservation efforts.
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