- Large wetlands in West Bengal are one of India’s prime habitats of migratory birds. But here, many birds are illegally trapped in nets and sold for consumption.
- In south-central West Bengal districts of Murshidabad, Malda, Birbhum and Purba Bardhaman, efforts are underway to stop poaching of birds, which is rampant in these areas.
- Local nonprofits and the state forest department have come together for the safe rescue of trapped birds and for investigating individuals involved in their capture.
Earlier this year, on February 15, West Bengal forest department officials apprehended a middle-aged man as he was cycling from Patan beel, a wetland sprawling over more than 100 hectares, in Murshidabad district in central West Bengal. They found three nylon bags full of migratory birds on him, which he was delivering to a ‘customer’. He was arrested and the court sent him to seven days’ judicial custody.
For several years, migratory birds are poached during their winter stop at wetlands (beel in Bengali) and open fields in the central-south Bengal districts of Murshidabad, Malda, Birbhum and Bardhaman. These wetlands and fields are covered with nets that turn into death traps. The trapped birds are illegally sold in the market as delicacies.
However, from last winter, there has been a visible increase in vigilance by the state forest department officials, supported by intelligence provided by environmental non-profits, to pushback against poaching.
Rescuing migratory birds from poaching
Between December 2022 and April 2023, volunteers of Kolkata-based Human & Environment Alliance League (HEAL) helped the administration in removing and destroying trapping nets totalling a length of 47 km. in Murshidabad and Malda. Over 900 birds of about 30 species were rescued and released. The majority of the rescued birds were short-toed larks, a migratory species that arrive in India to escape the harsh winters of their native habitats in Mongolia, China and Russia.
Overall, at least 11 individuals were arrested in the state between October 2022 and March 2023 on account of poaching from Kandi, Murshidabad, Purba Bardhaman, Kurul, Patan beel, Khargram and Bharatpur areas. They were booked under various sections of the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972, and spent seven days in judicial custody before being released on bail.
“We treat birds in two categories, exotic and wild. Exotic are those that are bred in captivity. Since the change in the Wild Life Protection Act in 2022, people can sell exotic birds after obtaining a breeder’s license. But the wild birds cannot be caught, sold, bought or killed. The migratory birds, including short-toed larks, fall under the wild category,” said Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer Pradip Kumar Bauri, the divisional forest officer (DFO) for Nadia-Murshidabad.
Bauri said that they conduct raids when they receive information from their networks. The raids are conducted in coordination with the local police station.
HEAL, working in association with New Delhi-based Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), helped the forest department with information leading to most of the arrests in Murshidabad. The administration in Purba Bardhaman received information from another non-profit, Burdwan Society for Animal Welfare.
Migratory birds and habitats in south-central West Bengal
The 2020 edition of the Asian Waterbird Census, conducted in 142 wetlands in 19 states and union territories in India, recorded the highest number of waterbirds (30,235) in 24 wetlands in West Bengal. Of them, the highest number (3,715) was recorded at Ballavpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Birbhum district.
While wetlands and lakes recognised as protected areas have been relatively safe for these birds, the dozens of unprotected wetlands and agricultural fields are often not. Some of these migratory birds, such as the short-toed lark, roost in dry, open fields, where they fall into net traps. Additionally, strong lights are used to direct the birds towards the nets.
Members of HEAL say that the south-central part of West Bengal has emerged as “a well-established hub” for seasonal trade in migratory birds. Larks, which resemble sparrows and are called bogari or math chorui in Bengali, are sold live, with prices varying from market to market.
“These birds used to be sold openly in markets even a few years ago. Now, due to last few years of campaigning, it has become secretive. Poachers have contacts of consumers and restaurant owners and they fix places of their convenience for the trade,” said Suvrajyoti Chatterjee, secretary of HEAL.
Avian hotspot Murshidabad
Chatterjee said that they deployed two patrolling teams in Murshidabad and another in Malda. They monitored 25 wetlands and other bird habitats across 11 blocks in Murshidabad, Malda and Birbhum districts.
Murshidabad is one of the epicentres of the practice as it hosts the highest number of expansive wetlands. According to a 2020 report titled Monitoring of Migratory Birds at Selected Water Bodies of Murshidabad District, the district hosts 13 of the state’s 23 big freshwater wetlands that span above 100 hectares each. Patan beel is one of them.
The survey on these 13 wild wetlands, conducted between November 2019 and October 2020 with assistance from the West Bengal Biodiversity Board, identified 53 species, of which 17 are migratory, 7 are local migrant and 29 are residential. The ferruginous duck, black-headed ibis, hen harrier and Asian woollyneck, included in this list, are considered near-threatened species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List.
The black-headed ibis and Asian woollyneck were found in Patan beel, where a total of 19 migratory species were spotted. The study listed poaching as one of the major threats to the migratory bird population. The report recommended carrying out campaigns in local schools to raise awareness on the impacts of poaching.
According to HEAL volunteers, trapping nets measuring 24 km. were removed from Patan beel alone in December 2022. However, the trapped birds they rescued did not include any threatened or vulnerable species. While most of the rescued birds were Mongolian short-toed larks or Skyes’s short-toed larks, there also were other migratory birds such as oriental skylark, olive-backed pipit, rosy pipit, red-throated pipit, common snipe and cotton pygmy-goose. These birds are listed as ‘least concern’ by the IUCN. It is illegal to trap or kill them, nonetheless.
HEAL pointed out that common snipe and cotton pygmy-goose are treated as prized catches and sold in the market at a higher price, whereas birds such as spotted owlets and bats are left to die, entangled in the nets, as these have no demand in the market.
Paving a future for protected birdlife in West Bengal
“The news of people landing in jail for poaching these birds has spread in the neighbourhood and this may have some impact. However, such monitoring and action needs to be continued for a few more years to develop public awareness and eradicate the practice, as it has been going on for many years,” said Aditya Pradhan, a HEAL volunteer who lives near Patan beel.
Kankan Barman, a farmer from Pallishree village, within Bharatpur police station jurisdiction in Murshidabad, told Mongabay-India that nets were removed and destroyed from Karul beel in Bharatpur, Patan beel and Belun beel in Kandi, and Kalyanpur field within Barua police station limits.
“Stopping this practice is not easy. In some cases, we faced resistance from poachers, for example at Eloari More area within Khargram police station limits. There, the short-toed larks are trapped in vast swathes of farmland,” Barman said.
He said that upon receiving information on traps, initially the local anti-poaching campaigners try to intervene and ask the individuals involved to release the birds and remove the nets. If this fails, they inform the forest department.
Karul beel, also called Sahapur beel, attracts “5,000-10,000 migratory ducks in the winter, and the largest wintering population of garganey in West Bengal,” according to HEAL’s estimates.
In 2000, the Central Inland Capture Fisheries Research Institute had proposed a scheme for segregating Belun beel in three parts – one for use as irrigation reservoir and capture fisheries, another as aquaculture ponds and another as a bird sanctuary.
Fisheries have certainly developed, as the district administration’s list of government fisheries up for leasing out includes over 829 acres of Belun beel, for which the lease amount was Rs. 510,243. The bird sanctuary was not declared.
Banner image: Migratory birds at Santragachi Jheel in West Bengal. Photo by Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons.