Archive for March, 2011

the poppy prophecy


This post is written for BLOGESHWAR 8.0 and ANUBHOOTI

The mighty Salween gently flew athwart the golden hued fields and a cool breeze from the eroded Arakan Yoma blew across but hardly helped the villagers of Kai Laek soothe their agony. A river, much like the cycle of life and death, brings happiness and sorrow both but one as calm as the Salween, shouldn’t have been of never ending mourning. The people in this part of the world had a tale rather different from the civilizations that once flourished on the banks of some of the greatest rivers on earth. For them Salween was a river of blood, a river they wished had never flown across their fields.

river salween

Khun Sha was one of the many farmers from the village that stood a few miles from the west bank of the river. He had three children to raise but without his better half and most villagers, or should I say all, had a similar story. His wife, Manjuri Sha didn’t die of disease or hunger, which one might obviously think, but was raped and killed by the Tao Army of Shan state.

Shan is one of the largest provinces of erstwhile Burma and the village of Kai Laek was a part of the much infamous Golden Triangle, which produced more than half of world’s illicit opium poppy (which made the popular drug Heroin). The villagers had no say for themselves. They had no rights, no voice for humanitarian concerns and their lives revolved around cultivating opium. They couldn’t grow paddy or anything else nor could sell or surrender the opium they produced. Who would, after all, buy opium from unlicensed farmers? The catchment area of Salween, one of the few undammed rivers in the world, was a hotbed for growing the divine produce that was snorted world across by the rich and famous and involved various national and international state machinery.

One of the surest ways of dying a gory death was crossing the river to the east bank which the villagers knew led to the borders of Thailand and Laos amidst thick jungles infested by drug traffickers and warlords.

the gentle breeze from the arakan yoma

The people of Shan were of an ethnicity of the same name and a minority to the Bamars who formed the bulk of Burma’s population. The Shans felt threatened and marginalized and to save their language, culture and identity picked up arms. They had much knowledge of the area and soon occupied a good deal of the state and forced the illiterate and poor people into opium farming which they smuggled to the neighboring countries for arms and money. The military government at the centre had no care for anyone, not even for the Bamars and what followed next was a vicious cycle of blood and gore. The insurgency killed from both the sides and it soon spiraled down to a free-for-all battle which culminated into much inter-ethnicity hatred and doubt. The battle killed without asking for religion, sex, ethnicity or language. It became a battle of power, supremacy, money, arrogance and vested interest.

What started as an insurgency soon became a blind game of murder and rape. What good is an insurgency? What good is violence? The Shas wanted food, education and a life of dignity and not this. Who had given the Tao army the right to fight for what they called a cause? What was the cause and at what cost? This and many more questions crossed Khun’s mind every passing second of his life and it was like a torture for his already frail and dying body but he didn’t hope for answers. He was the last person on earth to be having any hope out of the mess. What troubled him was the future of his children but deep down his heart he already knew their future.

His only son, Minao would grow to become an opium farmer under the watchful eyes of the cruel and mindless state army. He also knew that Minao would die soon, either by the kicks and punches of the state army or the bullets of the so-called central government who were nothing but a bunch of gun-totters who though propagated of cleaning the state of the opium fields had their eyes fixed on the golden bounty. The lure of power and money blinds one and all. Khun’s worst nightmare was the fate of his two daughters. It was the worst thing to be born a girl. He knew they would be raped, much before puberty, by any man in uniform and looked down as baby-making machines. The left-wing extremism the state army maintained had no morality to speak of. They were cruel and talked of liberation.

the golden fields

Amidst the glaring cruelty and a life of utter darkness Khun fell, face down, in the murky fields one fine day. The Salween was still flowing gently, the breeze from the Arakan Yoma still cool but the man could take no more of the state atrocities. One of his daughters, the younger and the more beautiful one had been taken by the army only a few days back. Her wails and cries were still fresh in his mind. His son’s left hand had been amputed for he dared to punch one of the soldiers who tried to force on his sisters out in the open. But Minao was there beside him with a hand that still hadn’t healed because he still had to work in the fields. Lifting his father’s head he gave a loud cry but before the man died he told Minao a story he had promised his father he would pass down in his last breaths.

“Minao, my dear son! My father had told of a Chinese traveler from Yunan who was the first to bring the golden seeds into our fields. What was once green with the paddy now smells of blood and drug. He had said the seeds would bring riches and glory to the land but somehow my father knew he spoke wrong and for his own benefit. I have nothing to give you except a faint glimmer of hope. The world is but a merry-go-around. Some get to sit on the blossoming lotus while others on the cactus but all the suffering and evil of the world, on the guise of a cause, will come to an end. It definitely will.”

He paused for a while and spoke these last words before falling dead in the arm of his only son, “Even these poppy fields.”

N.B: The pics are sourced from Google and any resemblance to a person or event is purely coincidental

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vultures of india


Old World vultures belong to the same family of predatory birds that include the kites, eagles, hawks and buzzards. They do not share any relationship with the New World vultures other than a convergent evolution and scavenging habits with the former having a keen sense of smell.

former distribution of the three most endangered indian vultures

There are 16 species of Old World vultures found in Asia, Africa and some stretching into Europe too. Once numerous (approximately 40 million in the 1980s), particularly the species from Gyps, they have reduced much in number (recent census puts the number lesser than 60,000) and mostly from the Indian subcontinent due to alleged diclofenac poisoning. Of the 9 species found in India, 4 have been listed as critically endangered with populations reduced by as much as 99.9% in the cases of most.

diclofenac

The Indian government has banned dicolfenac since 2006 after BNHS launched a rigorous campaign against diclofenac in 2003 but given that the alternative meloxicam isn’t as effective and quite expensive, the former continues to be clandestinely used by cattle owners in India. Vultures are prone to acute kidney failure on a feast of carcass affected with the NSAID drug used as an analgesic for the livestock and death is pretty quick. There are other theories (malaria, rabies, pollution, habitat destruction, urbanization etc) that explain how much of India’s vulture population disappeared in a matter of two decades but most agree on poisoning by the anti-inflammatory drug.

how long more will the wings fly high?

Till the middle of 1980s vultures of the Gyps genus found in India were numerous to the point of being classified a nuisance as they were involved in many bird strikes. They were usually seen hovering over tall trees even in urban areas of Mumbai and Kolkata but the situation of today is pitiable. For every 1000 that India had at the onset of the 1990s only 1 remain two decades hence. It is rare to sight a vulture even in rural areas these days. The dakhmas of Mumbai lost their vultures too and the Parsis had to find alternatives for their dead ones or leave them to rot.

jatayu vadh by raja ravi varma

Facilities at Pinjore (Haryana), Rajabhatkhawa (West Bengal) and Rani (Assam) have been operating to captive-breed select vulture species of India with an objective to reintroduce them into the wild by 2016 but the constant setbacks one after another have been pushing their plans and bringing their ineffectiveness to light. It has become a fight of survival. On one hand we have the greedy bureaucrats who blindly paint a picture of things hunky dory and on the other we have the vultures of India, dying out in a lost battle. We cannot but evoke memories of Ramayana. The vulture king Jatayu lost his own life while saving Sita from the clutches of Ravana. Drawing a parallel, vultures naturally scavenge on carcass and keep the environment hygienic but their rapid disappearance has led dogs and rats to gobble them up instead and spread disease. We are digging a grave where much sooner after the vultures are put to rest there we will follow suit.

range of red-headed vulture

We need to spread the words fast before it’s too late. The government needs to be pushed for introducing measures to make the ban on diclofenac hundred percent effective and subsidize the alternatives so that they are readily and cheaply available. They should continue with breeding centers but Indians shouldn’t be kept in dark regarding the outcomes. Easy available publications on the status of Indian wildlife must come out periodically and people from the ministry involved should conduct meetings and seminars across the length and breadth of the nation with the ordinary junta. It might be wishful thinking at the best but the only alternative.

Conservation is not done by data hungry bureaucrats but by people who matter!

A list of the vultures found in India followed by a short description:

Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus) Near Threatened

cincerous vulture

They are the largest vulture species in the world and also the largest bird of prey. They are mostly found in Mediterranean Europe and Africa, Central Asia, parts of the Middle East, Mongolia, China and India. They are high-flying birds and usually dominate compared to other vultures at carcasses owing to their strength and powerful beak. They have been reduced much in number in Europe and elsewhere though a conservation project in Spain has worked well for their numbers but local extinction has been reported from other countries. They are one of the heaviest birds capable of flight with an average weight of around 14 kg and a wingspan of around 300 cm. In India they are mostly resident birds at the western Himalayan states with breeding populations in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) Least concern

bearded vulture

Found across southern Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, India, Nepal and Tibet it is one of the larger vulture species but are unusual in that they don’t have a bald head and neck. They are more related in appearance to hawks than vultures and are known to nest at extremely high altitudes. Individuals have been sighted at heights greater than 7000 m in the Himalayan region. An average bird will weigh around 7.5 kg and have a wingspan of around 300 cm.

Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) Least concern

griffon vulture

They are quite large and compare to the Cinereous vultures in size and occur in much the same range as the above two though the Indian population spreads even beyond the Himalayas and as far as in the Deccan. They can weigh as much as 13 kg but have a slightly smaller wingspan at around 280 cm.

Indian White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis) Critically endangered

indian white-rumped vulture

They were once found almost everywhere in India but have been much reduced in population and are now on the verge of extinction. They are the smallest of the Gyps vultures but still a large bird with average weight being 7.5 kg and a wingspan of around 260 cm.

Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus) Critically endangered

indian vulture

They are closely related to the Griffon vulture and are also known as the Long-billed vulture. The subspecies found in their northern ranges was classified as a distinct species as Slender-billed vulture. They weigh around 6.5 kg and have a wingspan of around 230 cm. They breed mainly on crags but in the absence of it may nest on trees too as found in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

Slender-billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) Critically endangered

slender-billed vulture

Once clubbed with the Indian vulture (also called the Long-billed vulture) they have been recently classified as a distinct species. They are found south of the Gangetic plains from Himachal Pradesh in the west to Assam in the west and as south as Orissa. They are also found in Burma and Cambodia where in the absence of diclofenac there is a steady breeding population which nevertheless may not last till long. It is estimated the population in wild is around 1000 (almost 40% of which is in India) and will become extinct in another decade along with three other Indian species.

Himalayan Vulture (Gyps himalayensis) Least concern

himalayan vulture

They are the second largest Old vulture species in the world with adults weighing 12 kg on an average with a wingspan of around 310 cm. They nest at high crags and can be easily sighted in the Himalayan states feeding on carrion and basking in the Sun with their wings spread wide.

Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) Endangered

egyptian vulture

It is perhaps the smallest and most widespread of all the vultures found in India. The type species is from Egypt and the subspecies found in the subcontinent is paler and smaller with average weights of 2 kg and a wingspan of 170 cm. They are one of the two species of vultures with a significant population in south India, the other being the Red-headed. In ancient Egypt, it was used as one of hieroglyph and was a symbol of royalty. The Indian population has diminished much but the exact cause is not known though it is possibly related to diclofenac poisoning. They are one of the most migratory amongst vultures often covering distances as long as 6000 km and 500 km in a single day.

Red-headed Vulture (Sarcogyps calvus) Critically endangered

red-headed vulture

Once a widespread bird across south Asia and as found as far as Singapore it has been now reduced to a sizeable population in Nepal and pockets of north India. They are medium-sized with adults weighing around 5.5 kg and a wingspan of around 250 cm. They are gaudy faced birds with a red or orange head but populations are down to extinction owing to diclofenac poisoning.