Caged and Voiceless

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The vast open sky and scenic flights make Kashmir heaven for any living beings. But not for all. Shakir Mir tracks the journey of helpless caged birds that are up for sale  

Pic: Shamoon Mir

Pic: Shamoon Mir

Shabir (name-changed) is a man in his mid-thirties. Inside his dark, claustrophobic shop at Saida Kadal area of Srinagar city —huge, unclean and empty bird cages evoke a sense of gloom. But the polished white cages placed outside the road are drawing attention of commuters, straining their necks to get glimpse of little caged creatures: the variety of exotic pet birds.

“I have not seen these colourful birds before,” says Younis, an onlooker, bending over one cage to catch a sight. “It is totally delightful watching them.”

 

The culture of domesticating exotic bird species is picking up in Kashmir region of late. Hundreds of pet lovers are thronging to these stores scattered mostly across the Old City. The variety in the offering is enormous; from parakeets like Budgerigars, Fischer’s love bird and Cockatiels to small passerine birds (from sparrow family) like finches and munias. You name it!

A pair of Fischer’s love bird sells at a staggering amount of Rs 6,000 while commonly sold Budgerigars are price tagged at Rs 4,000. The price is exorbitant, observers say. “You get the same birds at relatively cheaper price outside valley,” says Shamoon Ishtiyaq, an avid bird photographer. “Just because it takes a bit more money to get them here, doesn’t mean you will hike the price arbitrarily.”

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Scaly Breasted Munia and Strawberry Finch in captivity. The sale of both these species is banned under Wildlife Protection Act.

But not only are these vendors unlicensed to sell these birds, the sale of many species is simply banned under the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Protection Act 1978 (JKWPA). Section 48 and 49 of this act bars both transportation and purchase of any captive animal or bird from anyone other than “from a dealer or from a person authorized to sell or otherwise transfer the same under this Act.”

Surprisingly, many species being sold are also classified as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Worse, these birds are smuggled into Kashmir in direct violation of guidelines set by wildlife department; often in alleged connivance with officials of State Transport Road Corporation (STRC) and the Jammu & Kashmir Police and then sold across the valley at very expensive rates. But both SRTC and police parties concerened expressed their ignorance over the issue.

“I get these birds from Amritsar,” said a birdseller, wishing anonymity. “These cages are wrapped around with reams of newspapers sheets and then holes are pierced in so that air passes through.” The birdseller remained tight-lipped regarding law enforcement officer failing to spot the contraband. “Money clears all decks,” he says, quite nonchalantly.

The seller confided that most of his illicitly trafficked collection is transported through the buses of STRC. It is being done in collusion with “some” employees of law enforcement, helping traffickers like him circumvent broader police vigilance.

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Slaty-Headed Parakeet is among the 350 bird species whose sale is banned under JK Wild Life Protection Act.

Though state wildlife department officially prohibits the sale of 350 species, selling tropical birds like Budgerigars, Cockatiels, Diamond Doves, Java Finches and many other being shipped in from other countries is legal.

Yet experts assert almost 60 percent of bird trade in the state is illegal. “Behind curtains,” says Intesar Suhail, an official with J&K Wildlife Department, “they (bildsellers) engage in sale of Pheasant birds, Chukar Partridges, Quails, Spotted Owlets and Eagle Owl which is completely illegal.” To spread a word about the avian conservation and promote state’s rich bird diversity, Suhail is making use of social networks sites.

Suhail’s words were corroborated by another birdseller of the old city. “It is not illegal to sell these birds,” he said while pointing towards a whole colony of Budgerigars and Cockatiels packed tightly in cages. “They don’t fetch more than Rs 10,000 a pair. It’s the ‘big ones’, drawing us more money.”

By ‘big ones’ he meant birds like Cinereous Vultures, Barn Owls, Scarlett Macaws and Eurasian Rollers that IUCN classify as near threatened. “Macaws are in demand among elite Kashmiris,” one vendor said. “We bring them here in shoe boxes riddled with holes. They sell at a price of Rs 1.5 lakhs each.”

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Scaly-breasted Munia in wild. (Photo: Parvez Shagoo)

The commerce involving these species is shrouded with secrecy. Since the sale of these birds is totally illegal, it is only the close confidantes and trusted customers whom these vendors share details with.

The purpose of buying these birds varies. “Parents buy them mainly because children compel them to,” said another bird vendor.

But there are many other reasons ranging from aesthetical to downright superstitious, explains Suhail, the wildlife official, “In some traditions, it’s believed the owls stave off the bad-omen. People purchase owls and at many times end up injuring them.”

The mythology involving Indian Roller is curious. It is said to be sacred to Hindu deity Vishnu. It is being caught and released during festivals, like Dussera and Durga Puja. Its Hindi name neelkanth, implying ‘blue throat’—a name associated with another deity, Shiva, believed to have drank poison resulting in the blue throat.

Adding chopped feathers of this bird to grass and feeding them to cows, goes another legend, is believed to increase the milk yield.

“Though there are no Indian Rollers in Kashmir,” continued Suhail, “but people often look for alternatives.” He referred to a Himalayan variant of the bird called Eurasian Roller, locally called as rang kaav.

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Exotic bird species up for sale at old city. (Photo: Shamoon Mir)

Eurasian Roller looks much like its Indian counterpart. While the latter inhabits across hotter Indian plains, the former is fond of living in cooler environs of Eurasian belt.

One of reasons fuelling resentment among bird lovers is unhygienic, besides, unsafe captivity of these birds. Keeping the plight of these caged birds in view, many rush to conclude that Kashmiris have no regard for wildlife. In a fit of rage, bird lovers ask, “Isn’t it cruel on part of these birdsellers to keep these tiny birds in scorching sun from dawn to dusk?” asks Irtiza Haqaq, a student of Sociology at Kashmir University.

But improper captivity apart, the ways of feeding these birds are also inadequate. For instance Budgies eat a variety of seeds in the wild, but in captivity, they are fed with just millet often resulting in nutrition deficiency and ultimately death. “Improper feeding certainly is a problem,” said Dr Athar Mir, a Srinagar-based veterinarian. “Pet animals and birds, just like us rely on a range of diet. They also need different nutrients derived from different foods.”

Fiddling with bird diet can result in fatal consequences. Nowneen Nazir, a student of Women College MA Road realises it better. Last year, she bought a three pairs of Budgies from the market at Rs 1200. But to her woes, they died after a month. On advice of the bird seller, Nowneen used to feed them millet. “But their health started deteriorating,” she rued. “Though I tried my best to maintain friendly conditions around them, but they couldn’t survive.” The same birds owned by her relatives met the same fate.

Strawberry Finch.

Strawberry Finch in wild. File photo.

Even after such stark instances of mishandling these birds, the trade seems thriving. But the persons in know-how of things believe that the issue of bad captivity isn’t the only source of strife in the trade. It is matter of ethics, they say. “The one who sells them fails to explain it to the buyer about the care it takes to keep them,” said Parvez Shagoo, a forest department official and a passionate bird-watcher. “The birds find it difficult to cope up with the outside environment as most often the climate doesn’t suit them.” But then, bird sellers will never speak a word about it, as it is bound to spoil their trade.

With the wildlife warden posted in Dachigam National Park vowing action against the erring bird sellers, the rush near a poultry shop in Old City was building. A juvenile slaty-headed Parakeet looked petrified and feeble. Although it could be trained to speak as many words and as humans can, yet here it is; caged and voiceless.

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