The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Safety net need at Nalban nest

The nest has turned noose for hundreds of birds flocking to the Nalban area at this time of the year. From November to February, the bheris beyond Sector V of Salt Lake play host to around 6,000 birds, of about 110 species, who fly to this part of the world for warmth and food. But many end up as food — at the innumerable illegal hutments dotting the bheris.

Last year, there was a rise in the number of these migratory birds, with a few rare appearances. Some exited tied to the back of bicycles, to be sold as meat in the local market, or cooked in kitchens. While Nalban is ‘protected’, the surrounding bheris are private land and the birds are easy prey for those living in the makeshift structures on the canal, a short flight from the forest department office in Bikash Bhavan.

“The area is on lease to the West Bengal Fisheries Development Corporation, and not under our direct control,” says Atanu Raha, director, Sunderbans Biosphere Reserve, forest department. “But the area is protected. There might be a few stray cases of poaching, but it is not rampant… The government cannot be everywhere all the time. What is required is community involvement, for which we encourage NGOs to come forward.”

That’s precisely what Prakriti Sansad had done two months ago, when Sujon Chatterjee put in a proposal with the forest department to mark the zone for a community protection programme. “This means the residents can continue to live there and carry on their livelihood, but they will be involved in saving the birds as well. It’s a collective responsibility, which will also add authority to the forestry officials to implement the policy,” points out the avid ornithologist.

With weeks to go before the birds are back — the first few have already started drifting in — there’s been no word yet from Bikash Bhavan. “The wetlands are ecologically a very important area. But we cannot declare every such place a sanctuary. First, it involves huge government expenditure, and second, it tempts some people to destroy the place. We have received a proposal for a community protection project from Prakriti Sansad and it will be considered according to the Wildlife Act,” reacts Raha.

The marshland starts within the city limits and spreads out in all directions. Although used predominantly for commercial fishery, the huge drainage bowl attracts water birds in variety and quantity, explains Sumit Sen, of “The last time I was here, there were some small birds, including an Indian Cormorant, a rare species, cruelly captured and tied to one of the huts,” he laments.

Since some of the birds feed on fish, the only source of income for the local population, there is competition. Also, the birds are killed for their meat, says Chatterjee. Sometimes, slings are the “instruments of aggression”, but more often, it’s poison.

“The locals kill a small fish, poison it, stuff a piece of thermacol inside to make it float and then let it go in the water,” he elaborates. “Although the birds normally stick to Nalban, knowing from experience that it is the safest place, if they stray to the nearby waterbodies for food, they fall for these traps and die.”

The uncommon species spotted include Common Shelduck, Great Crested Grebe from Ladakh, Asian Open Bill, Indian Shag, Gadwall, and Pied Avocet. Birdwatchers even spotted an osprey, a fishing eagle, for the first time last year.

“They aren’t too common, because the tall trees, their nesting grounds, have vanished,” says Sen. They come from across India, eastern Europe and northern Asia (the Tundra region), like ducks from Afghanistan and the Brown Shrike from near Siberia.

“In December, the peak time, we are going to bring a few forestry officials down here, to give them a glimpse of what we are trying to save. The sight of so many beautiful creatures spread out over the lake should work its magic in convincing them of our cause,” sums up Chatterjee of Prakriti Sansad, which was elected to the National Board for Wildlife earlier this month.

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