Till date, the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) has successfully saved about 4000 individual animal lives, vaccinated more than 12000 livestock around fringes of protected areas, and provided healthcare support to 1000 captive elephants through its six Mobile Veterinary Service (MVS) units.
The Field Director- Similipal Tiger Reserve, Odisha, approached WTI in setting up a rescue center-cum-MVS unit operating from Similipal Tiger Reserve. The forest department in Similipal informed WTI that they have been attending to cases of wildlife emergencies for almost two years now through their local infrastructure. The field director indicated that they had attended to 66 cases since 2011. The affected wildlife belonged to various species of mammals (elephants, fishing cat, pangolin, mouse deer, etc.), birds (owls, parakeets, hornbill, etc.) and reptiles (banded krait, python, chameleon, etc.). The MVS unit in Similipal Tiger Reserve was officially launched on 15th May 2014.
Similipal Tiger Reserve, located in the northern part of Orissa’s Mayurbhanj district, is spread over 2750 sq. km and is home to the highest number of tigers in the state apart from over 54 other species of mammals, 304 species of birds, 60 species of reptiles, 21 species of frogs, 38 species of fish, 164 species of butterflies and 1078 species of plants. The 1,555.25 sq. km Similipal Buffer Zone has 65 villages, with a population of over 12,500 people, mostly within the Reserve Forest. An estimated 250,000 people from nearly a dozen tribal denominations reside in over 400 villages on the fringes of Similipal Tiger Reserve. The MVS-STR is conveniently located at the fringe of STR at Pithabada Wildlife Range Office in Baripada and poised to immediately respond to any wildlife emergency which may arise. For the first time, the state of Odisha will have a dedicated mobile unit manned by trained veterinarian and caretaker to attend to wildlife emergencies reported from the region. The main objective of the MVS unit is to return every displaced animal to the wild while following the IUCN guidelines on translocation and placement of confiscated animals. The unit will be served by a small field station that will have basic facilities to accommodate temporarily displaced animals till their release. Non-releasable animals will be sent to zoos for lifetime care and breeding. The unit by its presence in the area will also help to create awareness drives amongst the local villagers on how to deal with and respond to different conflict scenarios.
The MVS unit has the following objectives
A. Rescue and rehabilitation of displaced wildlife
Wildlife displacements due to man-made causes is increasingly becoming a concern from conservationists and wildlife park managers. The MVS functions by promptly responding to reports of such displacements. It is also instrumental in deciding and executing appropriate options for rehabilitation of that individual through release back to the wild either immediately (reuniting young ones, or in case of adults and sub-adults) or through long term hand-raising and subsequent rehabilitation.
The MVS Similipal Unit attended to a total of 45 cases of wildlife displacements in the reporting quarter. Majority of these cases included cases of snakes and other reptiles (30 cases, belonging to 13 species) that were either injured and had entered human habitats like houses, gardens, etc. The remaining cases were of mammals (13 cases, 4 species) and birds (2 cases, 2 species).
Table 1: Key species handled by MVS Similipal unit (April - September 2015)
Mammals: Asian elephant, common palm civet, common leopard
Birds: Indian peafowl, barn swallow
Reptiles: Indian rock python, spectacled cobra, king cobra, Russel’s viper, Indian chameleon
Majority of the cases were field rescued (80%) and remaining (20%) were confiscated from people keeping the animals illegally. The commonest cause of displacement and consequent intervention was when the wildlife had entered human habitats (71%). Only 35% of the admitted cases were of young ones (mainly mammals) that were admitted to the center for hand raising, while remaining were of adults and sub-adults (65%).
Around 62% of the cases were attended to in situ and after necessary intervention 92.86% of these were released within 24 hours of intervention. Two cases died under care and included a juvenile sloth bear that was gravely injured and had to be shifted to Nandankanan zoo immediately for surgery. The other case was of a leopard that had entered a local village and was killed by the mob during the intervention itself (the details of which is given below as a case study). A total of 38% cases were admitted to the field station of which around 52% were of young mammals, that had been found alone or picked up by people and required protracted care and hand-raising. The remaining 48% included adults that had moderate to severe injuries after coming into conflict with humans and needed treatment and care. Out of this 52.94% died under care and 29.41% were released back in the wild. Two cases of common palm civet kittens are still pending and will be taken to the release site by November.
B. Conflict animal management:
There is no state in India where human-wildlife conflict has not been reported. Conflict with leopards, elephants, and bears are on the rise and WTI’s MVS vets are frequently called upon to address conflict animal management issues. The MVS units assist the forest department in mitigating the conflict by managing the conflict animal. The animal itself will be stressed and most of the times injured, for which necessary intervention and treatment may be required. In absence a qualified veterinarian for such an intervention the injured animal will have limited prognosis. Conflict mitigation and animal management usually involves a collaborative approach between a veterinarian (for dealing with the animal itself), a biologist (to study the dynamics of conflict and ecology of the conflict animal) and a sociologist (to understand and execute measures at the community level for awareness).
This reporting period the MVS unit was busy attending to many snake displacements and consequent interventions as mentioned above. Most of these cases required intervention, as the snake had entered human use areas (houses, gardens, etc.) and people wanted its removal. Many of these cases were attended by the local ‘snake rescuers’ working in the same landscape who would normally ‘rescue’ the snake and bring it to the attention of the forest department or the MVS unit. On many occasions, intervention is also required, as the snake would have been captured or trapped either accidentally or intentionally.
In addition to this, the team also attended to a juvenile sloth bear as informed by the local honorary wildlife warden in August at Baholda, Rairangpur. Upon reaching the spot the team examined the bear, which was female bear, about one and a half years old, that was injured, presumably attacked by locals. She was in a state of shock; her right side was completely paralyzed and was she unable to stand. After discussing the matter with the Forest Department the team decided to shift the bear to the Odisha Veterinary College for radiography and treatment. The bear was transported to Bhubaneshwar and x-ray were taken. Although no fracture was detected, there was slight subluxation of the shoulder and pelvic joint. It was decided that the bear would be kept for a few days for treatment at the center. However, unfortunately she succumbed to her injuries a week later.
C. Captive elephant care
The Asian elephant is inextricably linked to the continent’s mythology and history has been thus associated with various aspects of Indian culture and religion for thousands of years. Traditionally worshipped as Lord Ganesha, the elephant headed god, the elephant is also a symbol of fertility, wealth and abundance. India also has a long history of capturing and training elephants for use in war, temple festivals and timber extraction since Vedic times. They were even maintained in thousands, in the armies of the rulers of the subcontinent, in ancient times. However, with modernization and industrial revolution the use of such working elephants in wars and industries like timber, etc. has reduced over the years.
At present, there are captive elephants in Similipal Tiger reserve and mostly they were used as “Kumki” (trained captive elephants) and now slowly also for tourism. Regular health checkups of these elephants are carried out in order to prevent the spread of any diseases.
Apart from assisting the Forest Department in managing the elephant calf that was admitted last year, the MVS unit did not attend to any captive elephants. The calf, Bablu, was found alone, fallen in a ditch in December 2014. She was initially with some members of the natal herd, whose escape was facilitated by digging and widening the ditch by the Forest Department.
Unfortunately, the herd had left the calf behind. After numerous failed attempts of reuniting the calf with the mother/natal herd, it was decided that the calf would be taken to the elephant camp and raised to be a captive working elephant. Based on the recommendations of the MVS team, the FD began the construction of temporary shelter for the elephant calf to be kept. The MVS team based on the more than ten years of experience in elephant calf hand-raising and rehabilitation in Assam, formulated a diet and nursing plan for the elephant calf. In addition, the MVS Vet treated the calf on three occasions in May, July and September for de-worming, calcium/vitamin supplementation and mild diarrhea and dehydration respectively. The calf which was being kept in a makeshift room in one of the nursery managed by the Forest Department was shifted to the temporary shelter.
D. Disease investigation procedures
Investigating the cause of mortality and prevalence of diseases in wildlife is essential for prevention and control of diseases. MVS veterinarians deployed at the project locations are trained to perform necropsy examination on carcasses of wild animals that die both in situ and ex situ to determine the cause of death. The animals under care also undergo, regular screening, for endo-parasitic load through fecal examination. Other forms of disease investigation operations include sero-prevelance, parasite load, hematology, histopathology and microbial investigation. The necropsies included those of an Asian Elephant that had died of septicemia after a fracture to its femur and another that died of anthrax. A third case is awaiting results, but anthrax is suspected. A sloth bear was also examined and the cause of death was found to be severe head injuries and an arrow in its chest.
E. Livestock immunization around fringe villages
Thousands of livestock live around the fringe areas of every National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary in India. They pose a great threat to wild ungulates as they can be a major source of infectious diseases to them. The MVS units organize regular immunization camps for livestock in the villages to protect wildlife against diseases. In addition to the livestock, domestic animals like dogs that inhabit the fringe areas also pose a threat diseases being spread to their wild counterparts. Rabies, Canine distemper Virus, Parvo, etc. are some of the diseases common in feral and domestic dogs that can spread to other wild mammals. Keeping this in mind, the forest department has approached the MVS unit to assist the animal husbandry department in the first phase of immunization of dogs against canine distemper in three villages inside Similipal Tiger Reserve. The unit will conduct a preliminary survey in the coming months to ascertain the priority areas for such a program, after which the immunization will commence as scheduled.
F. Awareness and outreach activities
Seeing the increasing incidences of Human-Wildlife conflict in Odisha, especially the Similipal landscape, the forest department came forward in conceptualizing a basic training program mainly on rescue basics and ethics for the frontline staff. The MVS unit was approached in providing this training initially in five forest divisions namely 1) Balasore; 2) Baripada; 3) Rairangpur; 4) Karanjia; and 5) Similipal Tiger Reserve. The overall goal of this training exercise was the formation of a dedicated rescue team comprising of forest department personnel from each circle that will be trained with further advanced courses and refresher trainings. These teams will not only help the MVS-SBR unit but also in different Rescue Operations and Human-Animal conflicts situations in the future in their respective circles. They will also be the first level or Primary Response team that will reach the location, take a stock of the situation and also be able to handle it themselves and if required contact the MVS unit for assistance and guidance.
As a part of this, 15 individuals were selected from the frontline staff in each division comprising Foresters (3), Forest Guards (7) and daily wage watchers/patrolmen (5), from which five individuals from each division will be further selected on the basis of interests, performance, and fitness and communication skill to form a final Circle level Rescue Team and advance training. Some of the modules taken during the training program included basic identification of animals, understanding behavioural habits (Feeding and Habitat pattern) of commonly found mammals, birds and reptiles; approach Wildlife First Aid; importance of documentation and practical hand on training on rope rescue, rescue in water bodies and snake handling.
As always, it has been a busy few months for the MVS in Simlipal Tiger Reserve. We would like to thank all our donors for all your support so far. Do sign up for our newletter to stay updated.
Makar Sankranti is a traditional Hindu festival celebrated in most parts of India and Nepal in a myriad of cultural forms. In some parts of India it is observed with great fanfare over a period of 3-4 days. It is celebrated with distinct names and rituals in different parts of the country. For example, in the state of Gujarat it is known as Uttarayan and in Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab as Maghi. In Assam it is known as Bhogali Bihu. The kite festival of Uttarayan (Makar Sankranti) is regarded as one of the biggest festivals celebrated in western part of India.
Kite flying during Uttarayan is now celebrated as a regional event in Gujarat. It is declared as a public holiday for 2 days. People often have competitions (also known as kite fighting) during which competitors will entangle the thread used while flying kites in the sky and try to cut the string off of each other's kites by pulling it.
An abrasive thread (Manja) is used while flying kites to ensure cutting the competitors string during a kite fight. Manja is made by coating regular string in glass powder and gum. Thispractice of using an abrasive thread for kite fighting has posed a great threat to species including birds, fruit-bats, monkeys and even humans. The impact on birds however is much larger. Birds when in flight, fail to notice the fine glass-coated thread and get entangled in the Manja because of which they either get injured or killed.
There has been no systematic study to quantify the impact of bird kills due to kite flying. However, a rough estimate would suggest over 10,000 avian emergencies get attended during the month of January every year. The number of birds which get injured is much higher in urban areas due to higher density of kite flying. Often, kites after its line is cut off by an opponent, drifts and gets stuck in trees. The birds get entangled in these strings and get injured due to strangulation or in an attempt to set free. This is one of the biggest reasons why rescue calls of birds continue even after the festival is over.
These days cheaper and more durable “Chinese manjha” is available in the market which is made of nylon and is non-biodegradable. This thread unlike cotton manjha does not lose its strength even after getting wet and hence stays for a long time creating potential threat for the birds.
In order to address this, a workshop on handling avian emergencies during the kite flying festival was held in Ahmedabad. It involved representatives from all over Gujarat and also from the neighbouring state of Rajasthan where kite flying is considered as an important sport. One city in Gujarat, Bhavnagar, was found to have an acute shortage of veterinarians to treat the injured birds. The project team visited Bhavnagar to assess the facilities there. The city was unique in the way that it had large colonies of painted storks right in its centre. It also has a reserve forest area (Victoria Park) within the city limits with a pond where a number of wetland bird species can be seen. Victoria Park also had an aviary where injured birds could be easily housed. In spite of having a good infrastructure at their disposal, the shortage of avian vets and proper technical guidance affected their release percentage.
Essential supplies like suture materials, surgical tools, medicines etc were also procured. The facilities at a local animal shelter were examined and suggestions were made to them to help better their capacity to respond to injured birds. A meeting was held by the forest department along with the animal husbandry department and all the local organizations and volunteers from all over Bhavnagar district to discuss about the way rescues were to be conducted. First aid kits were distributed to all the volunteers after the meeting.
Mass awareness campaigns were also held in schools and colleges in Bhavnagar and students were urged to not use glass coated strings to fly kites. Volunteers and rescue teams patrolled Bhavnagar bringing in injured birds. Locals in Bhavnagar also rescued injured birds and admitted them to the facility for further treatment and care. All the birds brought in were recorded in a register maintained by the Forest Department and a bright coloured numbered tag was applied on every bird that was brought in. Most of the birds brought in for treatment had severely mutilated wing muscles and some were also presented with fractured bones. Vets attended to these birds and surgically repaired the injuries. The bird species found injured included comb duck, painted stork, black ibis, great white pelican, myna, francolin, black drongo, rose ringed parakeet, blue-rock pigeon, and house sparrow.
The birds were then shifted to the Forest Department aviary in Victoria Park where they were fed. Wounds were dressed regularly and wounds were re-bandaged promptly when the birds loosened their bandages. Those birds which had suffered minor injuries and were found fit upon physical examination were released in the Krishnakunj lake within Victoria park. This helped relieve the birds of undue stress of captivity and ensured adequate self feeding in natural conditions. This also helped prevent unnecessary injury to the weaker birds by the healthier dominant birds.
The rest of the birds were kept in the rehab facility till they were found fit for release. Feeding and wound dressing was taken care of by the volunteers and the Forest Department from thereafter. Those birds which could not fly again were released in Krishnakunj Lake after their wounds healed.
Over a 120 birds were treated in total.
The kite flying festival continues to threaten birds across a lot of Western India and more efforts like the one above along with sustained awareness programmes will continue in order to curb this issue.
The decline of tigers across the world has been swift! Three subspecies of tigers became extinct during the second half of the 20th Century and the world’s wild tiger population has declined by over 95% since the turn of the 20th century. In 2014, the tiger population in India stood between 2011-2226 tigers only. With over 66 recorded tiger deaths in 2014, and 49 in 2015 (so far) we cannot afford to lose even a single tiger to poachers. Parks like Sariska (Rajasthan) and Panna (Madhya Pradesh) lost all their tigers to poaching some years back and are now on a slow path to recovery.
Organised poachers and local forest fringe communities layout metal jaw traps and wire noose snares which are hidden in the undergrowth and trap unsuspecting animals as they step into them. The animals either suffer slow agonizing deaths in these traps or are brutally killed by poachers who come to retrieve their “kill”. Snares are basically wire nooses which tighten around the animals’ limbs or body more and more as the animal struggles to get free. Both traps and snare can cause fractures and grievous wounds which get infected even if the animal manages to free itself.
This project has a multi pronged approach. The first is as a deterrent to villagers on the fringes from even laying the snares. The second is the actual removal of snares that have already been laid out. The third is building a strong network of informants to gather intelligence on wildlife crime in the region.
As the news of regular walks spreads, it deters poachers from carrying out their snaring activities as there is a strong possibility of their being caught and also of losing the traps they put out. The removal of snares is a preventive measure to protect the wildlife in the forest as snares will lie dormant until they are triggered.
The anti snare walks are carried out along the fringes of the forests. The anti snare walk teams comprise of between 4 to 12 members including Forest Department staff, WTI staff and local youth volunteers. These teams walk distances of between 8 to 14 kilometres a day. All snares and traps that are found are geo tagged to mark their locations, disarmed and bought back to the Department office as evidence.
Plotting the locations of snares helps identify poaching hot spots. The locations of the anti snare walks are kept a secret until they start to avoid tip offs to poachers.
The N Begur Range of Bandipur Tiger Reserve has been an area with high incidences of snares. It was thus decided that the anti snare walks for the financial year 2015 – 16 would start off here. The anti snare walks this year have covered 6 ranges of Bandipur TR, namely Gundre, N Begur, Nugu, Omkar, Hediyala and Moliyur Ranges covering a total of 189.2 km. The other side of the park will be covered during the remainder of the year. 185 snares have been recovered so far.
Solar fence wires and bike clutch cables are the most preferred materials at Bandipur as these are easily available in the local village shops. They are also easily concealable under clothes and small bags. It has been observed that snares are mostly laid in the peripheral areas of the park. Suspects have also been caught red handed laying snares during the walks.
Meetings have also been held with the Forest Department to strategise further. The team is also aiding the Forest Department in compiling and creating a centralised database from 10 districts of all cases related to Wildlife crime. There are 128 cases that are being compiled to create a centralised intelligence cell.
The team has also been aiding the Forest Department with dealing with Human Animal Conflict. A two and a half year old female leopard was rescued from Bachahalli village.
The Bandipur Forest Department has commended the anti snare walks and their importance in protecting the wildlife of the region.