Peacock Census Gloomy Gaze
Our national bird is dying a slow death and if no steps are taken soon, the glorious peacock may soon be a thing of past. The lackadaisical attitude of the central government is the major contributing factor towards the rapid fall in the number of the national bird across the country.
It is almost five years since India’s only institute undertaking the study of the wildlife of the country, Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India undertook an initial survey exercise and found a fall in the numbers of the peahowl (the peacock and the peahen). A protected bird under the schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, peacock was declared the national bird of India in 1963.
A report on the survey, conducted in 2004-07, was sent to the Union Environment and Forestry Ministry in 2010, which the WWI had strongly recommended for a full-proof census of peacocks in the country so as to ascertain their exact ground population. However, the proposal still gathers dust as the MoEF has neither responded nor released the required funds for the survey.
A paragraph in the report reads: “It is clearly evident that there is an urgent need to obtain basic information on Indian peafowl’s presence/absence, encounter rates and population estimates from the PAs, outside PAs, including revenue and private lands for the better management of the national bird. It appears that substantial portions of Indian peafowl distribution range and populations are outside the PA network or forest land areas.”
Speaking about the survey, Wildlife Institute of India’s senior scientist Dr. S. Satyakumar, who along with Prof B.C. Choudhury had played an instrumental role in the earlier estimation exercise for peafowl conducted by the institute, said that it might take a lot of time before the country could know about the exact population of its national bird.
“Conducting a national level survey of the peacocks is an enormous task that requires lot of funds. At the moment the WWI does not have the requisite funds. Therefore, a proposal was sent to the Union Environment Ministry for releasing the funds. Till now we have received no official communiqué from the Ministry regarding the release of funds, though there is a rumour that things have started to move. Since there was no specific project or programme on the Indian peafowl, the question of non-release of funds does not arise. The Indian peafowl and its habitats are protected and managed in the protected areas and reserved forest under various schemes that are funded by the MoEF,” Satyakumar said further.
On being asked whether the dwindling population of the peacocks outside the PAs is a cause of worry that the national bird may soon become an endangered species, the researcher said: “The Indian peafowl is widely distributed in India in a variety of habitats including human-dominated landscapes such as villages, towns and cities. Therefore, this species is exposed to a variety of risks due to anthropogenic factors operating in its habitats. These include use of pesticides in agricultural landscapes, changes in land-use patterns in non-forested areas and poaching for meat or feathers. We need a national assessment followed by regular monitoring to find out whether the population of Indian peafowl is increasing, stable or declining.”
The questionnaire-based survey that was undertaken by the WII’s Department of Endangered Species Management (DESM) in 2004, regarding the population of peacocks in the country was based on the reports from the state governments, amateur birdwatchers, NGOs, professional research organisations and panchayats across India. It was an outcome of the increasing cases of peacock deaths being reported in the country and also the growing need to explore its relationship with humans, particularly with villagers residing in close proximity to its habitat and unlawful trades linked to the charismatic bird.
Poaching cases that caught the limelight
■ July 2003: In the incident that came to light, suspicion was raised after 20 peacocks and peahens were found dead within a span of just six days in Noida . Following the arrest of the “peahowl serial killer” Suresh Kumar (26) it was revealed that he was a “peacock meat addict’’. Confessing his addiction, Suresh said: “The meat is addictive due to its sheer taste and consistency. It is firmer than chicken and warms the blood too.”
■ February 2004: Two honorary wildlife wardens Gunraj Singh and Sukhdeep Singh Bajwa caught red-handed SDM Pathankot Parneet Goyal from a Hoshiarpur forest shooting peafowl, wild hares and partridges. The SDM managed bail in an otherwise non-bailable offence, punishable with three years imprisonment and Rs 10,000 fine. The investigations conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India revealed that the bird died due to gunshot wounds.
The survey had covered 1720 sites for the existence of the royal bird in the country including the 448 national parks and sanctuaries (protected areas) across the country. The institute had also contacted around 300 District Magistrates so as to tap the peacock in other areas thus enabling a full-proof estimation on assessment of the national bird.
It is pertinent to mention here that the national bird was once widely distributed throughout the Indian mainland except for the Himalayan ranges and Northeastern India. The dwindling population of the peafowl is being attributed to the rampant poaching, use of pesticides in agricultural fields, killings by farmers to prevent crop injuries, its magnificent feathers and the succulent white meat. Even the peafowl nesting sites are in a grave danger owing to urbanisation and loss of green spaces. Even the law that allows the collection of the shed peacock feathers is being widely misused by the poachers, as it is being used as a cover for poaching, as the unshed feather are more lustrous and fetch a much higher amount. Speaking about the report, Dr Satyakumar said: WII made an assessment on the status of Indian peafowl based on questionnaire surveys during 2004 to 2006. Results of the survey indicated that the peafowls’ presence is confirmed in 345 districts of India and it is likely to be present in 174 other districts that fall within the Indian peafowl distribution range.
The Indian peafowl population is reported to be present with 193 protected areas (PAs), 19 other forest land areas, and 141 revenue land areas. Of the total 353 localities that have reported Indian peafowl presence, the population estimates are available for 195 localities only. The total population estimated within the 195 localities is over 1,500,000 birds. However, such estimates have to be treated as ‘guesstimates’ only as these were made by individuals with varying levels of competence, training levels, and based on different methods.
The peafowl population trend as reported by the PAs (N=167) indicates that the peafowl population is ‘increasing’ in 73 PAs (43.7 per cent),’stable’ in 36 PAs (21.5 per cent), decreasing in 6 PAs (3.6 per cent), and for the remaining (31.2 per cent) the trend is either ‘unknown’ or ‘not reported’. The peafowl population status outside PAs but within the forested landscape areas was reported from 13 localities.
While the population trend was reported as ‘increasing’ in five localities (38.4 per cent) and ‘stable’ in two localities (15.4 per cent), it was reported as ‘not known’ in two localities (15.4 per cent) and ‘not reported’ in the remaining reponses. Based on the initial reports, the WWI then extended the proposal to the MoEF for undertaking a wider national-level survey. However, the project has been put on the back burner in the absence of funds being released.
The bloody trail
► November 2011: In a survey conducted by the Rajasthan chapter of People for Animals, it was revealed that in November alone, 250 peacocks were poached in 20 incidents of poaching in Bikaner, Nagaur, Sikar, Chittorgarh and Bundi.
► September 2011: Forest officials found four poached peacocks in Virudhnagar near Thalavaipuram.
► April 2013: Barmer DFO SR Yadav confirmed the death of seven peacocks by poachers at the border of Atakora village on Jalore route in Barmer district.
It may be recalled that the only largest stock-taking of the peacock population conducted in the country was done by the Indian Chapter of World Wildlife Federation (WWF) in 1991. The survey that revealed shocking figures clearly mentioned that India was left with only 50 per cent of the total peacock population that existed at the time of Partition in 1947. Even as the green peacock is believed to be already extinct, the day is not far when the peacock may soon end up on the critically endangered list.
Interestingly, the legacy of protecting the magnificent bird dates back to the Mughal era when this bird was forbidden from being killed, except by the royalty, who savoured its meat.
An Uttarakhand wildlife department official on the condition of anonymity revealed that the maximum number of peahowl kills take place during the mating season when it is easy to spot a dancing peacock. Besides tracing and killing the bird becomes all the more easier as peacocks sleep in the same trees every night. The procedure of killing is simple. First the head is cut off, then the crest is ripped off and then the tail feathers. There are some hunters who are even crueler. To save the feathers from being smeared with blood, they first trap the bird, and after breaking its legs, pull out feathers and then kill it.”
Apart from poaching, the death of the national bird is also caused by the consumption of the pesticide-laden seeds. The fact was ascertained during a study carried out by the experts of Haryana-based Chaudhary Charan Singh Hisar Agricultural University. A detailed examination of the dead bird found in the fields of Rampura in Mahendragarh in 1999 revealed that the peacocks died of chlorpyriphos toxicity while picking up wheat grains from the recently sown fields. The concentration of chlorpyriphos in the dead peacocks was found to be (0.7575 ppm), three times higher than prescribed limit.
By Parwinder Sandhu from Dehradun