Stray dogs in Srinagar during the lockdown (Photo: Getty Images)
ON APRIL 21st, Shakuntala Majumdar received a call from the local animal husbandry department. A chaotic period had ensued for Majumdar, who heads the Thane Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (TSPCA) and runs an animal hospital in Mumbai’s satellite city Thane, ever since the lockdown had been announced. She had been assailed with requests—from people unable to bring their pets to the hospital and over animals locked in without food and care in pet shops. And as the number of Covid-19-positive cases increased in Mumbai and nearby areas, those who turned positive and their family members would be taken to quarantine centres and hospitals, but pets, if they had any, would be left behind, locked up. Majumdar had pressed her three ambulances for rescue and relief operations of animals, coordinating with authorities to allow pet-shop owners to feed their animals and rescuing those locked up in homes without care.
The call on April 21st however was for another set of animals. Around 78 horses used for joy rides on a nearby beach had gone without feed for nearly a month. Four horses had already died from starvation.
“They were just chewing whatever little grass they could find. All performing animals look undernourished. But these horses looked terrible,” she says. Eventually, TSPCA helped arranged for enough fodder to last them, and several more starving horses they discovered in other nearby areas, for a few months.
“If you ask me,” Majumdar says, “this lockdown has taken a very big toll on animals.”
In the early phases of the lockdown, as humans withdrew indoors across most parts of the globe, social media was inundated with photos and videos of how nature was hitting a reset button and animals were reclaiming their spaces again. As it turned out, most of these were false. Dolphins did not return to the waters along Mumbai’s coast; they have always been there. Peacocks did not take over a road in Coimbatore. No dolphins returned to Venetian canals. No elephant broke into a Chinese village, got drunk off corn wine and passed out in a tea garden.
In fact, the lockdown has come as a shock to a wide array of animals. When humans withdrew indoors, their absence had a rippling effect in the urban ecosystem, upon the animals that depend on and are habituated to human activity.
“[Animals] didn’t get the memo about a lockdown being enforced. So they got a big shock,” says Anindita Bhadra, who heads a laboratory that studies the behaviour of stray dogs at the Department of Biological Sciences of Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata.
Bhadra has conducted several studies examining stray dogs’ behaviour. She has discovered, for instance, that strays can read human gestures; that they, depending upon their past experience (in the case of the study, people pointing to either an empty bowl filled with food or one that turns out to be empty), choose to follow or not such a pointing cue again; and that they learn to forage during their juvenile age.
Bhadra along with a team of researchers is now trying to study the impact of the lockdown on strays’ social behaviour. They are relying on a citizen-science partnership, asking people to record long videos of strays in their neighbourhoods or collaborating in a detailed survey.
“What we have found is that there has been a lot of migration among dogs. They have moved from places like bus stops where no food was found during the lockdown to neighbourhoods, for instance, places where volunteers went out in cars to drop food,” she says. Much of this migration has led to aggression, with frequent fights breaking out between dogs defending their territories and also some unusual behaviour. According to her, one individual living in a highrise in Kolkata, whom they were able to contact and verify his claim, recorded a group of about 15 dogs killing a calf and consuming some of its flesh. “Stray dogs are scavengers. And while they can kill other smaller animals like kittens, it is usually in play. But if they find nothing to forage, it is possible that they could try and hunt,” she says.
The lockdown has come as a shock to animals. The absence of humans has had a rippling effect upon the animals habituated to human activity
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One of her bigger fears is that many strays would have entered their juvenile age during this period in the lockdown. “We have found that dogs learn to forage for food in this period of their lifetime. So for juvenile dogs who have spent the last few months staying close to places where volunteers drop food, they will never learn to scavenge for food once the lockdown gets lifted,” she says. A few years ago, she recounts, a neighbour raised a group of four stray puppies till they were around a year old. They fed the dogs, didn’t even allow them to fight when it was being distributed. “The neighbour, when leaving the area, left the dogs thinking they were big enough to care for themselves. But the dogs were useless as strays. They couldn’t look for food, didn’t mate with others or among themselves and would keep turning to humans for help,” she says. According to her, the lockdown could leave many of these strays in a similar predicament.
“As the lockdown is lifted, I’m sure there will be a new set of challenges. There will be more dog-human fights [since many dogs have become aggressive], more accidents involving dogs [since many have become used to emptier roads],” she says.
The lockdown has also had a corollary impact on wildlife. A lot more poaching and illegal tree felling is being recorded. Some of it probably has to do with a distressed economy, with people losing their jobs and other sources of revenue turning to poaching. The lockdown has also meant locals who play the most crucial role in conservation—keeping a tab on and alerting authorities about suspicious activities in national parks and forests —have not been able to do so. But as fears of the virus and a distressed economy take their toll on wildlife tourism, many locals who depend upon this will also have one less incentive to be as involved.
Mokhram Dharnia, who heads a wildlife conservation group in Rajasthan, Jeev Raksha Sanstha, claims that hunting has increased in the last two months following the lockdown. Dharnia’s group has volunteers spread out across villages in western Rajasthan. Every time they find any suspicious activity, they tip off authorities or try to catch the hunters themselves.
“Every few days now we get cases of hunting of chinkaras, peacocks and grey francolins. Just some weeks ago, we found 25 peacocks poisoned in Churu,” he says. He also mentions another area near Jaisalmer where weighing scales were discovered near carcasses of blackbucks, indicating that the animals were killed to sell the meat.
Last month, Dharnia says, their group chased three poachers who had managed to hunt five deer in an area close to Bikaner. “They had chopped the deer and were carrying it in gunny sacks. They escaped but we were able to stop them from carrying away some of the carcasses,” he says.
In Assam, poachers have now managed to kill its first rhino in over 13 months in the Kaziranga National Park (KNP). The carcass was discovered without its horn last month. Such cases were frequent in the past: according to one report, there were 27 cases each in 2013 and 2014. But over the past few years, the park had managed to reduce their frequency. The creation of a dedicated and armed Special Rhino Protection Force last year is believed to have further strengthened the park. But ever since the lockdown was announced, the park has seen several attempts at poaching—occasions where even gunfire was exchanged between authorities and poachers. “The lockdown appears to have given rhino poachers free time to regroup and plan strikes in Kaziranga…,” KNP Director P Sivakumar told reporters after the rhino’s carcass was discovered.
Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, a well-known rhino expert, the CEO of Aaranyak, a wildlife NGO in Guwahati, and the Asia Coordinator of International Rhino Foundation, says that the recent rhino kill highlights a worrying situation. He points out that the carcass of the rhino was found with used AK-47 cartridges. “Earlier local poachers generally used .303 or .315 rifles. In the past few years some poachers have been found using the AK series rifles,” he says. “Cadres of some militant groups seem to be engaged in rhino poaching in Assam. A couple of militant groups operating in the Manipur-Myanmar border have been found to be involved, along with a few militant cadres from Karbi-Anglong [in Assam]. They engage local people as guides to hunt the rhinos,” he says. He points to another incident, where villagers were able to catch a poacher from Arunachal Pradesh who, along with an armed gang, was trying to hunt a rhino in the eastern area of KNP.
ACCORDING TO Talukdar, while forest security officials and staffers have continued to keep vigil, on-field conservation efforts have suffered because NGOs and conservationists haven’t been able to coordinate and work with local communities. “Conservation activities that need people to gather will perhaps need to wait for a few more months,” he says.
In cities, conservation parks and zoos have also suffered. In Chennai, the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, which depends upon ticket sales to run a conservation and breeding park of rare and exotic reptiles, had to raise funds for the upkeep of the park. In public zoos, while the lack of ticket sales hasn’t been an issue, they did face other problems. In some zoos, the lack of crowds has meant that some primates have become depressed. Zoos across the world have tried various tricks to get around the issue. At least one in Russia has put up a TV screen outside cages with chimps. In Patna’s zoo, staffers now gather around enclosures with primates, according to one media report, every few days and clap and make noises to lift their spirits.
But by far the most common problem that most zoos faced in India was the lack of beef for its carnivores. In Mumbai, after the city’s only abattoir shut in the early part of the lockdown, the city’s Jijamata Udyan had to turn to chicken. The zoo’s carnivores, which include a pair of tigers, leopards and hyenas each, consume around 50 kg of meat everyday. “We used to feed them chicken sometimes before too, but when the shortage happened we had to ration whatever beef was there and give them chicken,” says Sanjay Tripathi, the zoo’s Director.
A similar situation unfolded across zoos in Gujarat too. Except for the Sayajibaug Zoo in Vadodara. This zoo, opened in 1879 by Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad of Baroda, has always had its own slaughterhouse. Curator Pratyush Patankar, anticipating a lockdown, chalked out a plan in advance: he contacted the local municipal and police officials, issued passes to suppliers who provided the buffaloes for slaughter and gave them his contact number in case they were held up at checkposts.
The only difficulty, Patankar says, his meat suppliers have faced is that after the closure of haats where buffaloes are usually purchased, they now have to travel to villages to source them.
The Sayajibaug Zoo is in fact using the lockdown as an opportunity. They are trying to get the park’s two tigers, now away from public glare, to mate.
The zoo earlier had one tiger and two tigresses. But the park’s tiger enclosures, built in such a way that only one tiger could be kept at an enclosure at a time if the public was to be able to view them, meant that they couldn’t get them to mate with each other. In 2017, when they sent one of the tigresses to the zoo in Surat so it could mate with a tiger there, the encounter turned disastrous. The tigresses was killed by the male.
“It’s been tough ever since. It was tough emotionally for all the people who cared for that tigress in the zoo. And with such scheduled animals, it’s a lot of responsibility. But the people here have been telling me to try once again. And so far, it’s looking good. There’s bonding and no aggression,” Patankar says.