May 11: The residents of the Rajasthan State Electricity Board colony in Heerapur, 12 km from Jaipur, are in shock. They don’t know how to reconcile to the sudden, unexplained deaths of 19 peacocks in their colony in the first week of May. The priest at the Radha Krishna temple in the colony is inconsolable: there are no more peacocks to peck at the vessel filled with jowar.
In the first week of May, at Sirsiya village in Phagi district, a villager saw six of the birds die, foaming at their mouth as they tried to dance. After eating the jowar and wheat seeds kept outside households for them, the peacocks just collapsed on the roof of a building.
These incidents have once again drawn attention to the fact that Lord Krishna’s messengers, as the national bird is known in several parts of Rajasthan, are slowly dying out.
The figures are chilling: as many as 135 birds have died in Rajasthan since January this year, compared to 21 in 2000, and 13 in 1999. The state hosts about 60 per cent of the country’s peacock population. Most villages have vegetarian diets and are bird lovers, which probably accounts for the large number of the birds in Rajasthan. No more. Japiur, Sikar, Ajmer, Udaipur…The killing list is quite long.
Whether they are dying due to man-made causes such as pesticide poisoning, “heat stroke” or virus attack, is the hot topic of debate now. According to Chief Conservator, Forests & Wildlife, U M Sahai, the examining veterinarians (doctors of animals) have said the tissues of the Jaipur peacocks were white, as if they had a heatstroke. But it could also be a virus producing similar symptoms, says Sahai.
Pesticide poisoning is a real danger though the farmers spray pesticide to protect their plants.
To get a blood test done, they need to get samples. And in the case of the national bird they need to obtain the Central government’s permission to get a blood sample from a living bird!
And as the officials quibble in their usual style, the feathers of the dead birds continue to carpet the villages of Rajasthan.
It is not the peacocks alone that have been affected. The vultures of Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur too are going the same way. Till some time ago, the vultures numbered 2000. Two years ago, there were just four, according to a report in Gobar Times, the children’s environmental magazine of the Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi.
Experts have found traces of pesticides in the brain tissue of the vultures and say that this may be the cause of their death. The food chain holds the key. Vultures eat animal carcasses, which are infected with pesticides found in the grain that is part of the cattle’s diet.
Other birds or prey, like fishing eagles, also become victims. Pesticides enter into the plankton (type of minute animal and plant life in water), which are then eaten by the fish. These fish are in turn eaten by the eagles. The poison climbs steadily, a little higher at each level, until it reaches the vultures. Or humans. After all, we eat meat too.
What happens when pesticides are taken in by birds (if they don’t die first) is really weird. The birds lay deformed eggs with thin egg shells, and many of the young birds die really soon. Sometimes, because these chemicals interfere with the parents’ endocrine systems, the male baby birds become very feminine.