MUMBAI, PUNE, AHMEDABAD––Preliminary estimates indicate that fewer birds were killed or injured by kite strings during Makar Sankranti 2015 than a year earlier, but the annual Hindu “Festival of the Sun,” observed on January 14 this year, remains perhaps as deadly to birds over western India as opening day of hunting season in nations where shooting birds remains legal sport.
Makar Sankranti is traditionally celebrated in western India and Pakistan by kite-flying competitions, in which tens of thousands of “fighter kites” flyers work their strings to try to saw off the strings of others’ kites. The winner is the kite flyer whose kite is the last in the sky.
Glass-coated nylon twine, called manja, gives flyers an edge over anyone using natural fibers. But the glass-coated nylon twine also creates a hazard to birds that persists for as long as fallen severed strings remain draped over trees and electric wires.
Mumbai, Jaipur, Bareilly, and Amritsar have all banned manja––Mumbai since 2009. The results are evident. “Volunteers have observed fewer casualties as compared to the previous year,” Animal Welfare Board of India spokesperson Manoj Oswal told the Times of India on January 16, 2015. But the complete toll from bird collisions with kite strings is never known immediately.
“Cases of badly injured birds keep coming till at least two weeks after Sankranti,” Pune Zoo Animal Rescue Centre curator Deepak Sawant told the Times of India.
Sawant said his team treated about 300 birds for kite string injuries after Makar Sankranti 2014, but had received only 45-50 in the first few days after Makar Sankranti 2015.
Even at the peak of Makar Sankanti casualties, however, just a fraction as many injured birds were found in Mumbai, the largest city in western India, and in Pune, the largest city south of Mumbai, as in Ahmedabad, where Makar Sankranti is most vigorously celebrated.
There, reported Elizabeth Soumya for The Guardian, the animal welfare organization Jivdaya Charitable Trust treated 2,394 injured birds in 2014, of as many as 100 species, of whom 490 died. Worse, in Ahmedabad the toll of birds injured and killed has increased in each year for which animal welfare charities have kept data.
Changes in technology
Makar Sankranti has been celebrated since Vedic times, but has only relatively recently emerged as a humane concern, largely because of changes in the technology of kite-flying.
Fighter-kites were traditionally flown with cotton string that were coated with a paste of glue and powdered glass. Though the glass-covered cotton threads may have injured birds as easily as the nylon monofilament threads of today, they rotted rapidly after breaking and falling, limiting the hazard to birds to just the day of Makar Sankranti and the first few days afterward.
Also traditionally, Indian and Pakistani kite-flyers made their own equipment. In recent years, however, as Indians and Pakistanis have become more affluent and busier, sales of ready-made kites and ready-to-use mania have reportedly risen at the rate of 20% per year. More kites are flying, handled by less experienced people, with occasional deadly consequences to humans as well as birds.
Human casualties too
In November 2005, for instance, in Lahore, Pakistan, a 10-year-old girl named Noor died from a slashed throat after a glass-coated kite string dipped into the path of the motorbike she was riding with her uncle.
Responding to that accident and others, a five-member panel of the Pakistan Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary reported in early December 2005 that more than 450 Pakistanis were killed in kite-related accidents during the year, mostly by falling from rooftops, and that most than 1,500 people had been killed, with 10,000 more injured, since 2000.
The panel called for restrictive laws––which have not been passed, and for the present appear unlikely to be passed at the national level in either Pakistan or India.
Kite-flying peaks in Pakistan at Basant, celebrated in early February. Basant festivals are prominent in the Punjab region, divided between Pakistan and India, and in Multan, whose name means “Land of Birds.”
The military government of Pakistan has since 1999 encouraged Basant kite-flying, despite objections from Islamists who contend that the holiday marks the birthday of a Hindu saint named Basanti Lal.
Celebrity kite-fighters in India have included Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress Party since 1998; former prime minister and Bharatija Janata Party president Atal Bihari Vajpayee; and current prime minister Narendra Modi, who from 2001 to 2014 was chief minister of Gujarat state, of which Ahmedabad is capital.
Year-round public education efforts against the use of manja appear to have originated only circa 2004, about five years after Rahul Sehgal founded the organization Animal Help in Ahmedabad. Sehgal for the past seven years has represented the Humane Society International subsidiary of the Humane Society of the U.S. in India. He was recruited by HSI after his campaign against Makar Sankranti bird casualties made him nationally known to the Indian animal welfare community.
Circa 2004, Sehgal admits, he didn’t know one bird from another–though he has since become an avid birder. As a lifelong Ahmedabad resident, however, Sehgal saw fast-rising toll on birds that followed the introduction of manja, gambled that he could organize an effective response to the bird injuries, and hoped that encouraging other animal charities to form Makrar Sankranti response teams could raise public awareness to the point that the sale of manja could be banned.
Other kite injury response teams were soon fielded by Help In Suffering, of Jaipur; CAPE-India of Ludiana, under Sandeep K. Jain; the Jain Bird Hospital in Delhi; VCARE and the Guajarat SPCA, both of Vadodara; the Surat Nature Club; the Bombay SPCA; the Plant & Animal Welfare Society, of Mumbai; Ahimsa, of Malad; and the Karuna Trust, under Dharmendra Sanghvi, whose teams worked in Thane, Surat, and Baroda.
Numbers going up
Of the 450 birds brought to Animal Help after Makar Sankranti 2005, 80 died, Sehgal reported. Within two more years Animal Help handled 750 birds after Makar Sankranti. As other organizations became involved, the toll continued to mount.
The rescuers would like to believe the numbers of injured birds in Ahmedabad continue to rise only because increased public awareness is bringing them more calls to rescue birds who have run afoul of manja. But there may in truth be more and more injured birds.
Power lines over Ahmedabad in the days after Makar Sankranti each year tend to resemble concertina wire after a World War I trench charge. Wrecked kites flutter everywhere, trailing deadly loops of manja.
Conventional tangling injuries occur to some extent, resembling the injuries seen among cormorants, gulls, and pelicans who run afoul of fly-casters.
Yet entanglement is the least of the Makar Sankranti threat to birds. First, while still flying, fighter kites lift their sharp and barely visible strings under tension. Birds riding the wind currents or diving on prey then fly into the sharp strings at great speed, suffering shoulder and arm cuts that resemble sword-fighting wounds or the leg injuries of horses who gallop into barbed wire.
Suddenly unable to fly, the birds fall abruptly where they hit the strings, not always able to spread their feathers enough to cushion the impact. If the cuts are clean enough and the birds are sewn back together before injuring themselves, they usually recover well enough to be released, after days or weeks of care.
Perhaps a third of the victims are pigeons, the most common species in Indian and Pakistani cities. Other victims include some of almost every regionally occurring flying species: fruit bats, peafowl, ring-necked parakeets, kingfishers, rollers, bulbuls, barn owls, sandpipers, godwits, Egyptian vultures, even endangered white-rumped vultures and Sarus cranes.
But more than half of the injured are black kite-birds, a scavenger species seeming to be especially vulnerable to kite strings because they tend to fly with their eyes on the ground instead of the sky in front of them.
Compounding the situation, Makar Sankranti temple-goers often to “make merit” by purchasing wild-caught caged birds for ceremonial release, or by throwing out seeds and crumbs for birds in temple squares.
Capturing wild birds for sale and release has been illegal in India since the 1972 passage of the Wildlife Protection Act, but local police rarely make enforcement a priority.
The federal and state forest departments do what they can, helped by activist groups with limited powers to make citizens’ arrests.
Bird release was practiced at sun festivals by the ancient Egyptians, from whom some Brahmin Hindus believe they are descended.
The custom has also been followed by Jains from the beginning of Indian written history, by Buddhists since the time of the Buddha himself some 2,300 years ago, and by Muslims who obey Mohammed’s injunction against keeping caged birds.
When a million kites fly just as hundreds of thousands of dazed, dehydrated, frightened birds are let go, the result is a bird rehabilitator’s worst nightmare.