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Soon after the sovereign Republic of India awoke to its “tryst with destiny” on the fateful midnight hour of 14-15 August, 1947, there happened to be two citizens who were shaken out of their lassitude, one was an Englishman domiciled Indian & the other a second-generation Gentleman Officer of the Indian Army. Though both were strangers at the societal level, but when jolted by the tragic shooting of what happened to be the last three surviving Asiatic Cheetahs in the world by the Raja of Korea (an insignificant principality of Madhya Pradesh) in early 1948, the duo set to work in tandem driven by their irrevocable passion for preservation of both Wildlife in particular and Nature at large.
E.P. Gee, a tea planter in upper Assam had been witness to the great one horned rhinoceros being inexorably driven to the verge of extinction—the lesser two-horned and the Sumatran species had already become extinct in India—and so he worked tirelessly through zoological channels in U.K. to prevent the next looming extinction of the surviving specie. The Government of India too rose to the occasion and promulgated requisite legislation, promptly.
Lieutenant Colonel Burton stationed at the Colaba Cantonment in Bombay was at that very time putting finishing touches to a seminal document titled “Wild Life Preservation: India’s Vanishing Assets” which was greeted with universal applause. And once again, the Government of India promptly sent a copy to the Chief Secretary of each State with directions to adopt the document as policy and implement with urgency.
But the most profound consequence which followed the Burton-Gee enterprise, was the creation of the “Indian Board for Wild Life” in 1952 with the Prime Minister as the ex officio Chairman. It was mandated simply to “Preserve India’s Wildlife”; period! But it lacked the teeth of a statutory body so a decade later, the Government promulgated an Act of Parliament, “The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972” which became a model for many countries in South East Asia and Africa.
Concomitantly, the Peacock was given the status of the “National Bird” on several cogent counts; the most dominant was its cultural significance being the “Vahani” of Kartikeya, the God of War and of Saraswati, the Goddess of learning—and hence most sacred. And its pan-India spread (less the Himalayas) further enhanced its accreditation for the National status. But above all, the velvet soft and multi-coloured iridescence of the plumage make it unquestionably one of the most arrestingly beautiful of our birds. So, ipso facto, the Peacock was placed under Schedule I of the Wildlife Act and it’s killing a crime punishable under the Act.
However, all things animate or inanimate do become objects of irresistible greed and desire in the psyche of human beings. And in the case of a male peacock, when in the act of attracting a female, it lifts its long tail feathers skywards and spreads them into a hemispherical fan, what grabs attention of both female peacocks and human beings alike are about fifty eyes or ocelli, a melange of exceptional blue and green hues, crowning the end-tip of each feather! And most unfortunately, each of those 3-inch by 2-inch patches of visual extravaganza, are the much sought-after element in the garland making trade aimed especially at the high-end VIPs.
Tragically, just as in making one ounce of the world’s most sought-after perfume used to involve the slaughter of about one hundred Musk deer (the musk pod is carried by the male of the species alone), so in the case of making one precious garland using the eye/ocelli patch, may be some fifty male peacocks must pay with their lives. Now if we cast our minds to the touch down of President Donald Trump at Agra a few years ago, one element of the welcome ceremony was what in the context of male peacocks may be termed as “the dance of death”, that is, each of some twenty members of his entourage were honoured with hefty garlands crafted exclusively with peacock feathers. Little wonder that the majority of Indian urban living habitats across the country (other than the Rashtrapati Bhavan and such like spaces) have reached the stage of minimal or zero presence of peacocks today.
From my personal experience in the early 1960s, when Gurgaon (now Gurugram) was one of the districts of Punjab and my father was posted there as the Deputy Commissioner, that countryside was teeming with peacocks. In the compound of the D C Sahib’s residence alone, there were upwards of thirty roosting peacocks! Anyone seen a peacock in Gurugram these days?
Yet the occupation of making garlands from peacock ocelli patches goes on unchecked and the practitioners of the trade are quick to point out that the law allows them to gather from the wild, the naturally shed tail feathers of the peacock. It is true that the peacock does annually moult their tail feathers but the process is not as though the bird sheds all feathers in one, neat heap. Rather, they are shed few at a time over two to four weeks across a couple of square kilometres. And spotting and gathering of so scattered feathers is as impossible as picking a needle from a hay stack.
So, in practice, the garland makers or their agents have perfected the art of lacing peacock’s favoured feed-stock with poisonous chemicals and surreptitiously scatter it around the birds’ roosting colonies. The unsuspecting birds consume and perish to facilitate an illegitimate livelihood. But there are ways to both prevent such unnatural deaths of peacocks and at the same time also allow the garland livelihood to flourish.
For instance, the international billion dollars musk perfume industry’s basic feed-stock used to be a gland found in the male of the musk deer. And that gland could be obtained only by killing the male of the species. Many nations including India had attempted to shore up the dwindling numbers through captive breeding enterprises but each floundered miserably; by the 1960s, this species was close to extinction, worldwide. Rather than shut business, the perfumeries of Europe invested in discovering appropriate chemical substances and ever since the synthetic musk perfume is the favoured perfume and the industry flourishes as in earlier times.
In India, we too have a similar success story through the synthetic route. For centuries, the Nyishi tribe in Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland have traditionally worn the beak of the Hornbill as an inseparable ornament of their headgear because it is considered a symbol of manhood. Though the human population has grown abundantly over time but the numbers of the Hornbill species, if anything, had declined to such an extent that the International Union for Conservation of Nature had listed two on the “Globally Red List of Threatened Species”.
Now that is when Shri Chukhu Loma, the well caring Deputy Chief Wildlife Warden in collaboration with the New Delhi based NGO, Wildlife Trust of India came up with the initiative to fabricate synthetic, look alike Hornbill beaks which in the event cost no more than 15 Rupees per piece! As may be expected, there was resistance to change but soon good sense prevailed. And the numbers of Hornbill in that region which by the year 2000 had crashed to just 500 birds, in the 2007 census had grown to 2050!
Though comparisons may be odious but in the instant case a success story of another kind comes rushing to my mind. In the year 1962, Racheal Carson published the best seller book “Silent Spring” based on her decade long, peer reviewed research that the 15 years long use of DDT for pest control in agriculture had led to ingestion of that chemical through the food chain into the blood stream among others, of the Bald Eagle. And that had led to the bird’s egg shells becoming so brittle that during incubation, the eggs were getting smashed. And the Bald Eagle population had lowered drastically. Racheal Carson was heard by the Joint Houses of the US Congress and bald eagle being their national symbol, the DDT industry in the US was immediately shut down, for good.
For the eternal wellbeing of the peacock in India, we also need to act forthwith by (i) annulling the law allowing for collection of peacock’s moulted feathers from the wilderness, and (ii) directing the appropriate agency to manufacture synthetic fabric matching the eye – ocelli of the peacock for garland making purposes.
Let us listen to the sage advice of the Red Indian Chief Seattle to the U S President Franklin Pearce in 1854, under similar circumstances;
“…Once the beasts are gone, Man will surely die from loneliness of the spirit.”