In Decelmber last year, poachers armed with AK-47s slaughtered a one-horned rhinoceros inside Assam’s Kaziranga National Park. Not only was the animal killed in cold blood, it was mercilessly dehorned as well. This wasn’t an isolated act of brazen brutality at the national park, which, ironically, is a World Heritage Site and hosts two-thirds of the world’s population of the one-horned rhino, categorised as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The year 2016 alone saw 18 rhinos being killed by poachers inside the park.
And it’s not just rhinos. Many wild animals are under grave threat of extinction. A recent report cited scientists as saying that there is a need to rethink wildlife conservation strategies, specifically for large mammal species like elephants.
While there is still a long way to go when it comes to wildlife conservation in India, there are some individuals who are doing their bit to create more awareness. From launching a digital snake database and photographing animals in a ‘comic’ way to running an orphanage-cum-rescue centre for young animals, these wildlife heroes are going about animal conservation in a unique way. Here are stories of some of them…
An online snake database with extensive information on Indian snakes and guidelines on how to handle them
Close to 50,000 people die in India every year because of snakebite, as per a recent report. Even in this modern age, a lot of people don’t know how to react when they spot a snake, regardless of whether it’s venomous or not. In rural India, where snakebite is a massive problem, faith healing is still the most preferred option. People depend on quacks, snake charmers and priests for treatment instead of going to hospitals. Not surprisingly, many end up dying. It was this need for education and awareness on snakes that prompted Kottayam-based Jose Louies to start Indiansnakes.org, a digital snake database, in 2010.
The website lists extensive information on Indian snakes, guidelines on how to handle one if you spot it, etc. Over the years, Indiansnakes.org has also created a network of snake rescuers across India. The names and details of these rescuers are up on the website. Indiansnakes.org helps connect a snakebite victim to the nearest hospital and, with the help of local rescuers, they ensure that the patient is not taken to a faith healer.
Louies grew up in the middle of a rubber plantation in Kerala, where snakes were commonplace. His childhood fascination with the slithering serpents played a big role in the inception of the website, which, the 40-year-old says, is still not complete. “The database is not complete yet. There are a few more snakes to be added. But we have one of the best libraries of Indian snakes, with more than 4,000 high-quality images. We publish the most accurate snake checklist of India at the beginning of every year. The checklist for 2017 has 298 species listed with accurate and verified information,” says Louies, who quit a corporate job and took up wildlife conservation more than a decade ago.
In 2011, Louies was joined by Vivek Sharma from Jabalpur, an expert snake handler and a masters in zoology. Sharma was instrumental in compiling photographs and related data, and in developing content for the website. Louies says Indiansnakes.org does not have any employees. It’s a volunteer-based conservation movement, which operates all over India.
The website didn’t have a smooth start though. A lot of established wildlife experts ridiculed it. Louies, however, had a clear vision. Indiansnakes.org was not targeted at scientists. “We wanted the common man to learn about snakes and snakebite,” he says. Today, the website has more than 500 daily visitors and their Facebook group has approximately 22,000 members. “Analytics show that we have a large number of members from rural India. Social media has helped us establish a network of snake experts and doctors who treat snakebite across India,” says Louies.
Sometimes, a victim’s problem is compounded by the fact that most government hospitals and public health centres don’t follow the standard snakebite treatment policy. “Either there is no doctor or they are not ready to deal with a snakebite case. In many cases, they administer antibiotics to a patient because the ASV (anti-snake venom) is not available. Some patients are given more than the requisite dose, while there are some who were bitten by non-venomous snakes and were still given ASV,” rues Louies. Most medical personnel don’t realise that ASV contains elements that are designed to neutralise venom, but when there is no venom to neutralise, it has adverse effects on a patient. Keeping these issues in mind, Indiansnakes.org started its first hospital-based project in 2014 in Pithora, Chhattisgarh, where they provide ASV to Anjali Health Centre, a snakebite treatment centre, which caters to more than 80 villages in the region. Louies says they plan to replicate the Pithora model in Dangs district of Gujarat soon. “Saving people from snakebite is the most satisfying part of our effort. We have managed to save around 60 people in the past two years. That’s a major achievement for us,” says Louies.
Amte Animal Ark
‘Orphanage’ for young animals, home to more than 100 different species
The Bible describes Noah’s Ark as a vessel that not only saved Noah and his family, but also animals from the great flood. In the case of 69-year-old Prakash Amte, it’s his house that serves as the ark. The Amte Animal Ark in Hemalkasa region of Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra, is home to more than 100 different animal species, who live with the Amte family.
The animal orphanage-cum-rescue centre houses young wild animals like jackals, leopards, jungle cats, common palm civets, rhesus macaques, sloth bears, giant squirrels, rat-tail langurs, four-horned antelopes, blackbucks, rat snakes, Indian pythons, hyenas, crocodiles, monitor lizards, banded kraits, peacocks, spotted deer, porcupines, etc. The animals have their separate semi-natural enclosures.
Even though keeping animals in captivity is deemed illegal in India, the Amte Animal Ark is recognised by the state government as an animal rescue centre. Amte has ensured that they follow the guidelines dictating how much space every animal must get in an enclosure. He also has plans to expand the semi-natural enclosures. Amte says the animals that are capable of surviving in the wild are released into the jungle once they are old enough. “We have released some monkeys and snakes into the jungle because they can manage their food and prey now,” he says. Some animals have been domesticated.
Amte first visited the heavily forested area in 1970 with his father Baba Amte, the renowned social worker. The year 1973 was a turning point when Amte and his wife Mandakini saw members of the native Madia Gond tribe, a primitive tribe used to killing and eating wild animals, carrying a dead rhesus macaque. What caught Amte’s attention was a young offspring clinging to the macaque’s lifeless body. He requested the tribe members to hand it over to him. They agreed. His family started looking after the young rhesus macaque and soon the initiative started expanding. Amte managed to convince the tribe members to hand over any young animals they caught to him. In return, he decided to give the tribal members an alternative to their hard life. The Amtes introduced them to farming and cultivation. They also started a school for them in 1976 and still look after their medical needs and daily necessities. Thanks to their efforts, a lot of tribal children have gone on to become lawyers and doctors. More importantly, they now have sufficient food and don’t kill animals for food. “They don’t kill animals any more. They are focusing on farming, fruit and vegetable cultivation. Most of them are educated now and even go to bigger cities for work and education,” says Amte, adding, “The biggest problem in animal conservation is the constant decline of jungles and forest cover area. There is so much development and mining activity near jungles. This leaves a lot of animals confused and that is why they venture into civilian areas. In cases of man-animal conflict, no one gets angry when an animal is killed, but there is a huge furore when a human is injured.”
Paul Joynson Hicks & Tom Sullam
Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards
A competition that encourages people to click pictures of animals in a ‘comic’ way
Imagine a chuckling horse, a parliament of owls posing like the Beatles or a praying cat. The Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards (CWPA), a competition that encourages people to click pictures of animals in a ‘comic’ way, helps bring this imagination to life. Started by wildlife photographers Paul Joynson Hicks and Tom Sullam a little over two years ago, the competition aims to increase awareness about animal conservation. “We wanted a competition that appealed to everyone. It wasn’t driven by animal videos on the Web. Paul and I are based in Tanzania and photograph the wildlife, which is under serious threat of poaching,” says 42-year-old Sullam, competition director and chair of the judging panel.
But why comic photographs of animals, one wonders. “The more people know about wildlife, the more they will care about conservation. Positive humorous images can stay with people longer than hard-hitting images of animals that have been killed,” explains Sullam, adding, “The competition has so far attracted over 2,200 entries from 75 countries, but we estimate that approximately 300 million people have seen the images through various sources. We have a great following on Instagram (@comedywildlifephoto) and Facebook.”
There is no criteria for submitting entries other than the animal photographed must be in the wild and must not be harmed. Eight judges—wildlife experts, photographers, travel editors and comedians—score the images. The scores are collated at the end to decide the winning image. Prizes include a trophy, a one-week photography-led safari in Kenya and a Nikon camera.
Following the success of the CWPA, the founders have now launched the Comedy Pets Photography Award. The competition is free and open to people of all ages and nationalities, as well as pets, be it dogs, cats, lizards, horses or llamas. The winner of the funniest photo will win a £2,000 cash prize. The Comedy Pets Photography Award follows the same guidelines as the CWPA. “It is designed to celebrate our furry friends who play such an important role in our lives. But there is a more serious message at the heart of it. Whilst we are all looking forward to giggling at grinning pooches and guffawing at goofy hamsters, this is also a chance to promote the importance of pet and animal welfare,” says 44-year-old Hicks.