On Makar Sankranti, Independence Day, a sky full of kites becomes a death trap for birds

  • Every year around festivals like Makar Sankranti, when kites soar in the sky competing with each other, conservation organisations continue to rescue thousands of birds entangled or injured by these kite strings.

  • The National Green Tribunal has banned the use of Chinese manjha, a synthetic kite string coated in glass or metal, which is the part of the kite that causes injuries and deaths of birds, animals and even humans.

  • While the number of birds injured by kites seems to be reducing every year, conservationists recommend practices to reduce risks and ideally, stop mass kite flying.

By Manon Verchot

Chinese manjha — a synthetic kite string coated in glass or metal — was banned across India in 2017. But every year conservation organisations continue to rescue thousands of birds entangled or injured by these kite strings.

In 2018, 4,000 birds were rescued in Gujarat by the state forest department after the mass kite flying during the Makar Sankranti festival, forest department officials told the media last year. Most of these cases were reported in the city of Ahmedabad.

Sankranti, celebrated in January, is just one of the occasions throughout the year when people bring out their kites. During Independence Day in August, the skies once again are filled. And it’s the density of kites and strings that becomes dangerous for birds — the skies become a death trap. The most common victims are pigeons and kites, which frequent heavily populated areas. Many other species, like parrots and endangered vultures, are also at risk.

The National Green Tribunal ban on glass-coated kite string was supposed to curb these injuries, which have occurred for decades. The judgment came a year after two toddlers and one motorcyclist had their throats slit by kite string in Delhi around the time of Independence Day in 2016. And these weren’t the first such incidents of manjha-related deaths. In 2015, a five-year-old died on his way to school in Vadodara. The year before that, another five-year-old was killed in Jaipur by the Chinese manjha.

Though the NGT judgment banned manjha that caused these fatal injuries, exceptions were made for manjha that can be considered biodegradable. That included manjhamade with isabgol husk, wood powder or gumchi (Indian liquorice).

 On Makar Sankranti, Independence Day, a sky full of kites becomes a death trap for birds

The density of kites and strings during he festival of Makar Sankranti becomes dangerous for birds — the skies become a death trap. REUTERS

“Since all these ingredients are natural/herbs/grains/leaves they are fully biodegradable. Furthermore, they do not lend any strength to the cotton string so as to cause injuries to anyone, including birds and animals,” the judgment stated.

Kite flying is a tradition during Makar Sankranti and other cultural festivals where kites, usually made from light weight paper and bamboo, are flown and people engage in competition to ‘cut’ down other kites. The strings often contain abrasives like glass powder, for easily cutting the opponent’s kite. Cities like Ahmedabad in Gujarat and Jaipur in Rajasthan are among the most popular destinations for the kite flying festival.

Partial manjha ban can still hurt the birds

Cotton strings are considered safer than nylon not just because they are biodegradable, but because they break more easily. The reality, though, is that any form of kite flying hurts birds, according to Wasim Akram, manager of special projects at Wildlife SOS.

Wildlife SOS, a conservation organisation, received two calls to rescue birds injured by kites in Delhi in the week before Sankranti this year. When the organisation receives these calls, they bring the birds to their hospitals.“The bird does get injured if something obstructs its path,” said Akram. Plain cotton strings, which are legal, can disorient birds and make them fall from great heights, he added. “Birds are fragile.”

For the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India, who brought the issue of manjha to the National Green Tribunal, the partial manjha ban is still a problem.

“Even after nearly two years of the ban, human and bird injuries and deaths have continued,” said Nikunj Sharma, associate director of policy at PETA India. “We continue to work to see all forms of manjha banned as they are all equally dangerous.”

‘Biodegradable’ manjha aside, enforcing the nylon and synthetic manjha ban is a challenge. The string is still found in markets across the country, conservation groups say. For birds, this can result in deep cuts or even loss of their wings.

Injuries don’t just happen when the kites are up in the air. When kites are abandoned or get stuck in trees, birds can get their feet caught up in the strings. In some cases, they lose their entire foot. “The birds can still fly, so we’re not able to catch them [to help them],” said Akram. “We can only watch them suffer.”

In many cases, the birds don’t survive, according to PETA India reports.

Awareness, training rescuers and using safer manjhas are some solutions

Beyond campaigning for the government to enforce synthetic manjha bans, all conservation organisations can do is prepare for Sankranti and Independence Day. Every year, they know they’re likely to get many cases. Part of that preparation involves education campaigns so people understand the dangers of kite flying.

“It’s an education campaign that should happen in schools, because children are the main consumers,” said Geeta Seshamani, co-founder of Friendicoes SECA, an animal rescue society. According to Seshamani, it’s kids who convince their parents to buy synthetic manjha. If children are educated about the dangers, there wouldn’t be as much demand.

PETA India collaborated with students in Ahmedabad to hand over kites in exchange for games that won’t hurt birds.

Some conservation organisations also train potential rescuers. The Wildlife Trust of India and the International Fund for Animal Welfare brought together 80 members of their Emergency Relief Network, which includes wildlife veterinarians, forest officials, biologists and volunteers, for an avian rescue and rehabilitation workshop, just days before Sankranti.

“We’ve been conducting a lot of bird treatment camps since the last seven years now in cities like Ahmedabad and Jaipur,” one of the workshop organisers said. “These are two cities where there is a maximum number of kites.”

Meetings like this are important for rescue teams to compare notes and share best practices, said Shudhanta Sood, of WTI. Especially because there are certain factors rescuers have to be wary of. “One example is when you’re rescuing a bird stuck in manjha, you have to be very careful. [Manjha] can even cut through [bird] bones.” she added. According to Sood, some of the worst injuries to birds can happen when rescuers try to untangle them from manjha.

The same advice applies to the general public. Though people may mean well trying to help an injured bird, they may do more harm than good.

“If [people] know how to rescue the bird safely, or it’s on the ground, they can take it,” said Sood. Otherwise, she recommends people call a helpline. Many organisations, including WTI, Wildlife SOS, and Friendicoes have helplines for emergencies like these.

Last year, WTI assisted centres that rescued 1600 birds in Rajasthan and Gujarat, all casualties of kite flying. Not all of them survived. Some were permanently damaged and require lifetime care after having their wings amputated.

This year, around the recent Makar Sankranti festival in Rajasthan, WTI and IFAW cared for pelicans, kites and pigeons tangled in manjha. One of the pigeons lost a wing entirely.

Hope remains as fewer cases of bird casualties being reported

Still, some conservationists are hopeful that things are getting better. “There has been some change, people are more aware now,” said Akram, of Wildlife SOS. The forest department is also increasingly putting pressure on officials to enforce the NGT ban, he added.

The Gujarat forest department also reported an improvement. The 4,000 birds they rescued in January 2018, were half the number from the previous year where they had rescued 8,000 birds, they told the media.

In some parts of the country, like Delhi, there were hardly any kite flying festivities at all during Sankranti this year.

So does this signal a change? Not necessarily. Kite sellers say people will buy kites in time for Independence Day, and that sales will pick up from March, around the Holi festival.

And even if people opt for cotton instead of synthetic during Independence Day, the only way birds and humans alike will be fully safe, experts say, is if people stop kite flying altogether. “We recommend people to play safer games instead of fighting/cutting kites,” said Sharma, of PETA India.

Groups like PETA India and WTI understand that it’s not always possible to stop people from wanting to take part in kite flying festivals, so they have some tips to try and minimise the risk. They recommend people opt for ‘saddi’, or plain, cotton with no additional coating. They also recommend people avoid flying kites in the morning or evening, when birds are more actively flying around.

The advice is particularly relevant during Sankranti, which falls around the time when migratory birds pass through north India. That includes species like the greylag goose, bar-headed goose, the common teal and the northern shoveler which fly all the way from north and central Asia.

Conservationists hope that if mass kite flying won’t stop, then at least the damage can be minimised.

This article originally appeared on Mongabay-India and has been republished under the Creative Commons licence. Mongabay is a non-profit provider of conservation and environmental science news.

Updated Date: Jan 16, 2019 17:50:53 IST