They also phoned the Conservator of Forests. He was unaware of the situation but offered assurance that Forest Department officials would visit the island on Monday, April 16th, since the next days were public holidays.
Not satisfied with this response, one of the birders contacted the Deputy Conservator of Forests in whose jurisdiction the islands were located. He, too, said that the earliest he could send someone would be Monday. The birders felt frustrated, as their sense of urgency did not seem to be fully shared.
Ultimately, they felt that their case needed public support, and they persuaded a local newspaper to publish the news in its editions for the state of Maharashtra on April 15th. When Monday evening came, the birders discovered that the forest authorities still had not left for the island. In the meantime, they received a phone call from a Niwati-Medha fisherman informing them that a gang of about ten poachers had landed on the rocks that afternoon. The fisherman had watched the video in the village and decided to make the phone call on his own initiative. The newspaper had further convinced him of the urgency of the birders' efforts.
Alarmed, the birders contacted the Deputy Conservator of Forests againmercifully he was still in his office at 9 p.m. He promised to dispatch a couple of men to the rocks the next day. He was advised that since there were about ten poachers, a larger group of armed forest guards would be necessary. Early the next morning, the birders also contacted the Coast Guard in Bombay, who agreed to send a helicopter and a boat if necessary.
On April 17 at 6 a.m., 15 range forest officers arrived at the rocks. They caught five poachers, equipped with modern rappelling gear, in possession of six bags of bird nests.
Subsequently, they removed the scaffolding and initiated the process of declaring the rocks a protected area and the family to which the swiftlets belongApodidaeas protected.
It was learned during the investigation that the poachers were mere collectors. Based on their information, a key operator was arrested in Trichy in south India about 932 miles from the location of the caves. He was reported to have said that there was no market for the bird nests in India and that these were collected by agents from the Far East. This gives an indication of how widespread the nexus of poachers and exploiters of nature and wildlife is, and what those involved in conservation have to contend with.
This incident shows that it is possible for amateur birders and active concerned citizens to make significant contributions to the cause of conservation. The fact that a fisherman from the small hamlet decided to inform the birders of the arrival of poachers attests to the importance of spreading environmental awareness among local people. Perhaps by working together, we can save the Indian edible-nest swiftlets for future generations.
Jagdeep S. Chhokar, Ph.D., is a member of the Indian Bird Conservation Network, a life member of the Bombay Natural History Society, and professor and dean at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, India. Satish A. Pande, M.D., has published a number of books and articles on birds and ecology-related issues. Vishwas Katdare and Ram Mone are active members of Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra, a conservation organization.
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