When the scorching sun becomes unbearable, the black kites around our office take respite at our glass covered office windows. If someone spots it, it is a ritual to tell the whole office about it. At occasions, we all are left in awe of the beauty of this raptor as we get a peek of it. The kite then takes a flight, looking majestic as ever, leaving us all wondering what it must be like to fly above us all and measure the sky with your wings. However, a brief visit to Wildlife Rescue in Wazirabad tells us a different story. It tells us the extent of vulnerability of these birds as they lie there in cardboard boxes, injured, struggling to even get up.
As we made our way through the narrow lanes of Wazirabad to the Wildlife Rescue's work space, we were welcomed by the shrill whinnying of a black kite. We both looked at each other with equal fascination and then it went on with its usual stroll around the office, constantly trying to take a flight but repeatedly failing. From further inside the office came sounds of several other birds, lying there, recovering from their injuries. As Mohd Saud, the president of Wildlife Rescue walks in, he tells us that these birds have been kept here under special care. Salik Rehman, Saud’s cousin, spends the majority of his day at the office, looking after these birds. This is when a kid from the neighbourhood boy interrupts our conversation to bring a small ill chick under the care of Saud.
Saud tells us that ever since he and his elder brother, Nadeem Shehzad were kids, their father would take them to feed these birds of prey. Thus, these birds were an intrinsic part of their childhood. They spent their childhood years in Shahganj, Old Delhi, where they rescued small animals like kittens and pigeons. It was around when Saud was 11-12 years old and Nadeem was 14-15 years old that they found an injured black kite and decided to take it to a very well known hospital in Old Delhi, Charity Bird Hospital. However, the hospital employees refused to treat the bird because of its dietary needs. They got a similar response from every further hospital they knocked the doors of. By the end of the day, with a heavy heart, they decided to put the bird back where they found it and the next day, it was gone.
They’d come across such injured birds every now and then but knew that no one would help them. Until one day, in 2003, they decided to take on the responsibility of taking care of such injured raptors upon themselves and brought an injured kite home. “There was a vet in our connection and we took that bird to him. However, because of the nature of injuries, that bird couldn’t fly again and stayed with us for twelve years. We started bringing injured birds of prey under our care regularly after that. People around us also started bringing injured birds to us. Some of them flew while some of them couldn’t. However, these birds sure became a big part of our lives.” After almost seven years of this, the brothers decided to register their charitable trust in 2010 by the name ‘Wildlife Rescue’.
While reminiscing the earlier days of Wildlife Rescue, Saud recalls, “A small girl came to us with an injured bird. I asked her if she wasn’t afraid of it, to which she said that if she had remained afraid, she couldn’t have saved its life. It made me so happy and full of hope. I could almost see myself in her.”
Saud tells us that one of the foremost cause for the injuries to such birds is kite flying. It is rather ironic that the glass covered thread used to give flight to the paper kites in the sky takes away the flight of a living bird, sometimes, forever. He says, “On Independence Day and on several such occasions, kite flying is a very popular activity. However, what people don’t realise is how hazardous it is for the birds out there in the sky. We have now tied up with several bird hospitals across Delhi. They now send any case of injured birds of prey to us. Along with that, we have also tied up with the Forest department and Fire Department of Delhi regarding the same.”
Putting forth a sad reality before us, Saud tells us that while they received only around 500 cases from 2003 to 2010, in the recent years, they treat around 2500-2600 birds every year. Citing the cause for the same, Saud says that the population of the birds of prey have increased in the national capital, owing to the big slaughterhouses across Delhi which provide the food for these scavengers. However, because they consume similar food everyday, their nutritional needs remain incomplete, causing rising cases of malnutrition in such birds. It has also led to an increase in cases of Metabolic Bone Disease in chicks. Cases of road accidents of such birds are also getting frequent as the birds, while on roads, are extremely unsafe. Another big reason for injury in birds are the fights they have among themselves during the nesting and breeding season.
With climate change making headlines and the recent rise in the mercury in Delhi, I asked Saud how this environment is affecting birds. To this, he says, “Because of the rise in temperatures we recently witnessed, the cases of dehydration in birds doubled this season.” While talking about how the bad quality of air is affecting birds, he tells us that it adds to the cases of heavy breathing in birds, but no major harm has been highlighted. Apart from this, cases of electric shocks and burns during Diwali are also common. This is how human activities are directly affecting the health of these precious birds. We call them precious because Saud tells us they help keep the city clean.
Laying emphasis on why these birds of prey are important for the environment, Saud says, “They eat what extra flesh is thrown away by the slaughterhouses. If not for them, it could give rise to a lot of diseases. In a way, they keep our health in check and maintain balance in the environment. Thus, they play a crucial ecological role.”
Apart from kites, the place is an abode for several other birds as well, ranging from owls, hawks, vultures, falcons to migratory birds like Black headed gulls, cranes, Marsh Harriers and Eurasian Hawks.
Saud takes us to the terrace of his home where hundreds of birds reside, some local, some exotic in an enclosure with an opening in a corner. Saud says, “We call this soft release. When a bird gets better enough to take a flight, they are free to go through the opening. If they don’t get food or water in the wild, they are also free to come back for a meal. Here live all the birds who are in their recovering phase. In our office, we keep the birds who need special care.” While giving us a tour of the birds’ abode, he takes out three kites to take them to the office, telling us that because of dehydration, they can’t open their eyes and thus, they need special attention.
In the basement of the same building, in an almost claustrophobic space, where they run operations of their manufacturing business, lies a small cabin which they use for the treatment of birds. It draws another irony that a creature, meant to fly high in the skies, is, in a way, given its life and flight back in such an enclosed space, beneath the ground.
Throwing light on yet another sad truth, Saud tells us that the habitat of birds is depleting with urbanisation of the city. He says, “Earlier, the houses were designed in such a way that there was space for the birds to come and sit. They could even breed in the small windows of the old homes. However, with rapid urbanisation, there is almost no habitat left for these birds. People complain that house sparrows have become a rare sight in the city. Just 500 m from here is Yamuna river, where hundreds of those birds reside because they get their favorable habitat there.”
A recent documentary, ‘All that breathes’ based on these brothers and their work, is garnering acclaim and lauds across the world. After shining bright in the Sundance film festival earlier this year, the film was recently premiered at Cannes Film Festival, 2022 and bagged the L'OEil d'Or or the Golden Eye award. While we asked Saud how this will help their cause, he tells us that this will enable international recognition and thus, international funding. He further tells me that until a few years back, somewhere around 2015, around 95 percent of the total cost of the Wildlife Rescue Operations would go out of the brothers’ pocket. In recent years, they have received several sponsorships. Saud hopes to get more international support and funding in future for the sustainability of their initiative.
As we asked him what he would like the people of Delhi to do differently to help these birds, he said, “Please forbid kite flying. What is a leisure activity to you can be lethal for birds. Apart from that, if you have imprisoned any bird, please release it. The bird is meant to fly in the sky, don’t take away its freedom.”
In the future, Saud hopes that in India, more research will be done on bird surgeries and that there will be more avian vets to treat the birds, especially the raptors.