Thousands of birds, including species like the Critically Endangered white-backed vulture, Endangered Egyptian vulture and Sarus crane, suffer terrible injuries during Uttarayan and the International Kite-Flying Festival in the Gujarati city of Ahmadabad, India.
Birds are caught up in the cutting string, which is covered with crushed glass, causing severed wings and broken legs. Each January since 2013, WVI has sent specialist avian vet, Johanna Storm, to help a local animal welfare organisation, the Jivdaya Charitable Trust, treat thousands of affected birds. While she is there Johanna is also able to give invaluable hands-on training to local Indian vets.
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Severed wings are common as birds fly through crowds of kites, while others become hopelessly tangled when trying to roost or nest and end up hanging upside down, facing a slow and painful death.
The story so far
Every January, the Indian state of Gujarat celebrates Uttarayan – the end of winter and the coming of spring – with displays of kite flying. The biggest event happens in the city of Ahmadabad. Here thousands take part in the spectacular International Kite-Flying Festival. Among the festivities, there are numerous kite-fighting events, where the objective is to bring down your opponent’s kite. For this, special string which has been coated with ground glass, or lethally tough but thin plastic string, is used. These fighter-kite lines are particularly dangerous for birds, thousands of which are killed or injured each year. Typically, birds flying through fields of kites are cut by the strings, which most often partially sever wings. Many die of shock following injury.
In addition, all kinds of kites and strings get entangled in trees and other places and cause problems for birds for months afterwards. The legs and wings of birds that roost, nest or simply fly past can become entangled, leaving animals hanging upside down and often facing a slow and miserable death.
Pigeons are the most commonly affected bird (with 1400 casualties in 2013), but owls, waterfowl, and, ironically, kites are also involved. Over 600 birds of prey have been recorded among the casualties, including the Critically Endangered white-backed vulture and the Endangered Egyptian vulture. The black kite is one of the most commonly injured birds of prey, while the Vulnerable Sarus crane is also known to be a victim.
Local animal welfare charity, the Jivdaya Charitable Trust (www.jivdaya.org), sets up rescue camps around the city and runs a makeshift surgery for injured birds during the festival but struggles to cope with the high numbers and severity of injuries. Indian vets have little training in avian medicine and none in non-domestic species. JCT invited WVI to help with the latter.
WVI sent out our specialist avian surgeon, Johanna Storm. She has provided surgical and post-operative expertise, training local vets in the process, since 2012. Although Johanna wasn’t able to be there herself for the 2016 clinic, WVI sent two veterinary nurses to help local staff.
The temporary clinic is very effectively run by the Jivdaya Charitable Trust. Birds are brought in by the public or by mobile ambulance from the rescue camps around the city. They are checked in and a sock is put over their head to calm them.
WVI introduced the giving of subcutaneous fluids at this point as the birds often arrive very dehydrated. Hydration starts the birds on to the road to recovery and enables them to cope with surgery much better.
The birds are put in labelled baskets, with their admission notes close by, and await surgery. Following treatment, they are wrapped in towels while recovering from anaesthesia, and then moved into small animal crates or special aviaries to recuperate. The aim is then to release them back into the wild.
Nevertheless, survival rates could be significantly improved further, particularly for birds of prey, and training of JCT staff and volunteers is vital to achieving this goal.
The challenge so far
Every year, thousands of birds are brought to the Jivdaya Charitable Trust’s makeshift surgical centre, which runs for several weeks in January, to coincide with the International Kite-Flying Festival. Typically, 1000 birds are seen in a week. Some mammals are also usually among the casualties.
During her visits, WVI vet, Johanna Storm, has been struck both by the number of birds requiring treatment and the severity of their injuries. At the same time, she has been enormously impressed by the dedication and professionalism of the staff and volunteers of the Jivdaya Charitable Trust.
However, Indian vets don’t tend to specialise in particular species, and there is little training in wildlife medicine. The result is that there are no local bird specialists available to perform surgery and treatment. Apart from the need for training in surgical techniques, better understanding of post-operative care and the development of more suitable facilities are now essential if the survival rate for birds in the future is to improve. (In 2012, the survival rate of non-pigeons treated by the centre was 71%, in 2015 it was 97%.)
This is particularly critical for birds of prey and the larger waterfowl, like pelicans, who have had successful surgery but need careful rehabilitation if they are to survive back in the wild.
What WVI is doing to help
In 2013, 2014 and 2015 we sent WVI vet and avian specialist, Johanna Storm, to help with the Jivdaya Charitable Trust’s temporary clinic during the Ahmadabad International Kite-Flying Festival. Each year Johanna shared her considerable surgical expertise and helped with post-operative care for the thousands of birds coming through the door of the clinic. Although Johanna wasn’t able to attend herself in 2016, WVI sent two veterinary nurses who were able to carry on her work.
WVI considers training and empowering local vets to be absolutely essential and we do this as an integral part of our visits. In 2014, for example, Johanna Storm helped with on-the-job training of around ten local vets during her time with the Jivdaya Charitable Trust. Other helpers also benefit from her expertise – in 2013 for instance these included 25 veterinary students, several human doctors and surgeons, and a further 50 non-medical volunteers.
WVI wants to see an improvement in the overall survival rates of birds brought into the clinic. We have a special interest in birds of prey and waterfowl, where the survival rate is not as high as it could be. The overall survival rate in 2012 was 66% and 71% in 2013. In 2013, 1005 birds of prey survived surgery.
At the moment, our particular focus is on looking at ways of helping the Jivdaya Charitable Trust improve post-operative care for the birds treated at the centre. Good post-operative care is key to getting birds fit and well enough to be released. One area we are presently concerned with is improving the aviaries into which the injured birds are released for rehabilitation.
What progress is being made
Over the last few years, WVI avian specialist, Johanna Storm, has not only helped with surgery and post-operative care for thousands of birds during her annual visits to the Jivdaya Charitable Trust’s temporary clinic, but in the process has given dozens of local vets and volunteers on-the-job training in relevant techniques.
Johanna has helped improve protocols and procedures for dealing with the birds, through triage, surgery, recovery and rehabilitation. She has advised on rehabilitation facilities, with a particular emphasis on how endangered species are treated, and has been able to transport and demonstrate essential equipment.
Johanna has also provided advice on nutrition. Many of the birds will not have eaten or drunk for a long time before being brought in. Their strength is very low and correct nutrition is vital to their recovery. Fresh meat isn’t an option locally for religious reasons, so Johanna has usually taken a few alternatives with her.
Two veterinary nurses sent out by WVI in 2016 were able to report back on considerable improvements in procedures thanks to Johanna’s previous work.
Ahmadabad is just one of many cities across Gujarat to hold such kite-flying festivals.
WVI hopes that the help we have been able to give will be shared with those tackling similar problems in the other kite-flying centres of Gujarat. We believe that by providing training and expertise, WVI is helping to fill a gap in avian veterinary expertise which currently exists across the Indian subcontinent.
Partners in the Field
WVI is extremely grateful to the corporate supporters who have given us quality specialist equipment and made our presence on the ground more effective as a result:
- Millpledge Veterinary (2013, 2014 & 2015)
- Meadows Animal Health (2013, 2014 & 2015)
- Freelance Surgical Ltd (2015)
- Lafeber (2015)
- Henry Schein Animal Health (2013 & 3014)
- Etihad Airways (air ticket for WVI’s avian expert in 2013 & 2014)
- Veterinary Instrumentation (2013)
- Vetronics Services (2013, 2016)
- Pennine Healthcare (2013, 2014, 2015 & 2016)
- Animalcare (2013)
We are also extremely grateful to the Jean Sainsbury Animal Welfare Fund for awarding us grants in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
WVI’s over all aim is to improve the overall survival rates of birds that are brought in (overall 66% in 2012, 71% in 2013), and in particular the birds of prey which was improved to 1005 surviving surgery.
In January 2013 the following companies donated equipment:
- Henry Schein Animal Health,
- Veterinary Instrumentation,
- Vetronics Services,
- Millpledge Vet Ltd,
- Penine Healthcare,
- Meadows Animal Healthcare,
- and of course Etihad Airways for getting her there.
Financial contributions came from The Jean Sainsbury Animal Welfare Fund and from the many individuals who bought raffle tickets.
In 2014, Johanna aims to improve the post operative care which is key to getting the birds as well and strong as possible before they are released.The birds will not have eaten or drunk for a long time before being brought. Their strength will be very low and nutrition is key during this phaseof recovery. Fresh meat is not available on site for religious reasons so Johanna has taken a few alternatives with her.
As well as improving protocols in dealing with these birds, on the job surgery and treatment training, WVI vet, Johnanna, will advise on how to improve Jivdaya Charitable Trust’s rehabilitation facilities for birds, particularly the more unusual (endangered) species.
Expert WVI contribution and ongoing support is the first step towards filling a gap in avian expertise across the Indian continent.