By Mrinalini Shinde:
Last week, the flash floods in Gujarat which killed over fifty people, also resulted in the deaths of ten endemic Asiatic Lions, and over six hundred Blue Bulls (Nilgai) in the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary, near Amreli, which happens to be worst hit by the flood. Although floods are not new to the region and to the resident wildlife, the disaster throws into focus the tragic reality that nature strikes indiscriminately, and animals, being extremely vulnerable suffer from severe casualties.
It could be argued that in situations when there is grave threat to human life, rescue operations would necessarily be focused on people, especially in light of the complicated expertise and machinery required to carry out animal rescue and relocation. However, it is necessary to evaluate the immense loss of fauna caused by natural disasters. Also as human activity continues to upset climate cycles and seismic activity, it is crucial to acknowledge and address the fact that our actions affect species beyond our own.
Wild animals, most of the time possess not only uncanny senses which warn them against impending disasters, but also act on their self reservation instinct, by going towards elevation and shelter. For example, most of the wildlife remained safe in the 2004 tsunami, while humans perished. However, when we domesticate animals or put them in zoos, we make them dependent on us for care and support, as their natural instincts go untested and underdeveloped. Therefore, in case of natural disasters, the responsibility on humans to not abandon these animals, increases manifold.
Zoological parks and enclosures must take into account the possibilities of fires, earthquakes and floods, if they are to ensure the safety of the animals and of surrounding people. Adequate emphasis on disaster adaptation must be supplied while creating the infrastructure. This is in order to avoid the tragedies like that in Tbilisi, Georgia earlier this month, where heavy rainfall and flooding destroyed the city zoo, leading to the escape of tigers, lions, bears, wolves and a hippopotamus. One of the escaped tigers attacked a man near a city warehouse leading to his death following which the tiger was shot by the police. One can only imagine the pitiable plight of the animals who suffer through these disasters, and its consequences on the safety of the public.
In 2010, the Kund Park in Pakistan suffered greatly in the flash floods, losing all its wildlife of about a hundred endangered species including two leopards, 70 deer and 24 bears. In 2011, the earthquake in Japan led to the loss of around 110,000 Laysan Albatross chicks and around two thousand adult birds, along with thousands of Bonin Pterels and fish. Animals are undoubtedly the invisible casualties of natural disasters and it’s time people apart from zoologist and conservationists acknowledge this fact.
As for pets, different people respond to disasters differently. On one hand, many people might prioritize their own safety, and try coming back for their pets later. This can lead to animal shelters overflowing with abandoned animals; the pressure also leading to the euthanisation of some. On the other hand, especially in places where people depend heavily on livestock, owners have been known to refuse being rescued unless their cattle is rescued as well, thus hampering rescue operations, as was observed after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
Speaking of rescue operations, it is also important to applaud the efforts of the many organisations and task forces across the world, who take on the onus of protecting animals from natural disasters upon themselves. The International Fund for Animal Welfare, for example, dispatches teams to natural disaster sites exclusively for the purpose of rescuing resident animal life. Amongst many inspiring success stories, are those of rescuing over 2800 animals during Superstorm Sandy, extensive relief to cattle and open billed storks during Cyclone Phailin in Andhra Pradesh, and the rescuing of wild and domestic animals when the volcanoes erupted in Indonesia last year. Other notable organisations engaged in these efforts include The Human Society of the United States and Animal League. Close to home, the Wildlife Trust of India conducts extensive work and research on the rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals in the event of natural disaster.
In a country where human mortality is so high, and vulnerability to disasters is extreme and frequent, it is understandable if our government machinery focuses on saving human lives exclusively. However it is also crucial that we do not ignore species besides ourselves in our plans because the consequences on animals too are catastrophic. Like Noah built the ark to ensure the protection of all species from the flood, we must plan our wildlife sanctuaries, parks, zoos and shelters to ensure that our animals can adapt to natural disasters as well.