Kites vs. kite-birds & other species in the skies of India & Pakistan
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2006:
AHMEDABAD–As many as a million kites soared aloft over
Indian cities on January 15, 2006 as Hindus celebrated Makar
Sankranti, the Day of the Sun.
Festivals throughout India featured kite-fighting contests, in which
flyers tried to saw through each other’s strings.
Celebrity kite-fighters included Sonia Gandhi, president of
the ruling Congress Party, and recently retired former prime
minister and Bharatija Janata Party president Atal Bihari Vajpayee,
who met in Jaipur.
Everywhere kites rose through the air space occupied by
sidewalk and garden bird species such as sparrows and bulbuls, up
past ringnecked parakeets and house crows patrolling at treetop
height, on to baffle the kite-birds and vultures whose
congregations, circling on thermal currents, are often the first
sign that Indian airline pilots see of their destination cities,
while the cities themselves are still beyond the horizon.
Tens of thousands of temple-goers meanwhile sought to “make
merit” by purchasing wild-caught caged birds for ceremonial release,
or by throwing out seeds and crumbs for birds in temple squares.
Capturing wild birds for sale and release has been illegal in
India since the 1972 passage of the Wildlife Protection Act, but
local police rarely make enforcement a priority. The federal and
state forest departments do what they can, helped by activist groups
with limited powers to make citizens’ arrests.
A hint of the size of the bird release problem came on
Decmeber 22, 2005 when forest officers raided the Nakhas bird market
in Lucknow, rescuing 739 birds of 15 species, including endangered
black-necked cranes, hill mynas, and Lord Derby’s parakeets.
Bird release was practiced at sun festivals by the ancient
Egyptians, from whom some Brahmin Hindus believe they are descended.
The custom has also been followed by Jains from the beginning of
Indian written history, by Buddhists since the time of the Buddha
himself some 2,300 years ago, and by Muslims who obey Mohammed’s
injunction against keeping caged birds.
When a million kites fly just as hundreds of thousands of
dazed, dehydrated, frightened birds are let go, the result is a
bird rehabilitator’s worst nightmare.
But the timing is not the worst of it.
Fighter-kites are traditionally flown with cotton threads
that have been coated with a paste of glue and powdered glass.
Modern-ists may use nylon monofilament, equally dangerous to birds,
but only the traditional recipes are accepted in formal competition.
Historically, Indian and Pakistani kite-flyers made their
equipment. In recent years, however, as Indians and Pakistanis
have become more affluent and busier, sales of ready-made kites have
reportedly risen at the rate of 20% per year. Mass-produced
glass-coated threads are available.
More kites are flying, handled by less experienced people,
with surprisingly frequent deadly consequences to humans as well as
birds. In November 2005, for instance, in Lahore, Pakistan, a
10-year-old girl named Noor died from a slashed throat after a
glass-coated kite string dipped into the path of the motorbike she
was riding with her uncle.
A five-member panel of the Pakistan Supreme Court headed by
Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary reported in early December
2005 that more than 450 Pakistanis were killed in kite-related
accidents during the year, mostly by falling from rooftops, and
that most than 1,500 people had been killed, with 10,000 more
injured, since 2000. The panel called for restrictive laws.
Kite-flying peaks in Pakistan at Basant, celebrated in early
February. Basant festivals are prominent in the Punjab region,
divided between Pakistan and India, and in Multan, whose name means
“Land of Birds.”
The military government of Pakistan has since 1999 encouraged
Basant kite-flying, despite objections from Islamists who contend
that the holiday marks the birthday of a Hindu saint named Basanti
The Pakistan Supreme Court findings may be seen with
skepticism because of the political context, and because thousands
of human deaths have not been reported in India.
However, spot-checks of single-day bird tolls could project
to tens of thousands. The Jain Bird Hospital in Old Delhi handled 31
kite-injured birds just on Indian Independ-ence Day, for instance,
in August 2005.
In Vadodara, to the south, an organization called VCARE on
Makar Sankranti 2005 received 23 birds, but could save just four.
The Vadodara SPCA saved eight, director Shradda Nar told The Times
of India. The Gujarat SPCA in Vadodara, serving the oldest part of
the city, received about 20 birds, with possibly no survivors.
The Surat Nature Club took 61 bird distress calls on Makar
Sankranti 2005, spokesperson Darshan Desai told Bindu Shajan
Perappadan of The Hindu. Eight birds died; more than 30 required
wing amputations, and will end their lives in sanctuaries.
Help In Suffering, of Jaipur, fielded 10 mobile units who
rescued 117 birds during Makar Sankrani 2006, spokesperson Namrata
Tiwari told the Indo-Asian News Service.
“At least 25 birds died on the way while 92 were brought to
the centre,” Tiwari said. “After the initial treatment, 59 birds
were released while the remaining 33 were still in bad shape, with
Two other Jaipur animal rescue projects handled 87 birds
between them, of whom four died, Indo-Asia News reported.
The biggest program rescuing birds after kite holidays
appears to be that of the Animal Help Foundation of Ahmedabad, begun
in mid-2000 by then-recent university graduate Rahul Sehgal.
Animal Help also operates an ambitious Animal Birth Contol
program. A subsidiary, Animal Help in Emergencies And Disasters,
is the first dedicated animal disaster relief organization in India.
From founding, Animal Help has answered animal emergency
calls–which soon made kite-flying a focal concern. After Makar
Sankranti 2005, Animal Help received reports of at least 600 injured
birds, recounts Sehgal. Seven vehicles outfitted as bird ambulances
brought 450 avian victims to the newly expanded and renovated Animal
Help bird hospital. Among the hurt birds were black and white ibis,
combed ducks, crow-pheasants, peacocks, pigeons, kite-birds, and
About 80 birds died in Ahmedabad, despite the best efforts
of Animal Help veterinarians and 20 volunteers to save them.
“Our telephone lines were jammed during the peak flying
hours,” Sehgal told The Times of India. He hoped to be better
prepared for Makar Sankranti 2006, making use of the increasing
Animal Help stock of experience.
Over time, Sehgal hopes to amend the customs that cause so
many bird deaths and injuries. Preventive measures might include a
crack-down on bird sales for temple release, restrictions on
bird-feeding to avoid conflicts with kite festivals, and
restrictions on kite flying to avoid sites that especially attract
Most important, Sehgal says, “People need to stop using
glass-coated manja, and learn to fly kites on open grounds.”
Contact Help In Suffering c/o Maharani Farm, Durgapura,
Jaipur, Rajasthan 302018, India; 91-141-760803; fax