Almost every report of a wild animal being rescued, be it an alligator in Thane or the Leith’s softshell turtle from a drain, an organisation that stays at the forefront of the rescue operations with the forest department is city-based NGO Resqink Association for Wildlife Welfare (RAWW). Its founder Pawan Sharma is also a conservationist and wildlife warden in Thane. Here, he shares insights on illegal wildlife trade in Mumbai, challenges in rescue ops of distressed and displaced animals and birds and aspects of human-animal conflict in urban areas.
Q. What role does RAWW play in protecting wildlife?
RAWW mainly works in Mumbai and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), which are urban wildlife hotspots and have some of the most unique and amazing species that have survived and evolved over the years. Our major areas of work and focus are on wildlife rescues and human-wildlife conflict mitigation tasks.
Q. What’s the scope of wildlife rescue in a city like Mumbai?
Urban landscapes share space with forests, lakes, rivers and even the sea. Hence we find a lot of animals, reptiles and birds being stranded or displaced. There’s also the issue of wildlife trade and smuggling of reptiles and birds. On an average, we have been rescuing, rehabilitating, treating and fostering 1,200-1,500 animals in a year since 2013.
Q. Is illegal trade and smuggling of exotic animals still prevalent via Mumbai?
The numbers have come down only marginally in the last few years. Earlier, these cases went undetected. However, they are still prevalent in Mumbai and MMR. In 2014, we rescued over 400 spotted terrapins. In 2018, over 700 tortoises were rescued by us and repatriated to their native land after a DNA test to determine their origin. Illegal wildlife trade is one of the top five crimes in the world. Mumbai is used either as a market or a transit spot.
Q. What kind of awareness should be raised to stop such trade?
There is a huge demand for exotic animals in urban areas like Mumbai. Anything banned is always in demand. Some people buy and keep these species for good luck and the others for superstitious reasons. Some buy them for consumption and others to keep them as pets. Smuggling is another reason. We have been writing in to the government to frame regulations and make these activities punishable under law.
Q. Incidents of abandoned pets have been a big issue, which seems to have increased during the pandemic…
People buy exotic animals as pets to show off, sometimes even because their kids demand them. These pets become difficult to maintain when they grow up. Many find the maintenance unaffordable, which results in abandoning them. Many of these exotic species are threats to native animals as well. The majority of these are imported and we don’t really know if they are vaccinated and might be carriers of potential diseases.
Q. Are there enough rescue, rehabilitation and transit facilities in Mumbai?
There are not enough spaces for such animals. There is one rescue centre at Sanjay Gandhi National Park; however, it can only cater to leopards and a few herbivores like deer. Then there is a transit centre at Shilphata; it is very far from the city limits. Besides, there is a transit facility for marine turtles at Airoli. We need at least three to four facilities across the eastern and western suburbs.
Q. Mumbai is known for snake-human conflict. How can one mitigate it?
On the one hand, people in India consider snakes as gods. On the other, when they encounter them, the first response is to kill. In the past few years, number of snake killing incidents have reduced due to awareness. People know that there are snake friends/rescuers. Contacts are available on the internet.