KATIE STACEY

Two brothers are fight­ing to save black kites from their in­juries in Delhi, In­dia. Katie Stacey met them to find out how

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Katie is a writer, cam­er­a­woman, na­ture en­thu­si­ast and con­ser­va­tion am­bas­sador. Here, she shares a fea­ture story with pho­tog­ra­pher Luke Massey on the black kites in Delhi, In­dia.

The roads be­come nar­rower as I ven­ture deeper into the labyrinth, dodg­ing au­torick­shaws, school­child­ren, feral dogs and moun­tains of rub­bish. A cow steps out into the road and the sur­round­ing driv­ers lean on their horns – an ac­tion as nat­u­ral as breath­ing in the con­gested streets of Wazirabad, north Delhi.

My des­ti­na­tion isn’t easy to find. I ask a chai-wal­lah stirring a bat­tered vat of spiced tea for direc­tions.

He spits a salvo of blood-red be­tel-nut paan as he nods to­wards a nearby al­ley. At the far end, another man pulls chick­ens from a cramped cage and chops off their heads. I in­ter­rupt his butch­ery to ask: “Is this Wildlife Res­cue?” He nods grumpily to­wards a stair­case.

Af­ter a quick phone call a smil­ing man ap­pears in the door­way. “Don’t mind the neigh­bours,” he says. “They com­plain that since we’ve ar­rived there are many more black kites – and they poo ev­ery­where!” He in­tro­duces him­self as Mo­hammed Saud, and takes me up to meet his elder brother, Nadeem Shahzad. The two of them have been work­ing to­gether as the self-ap­pointed saviours of Delhi’s never-end­ing stream of in­jured black kites.

The brothers have a his­tory of ac­tivism, hav­ing long bat­tled the il­le­gal wildlife trade. Thanks to their ef­forts in help­ing to put crim­i­nal deal­ers be­hind bars they’ve re­ceived nu­mer­ous death threats. Their work with black kites be­gan in 2003 when an in­jured bird came into their care.

At that time, Mo­hammed and Nadeem had lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence with kites, so they took the blood­ied bird to a lo­cal bird hospi­tal. There they hit an un­ex­pected: staff at the Jain hospi­tal couldn’t take in the rap­tor be­cause they are strictly veg­e­tar­ian and their re­li­gious be­liefs pre­vent them from killing an an­i­mal to feed another. It quickly be­came clear that there was nowhere for birds like these to re­cu­per­ate. So that’s when the brothers stepped in.

ON-THE-JOB TRAIN­ING

Ini­tially, the es­tab­lished wildlife char­i­ties didn’t think the brothers were up to the job – they had no for­mal vet­eri­nary train­ing and only a small ter­race at their home in Chawri Bazar in Old Delhi on which to house the birds. But Mo­hammed and Nadeem have proved their crit­ics wrong.

By watch­ing their neigh­bour Babu Khal­ifa, a fa­mous

ka­bootar baaz (keeper and trainer of pi­geons), tend­ing his wounded birds they learned to su­ture wounds – and as the num­ber of black kites brought to them rose to more than 2,000 each year, they quickly built up prac­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence.

I ask what’s caus­ing so many in­juries and Nadeem seems sur­prised by my naïve ques­tion. The an­swer to him is ob­vi­ous: kites, of course. Not other rap­tors, but the toys, which are re­spon­si­ble for 70 per cent of the wounded birds that the brothers see. “They’re be­ing

As the num­ber of kites brought to them rose to more than 2,000 each year, they quickly built up ex­pe­ri­ence.

maimed by the glass-coated string [called man­jha] used for com­pet­i­tive kite­fly­ing,” says Mo­hammed. “And the new Chi­nese metal-coated string slices through birds’ bod­ies like a knife.”

Among lines of colour­ful wash­ing, satel­lite dishes and peo­ple re­lax­ing in the In­dian win­ter sun, the brothers’ rooftop re­hab cen­tre is a unique sight. It con­sists of two cages – a small, dark one for the owls and newly ad­mit­ted birds, and a larger, half-cov­ered fenced area where birds con­tinue their re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion with a ‘soft’ re­lease. Dur­ing my visit the list of in­mates in­cludes 100 kites, four Egyp­tian vul­tures, a painted stork and a fish owl, all sport­ing large white bandages and a few nasty red gashes.

Dur­ing the breed­ing sea­son the tally can in­crease to 300 birds. In 2015, 400 fledglings were treated in just over two months. These are po­ten­tially over­whelm­ing num­bers for two men whose day job is mak­ing bath­room ac­ces­sories.

But this is the brothers’ pas­sion. They don’t see the work as a bur­den. “It’s in­ter­est­ing that 20-30 per cent of the fledglings brought in are suf­fer­ing from metabolic bone dis­ease,” ob­serves Nadeem, point­ing to a few of his pa­tients. “You can see that some have white beaks, in­di­cat­ing that they’re suf­fer­ing from mal­nu­tri­tion.”

POOR DI­ETS AND PRE­CAR­I­OUS FLIGHTPATHS

I’d seen ev­i­dence of the birds’ poor diet the pre­vi­ous day on a visit to the rub­bish dump at Ghazipur, the city’s vast land­fill site where rag-pick­ers, dogs, birds and live­stock eke out a liv­ing sift­ing through the moun­tain of refuse.

Here, the black kite – the old world’s most com­mon rap­tor and a species syn­ony­mous with cities – has to sur­vive on the by-prod­ucts of hu­man civil­i­sa­tion. With a cur­rent pop­u­la­tion of close to 20 mil­lion peo­ple, this city is the per­fect feed­ing ground for these pro­fi­cient scav­engers and, as a re­sult, Delhi now has the dens­est pop­u­la­tion of black kites in the world, with 15 breed­ing pairs per square kilo­me­tre. I saw dozens of them cir­cling above and sift­ing through the detri­tus for food.

This isn’t the only source of food on which the black kites rely. As­ton­ish­ingly, In­dia is the world’s largest ex­porter of beef (largely from wa­ter buf­falo), and with count­less large slaugh­ter­houses and il­le­gal back­street butch­ers in Delhi left­overs are easy to find – es­pe­cially with the re­cent col­lapse of In­dia’s vul­ture pop­u­la­tion. In Old Delhi, Mus­lims buy of­f­cuts to feed to the black kites in a sym­bolic act of self­less­ness. I’d seen the feed­ing from afar, watch­ing sil­hou­et­ted birds div­ing at the rooftops, but now Nadeem in­vites me to wit­ness it close-up in Chawri Bazar, a war­ren of build­ings in which each block is crammed with at least three gen­er­a­tions of fam­i­lies liv­ing on top of each other.

The pas­sages around Nadeem’s house are bustling with peo­ple, goats, fight­ing cock­erels and food, and would be im­pos­si­ble for me to nav­i­gate with­out Nadeem’s help. En route we stop to pick up meat from the lo­cal scraps seller.

“All birds are un­der threat from the string of the pa­per kite,” Nadeem tells me, “but the black kite is the most vul­ner­a­ble be­cause it of­ten flies low and takes cir­cuitous routes.” It doesn’t take long for hun­gry birds to spot the meat thrown by Nadeem and they de­scend in a black cloud, swoop­ing and div­ing as they vie for the scraps; aerial ac­ro­bats nim­bly pirou­et­ting be­tween rooftops. As far as the eye can see lit­tle clus­ters of rap­tors dive for food. Grad­u­ally, though, di­a­monds of colour be­gin to ap­pear among them – the kite-fly­ers have launched their toys and the in­vis­i­ble strings that present a dan­ger to the birds are reeled out as the pa­per shapes soar higher into the sky.

PUP­PET ON A STRING

As we eat lunch at Nadeem’s house we’re watched by two spot­ted owlets peer­ing at us from a box in the cor­ner of the room. Owls are used in black magic rit­u­als and these two found their way here af­ter be­ing res­cued from tantriks – In­dian shamans. As we fin­ish our food Nadeem re­ceives a call from the fire brigade in­form­ing him that a black kite is caught in a tree.

We find the bird at the high­est point of a tall tree stretch­ing up as far as the sur­round­ing rooftops. Old pa­per kites hang limply in its branches and through binoc­u­lars we can make out the rap­tor en­tan­gled in their strings. We ne­go­ti­ate ac­cess to a nearby rooftop and climb a treach­er­ous suc­ces­sion of steps and lad­ders to reach the same level as the ter­ri­fied bird. The sky around us is now a cob­web of kites, each line ca­pa­ble of stretch­ing out to 1km. Nadeem catches my eye.

“This is the slow sea­son,” he tells me grimly. Kite string has also been re­spon­si­ble for the deaths of at least 10 peo­ple this year, three of them killed in Delhi dur­ing In­dia’s In­de­pen­dence Day cel­e­bra­tions. Ex­posed on this rooftop,

I fear for my own neck.

Our ini­tial ef­forts to reach the bird prove fruit­less. Dan­gling pup­pet-like from the in­nocu­ous-look­ing thread, the an­i­mal is com­pletely pow­er­less. A lit­tle way be­low it, the corpse of an ill-fated crow hangs, a grue­some warn­ing of the bird’s fate if we’re un­able to free it. For­tu­nately, Far­man – a vol­un­teer for Wildlife Res­cue and a for­mer kite-flyer – sug­gests an in­ge­nious plan in­spired by his erst­while sport. The aim in com­pet­i­tive kite-fly­ing is to sever your op­po­nents’ strings un­til yours is the last kite aloft. Pick­ing up some dis­carded kite string, he at­taches it to a piece of wood and tosses it out over the lines en­tan­gling the bird. Af­ter a few at­tempts he makes the first cut and the black kite drops a lit­tle, but strug­gles as it tastes free­dom, tight­en­ing the re­main­ing cord around its neck. De­spite the ur­gency of the sit­u­a­tion, Far­man calmly con­tin­ues un­til fi­nally the line breaks and the bird glides awk­wardly to a nearby wall.

By now its mate has joined us, cir­cling a lit­tle too close for com­fort to the tree, which glis­tens with kite string in the fad­ing evening light. We watch for a while, un­able to reach the in­jured bird, as some­one above starts throw­ing out scraps for the kites and their shad­ows dance omi­nously over­head. ‘Our’ black kite seems to be pre­par­ing to leave with its mate, and we pray that the string hasn’t in­jured it, but our hopes are dashed as we watch it sail clum­sily back into the tree to be­come en­tan­gled once again, now com­pletely out of reach.

For­tu­nately, a gag­gle of lo­cal kids, their

The sky around us is now a cob­web of kites, each line ca­pa­ble of stretch­ing out to one kilo­me­tre.

kite-fly­ing cur­tailed by the dim­ming light, climb the ad­ja­cent aban­doned build­ing and, us­ing a long pole, push the in­jured bird – shriek­ing in ter­ror – from the tree. Far­man re­trieves it and Nadeem and Far­man carry it home through the bustling Delhi night, most peo­ple tak­ing no no­tice of the ex­hausted rap­tor tucked un­der Nadeem’s arm.

Nadeem sus­pects that it’s been caught in the tree for two or three days but, in­cred­i­bly, its wounds are only su­per­fi­cial, re­quir­ing only an­tibi­otics, painkillers and care. The next day it’s car­ried to the hospi­tal in the brothers’ bird am­bu­lance – a box on the back of a moped. Three days later the re­cov­ered bird flies away from the brothers’ soft-re­lease pen – one of the lucky sur­vivors.

ABAN­DON­ING TRA­DI­TIONS

Though Chi­nese metal-coated man­jha is of­fi­cially banned it’s in­cred­i­bly pop­u­lar for its strength and dura­bil­ity, and street ven­dors con­tinue to sell it.

But all kite strings cause prob­lems, and not just for birds: cut strings lie wher­ever the wind drops them – on trees, elec­tric poles, even around the necks of mo­tor­cy­clists. De­spite the reg­u­la­tions, kite-fly­ing has taken on po­lit­i­cal over­tones: party mem­bers at­tend huge com­pe­ti­tions on the Hindu fes­ti­val of Makar Sankranti and on In­de­pen­dence Day. In south In­dia var­i­ous po­lit­i­cal par­ties even pro­duce cus­tomised pro­mo­tional kites.

“The kite-fly­ing fes­ti­val is a cel­e­bra­tion of the finest things in In­dia: the colour, the sport, the in­di­vid­ual’s bat­tle with the wind, cel­e­brat­ing the out­doors,” says An­jana Me­hta, a sup­porter of Wildlife Res­cue who is cam­paign­ing for the gov­ern­ment to en­force the man­jha ban. “But the com­pet­i­tive spirit and nar­row vi­sion has oblit­er­ated re­spon­si­bil­ity for pub­lic safety. It’s dec­i­mat­ing thou­sands of birds each year. Many hang en­tan­gled from trees and power lines, their wings torn, slowly starv­ing to death.”

The real ques­tion then is: how do you con­vince a na­tion to give up its her­itage? Kite-fly­ing has been pop­u­lar since the Mughal era sev­eral cen­turies ago. In Pak­istan, those who use the sharp­ened string can be with charged with mur­der and face a pos­si­ble death penalty be­cause chem­i­cally fin­ished and metal­lic strings are classed as of­fen­sive weapons. Per­haps this is the only way to stem the flow of in­jured birds flood­ing into the brothers’ hospi­tal.

Katie Stacey gave up her job as a fu­tures bro­ker five years ago to be­come a wildlife and travel writer

Though Chi­nese metal-coated man­jha is of­fi­cially banned, street ven­dors con­tinue to sell it.

A ban­daged black kite con­tin­ues to re­cover from its in­jury at the treat­ment cen­tre set up in the brothers’ home

Nadeem Shahzad car­ries a res­cued bird back to his home for treat­ment

ABOVE: Low-level fly­ing through the city's streets put the black kites in the path of dan­ger from kite strings, power lines and ve­hi­cles

PHO­TOS BY LUKE MASSEY

ABOVE: Nadeem (left) is helped by Far­man as they tend to an in­jured black kite in the surgery, which dou­bles as Nadeem’s bed­room

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