Two brothers are fighting to save black kites from their injuries in Delhi, India. Katie Stacey met them to find out how
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.
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.
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
ABOVE: Nadeem (left) is helped by Farman as they tend to an injured black kite in the surgery, which doubles as Nadeem’s bedroom