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1

Those seashells you see in shops and people's home? Turns out they are real. And they may have been alive when collected. A mind boggling article in the National Geographic describes in "Seashell souvenirs are killing protected marine life", the thesis project of Amey Bansod, who initially came to Kanyakumari to study the livelihood of shell artisans, and discovered, to his horror, an industry of stripping protected marine life by the tons.

Which of us hasn't seen sea shell souvenirs? From small jewellery to religious conches, sea shells are pretty and inexpensive enough to be metaphors - "kawdiyion ke daam" (for the price of cowries - shells of sea snails) is an Indian version for "dirt cheap".

India has traditionally had uses for some kinds of shells. Cowry shells were currency in ancient times. They are used in traditional board games, or by astrologers. Conch shells are used in religious rituals and often considered auspicious (or maybe an old fashion trend?) in decorating homes. While I was aware that sea shells are used in decoration, for some absurd reason, I always imagined that most of the cheaper shells we get were plastic. Though I also remember wondering why anyone would make shells when they could be found for free on beaches.

The naive person that I was, I firmly believe in "Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints" - I got to the ripe old age of 41 without even realizing that all the shells decorating book binders and ornaments, being sold on ebay for aquariums and home decoration, being used for religious purposes.... THEY ARE ALL REAL! We are literally surrounded by casual celebration of the deaths of the mollusks that inhabited them.

Turns out that they are indeed not manufactured, because they are simply taken in mind boggling quantities from the sea and beaches and sent ahead to be processed. We are talking of 30 to 100 tons of sea shells being processed through one factory alone per month and 30,000 to 40,000 workers in the Kanyakumari area alone. The larger scale of destruction given the size of our coastline is mind boggling. This includes endangered species protected by CITES, which India is obliged under international agreement to protect.

However, expecting government officials to recognize endangered species or enforce harvesting limits is not a simple thing. Recognizing many rare species takes an expert and fudging limits on any exploitation that can't talk back or file lawsuits is routine in India, whether forests or sand or marine life.

But when a live creature turns into one among many in tons and tons of shells harvested to feed our endless greed for decoration, it is cruelty for little more than casual amusement. While some harvesting is inevitable given their beauty and the art they help create, there needs to be some rational enforcement to protect these animals from simply being killed wholesale.

What can we do, people?

Mumbai, 5 December 2014: Shocked by online reports of the plight of birds, snakes and other creatures housed in Culcutta Snake Park located at Kolkata’s Madhyamgram area, Mumbai animal activist Shakuntala Majumdar (09322271966, thanespca@hotmail.com) sent independent investigators and later made a detailed complained to the Animal Welfare Board of India. The Animal Welfare Board, in turn, wrote a complaint to the Central Zoo Authority on 17 November 2014 that pointed out, “The snakes are kept in a small cage and monkeys were kept in metal rusting bars in a smaller cage, tortoises locked in rusting boxes, crocodile swimming among plastic bottles and birds in cages are very small (sic). It was also alleged that the place may well be a holding place for trafficking of wild animals.”

“It was also reported that several dogs are being held in Kennels behind the birds enclosures. The kennels were soaking wet, and many different breeds were in a single kennel with little personal space or shelter,” said the letter addressed by S Vinod Kumar (98848 81355), Secretary of Animal Welfare Board of India, to Bishan Bonal, Member Secretary, Central Zoo Authority, Janpath (9868100169). See the attached letter.

The complainant, Shakuntala Majumdar, is herself an active member of Maharashtra State Animal Welfare Board.

The Kolkata Snake Park is owned by showman and entrepreneur Deepak Mitra (See http://www.dipakmitra.net/cnp_dipakmitra.htm). Mr Dipak Mitra is a member of the West Bengal state wildlife advisory board, and may be contacted on 09831404379 and 033-24632425.

“While we hope that the allegations are exaggerated, we would request that a thorough investigation be made with immediate effect,” wrote Ms Majumdar in her complaint, citing page 44 to 48 of an earlier report by Canadian NGO Zoo Check (http://www.zoocheck.com/reportpdfs/indianreport1.pdf ) and also a blog

https://adiplomatsdaughter.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/i-visited-the-worst-zoo-in-the-world/

“Snakes are kept in tiny boxes with no environmental enrichment and many of them had dry skins flaking off their bodies. At least twenty Water Monitor Lizards were observed, all malnourished and dehydrated, with ribs showing and dehydrated. These animals had insufficient access to water and were in overcrowded conditions. Investigators were told by reliable sources that they were collected from the wild in very large numbers by misusing permits provided to the owner for conducting reptile research,” says Ms Majumdar, who is Chairman of Thane SPCA.

“The investigators noticed many animals in Calcutta Snake Park in tiny, stygian and filthy cages. Monkeys were also observed in very small cages with signboards saying, ‘Rescued on Behalf of the Chief Wildlife Warden of Bengal. Birds have been kept in cages hardly bigger than they are and their feathers were observed twisted and broken. This facility has been reported repeatedly for inadequate conditions for animals and also for its involvement in alleged illegal wildlife trade for many decades now but surprisingly, the West Bengal Forest Department has continued to send wild animals to this place, despite the fact that many animals have been reported to die here. The Indian Zoo Inquiry suggested that this place be closed down for numerous serious deficiencies and the animals be relocated elsewhere to more appropriate accommodation elsewhere.

“Calcutta Snake Park is abusing wildlife along with West Bengal Snake Park. Animal Welfare Board of India has already requested the Central Zoo Authority to act to take action against the owner, Dipak Mitra. The same also applies for the West Bengal Snake Park. Wildlife and animal welfare activists alike fervently urge enforcement authorities, the West Bengal Forest Department and the Central Zoo Authority to take necessary action to close down these captive animal dungeons and relocate the abused animals to more appropriate facilities.

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This is a memory from a long time ago. Way before I figured out the internet beyond checking mail. This is a time when I was a nomadic horsewoman in the Himalaya.
I was living in the high pastures of the Kullu valley with my herd of horses. We were in the pastures below the Hampta Pass - about a 6 hour walk from Manali. The winter had been rough, and we were just camping out in the high altitude pastures where we leave them for the summers, supplementing their diet with some grain, to help them catch on on their health a bit faster.

What a place to be in! We were camped in the meadows at Juara. Alpine meadows - the air is crisp, the water is crystal clear and flows right through the pasture. A few empty stone structures that would later become nomadic tea stalls plus camps of herb gatherers dotted the scene, with sheer black cliffs rising on both sides in stark contrast with the lush comfort of the place. A place straight from some fantasy tale. Once could believe some nature spirits living here, particularly on moonlit nights, when the scene goes black and white, with the moonlight strong enough in places to register come colour. What a life - the horses living free around me, prancing with their improving condition. Pye, my bitch, by my side and the sounds of the stream for company.

The days were pretty idle. Feeding the horses a couple of times a day was no pain - they used to come happily enough for the treat. Beyond that.... not much to do. Cooking, enjoying the paradise I was living in, early to bed, early to rise. Perhaps an occasional visit to Sethan - the last village on this route, and the only fully Buddhist village in the entire Kullu valley, where my god-family lived. A timeless idyll.

Occupation came in an unexpected way. A gaddi camp was passing by, planning to camp a little higher than the pasture we were in. I recognised the shepherd, and invited him for a cup of tea. When he saw me, he decided to camp near our camp itself.

Over a cup of tea, I realized why.

A filly of his, had been attacked by a bear a week ago, and had been hurt badly. Originally, believing that she would die anyway, he hadn't taken her to a vet. But she hadn't yet died. She was in a bad way, with her wounds infected, and was struggling to keep up with the moving camp, to follow her mother. This was creating a problem, as the mare used to keep waiting for her, and slowing the caravan.

I had already gained a solid reputation as an animal lover, and my animals were often a point of interet for local livestock owners for the glowing condition I used to maintain them in. Plus, I was gaining a reputation as an enthusiastic "unofficial vet" from the knowledge of animal medicine I used to gather for the well-being of my horses in a land where vets were not easily available, and often very far from the place of need.

He wanted me to take a look at the filly and see if there was any hope for her, as well as see if she could be put down, if there wasn't. I refused flat out to put her down, as I am not of the opinion that animals should be killed when they are fighting to recover. Plus I lacked the kind of knowledge and equipment it would take to put her down. I agreed to take a look and see what I could do for her.

We went out into the pasture and unloaded his horses to set up camp and then look for the filly. She was in a bad way. She was sleeping, exhausted at the end of the pasture without even coming to join the herd, once she saw that they had halted.

We got her up and brought her up to my tent and tied her in front of it. I started to take a good look at her and see what it was that I was up against.

She was a beautiful, black filly. Three months old, lovely conformation - she would have made a fine mare when she grew up, if she survived this scenario. Her rump and neck was covered with deep gashes from the bear's claws, and a week of neglect had allowed infection to settle in. Most of the gashes had developed pus, and a couple had maggots in them - icky as that is, it is better, because the wound is cleaner - except for the maggots of course. You will not find pus and maggots in the same wound, unless it is really bad and the maggots haven't done their job yet. Except that you want them out now that they have done their bit. My whole being recoiled at the thought of having to clean up this mess.

If I had to save this filly, I had to do it, no matter how repulsive it was. I felt a surge of anger at the shepherd for neglecting her treatment like that, and vented my fury in choice words, yelling at him and his wife for being callous to the very animals that made their livelihood possible.

The filly stood there shivering from the early morning air and her exhaustion.

I made the couple promise to rest in the pasture for at least a week, before I would touch the filly - it was pointless to begin something, if it wouldn't be sustained. As an incentive, I praised the quality of the filly, and asserted that she would become a very valuable animal and bring him good money and work very well, if she was helped to recover. This seemed to strike a note of interest.

I had some anitbiotic injections in my animal first-aid kit. I gave her a shot. She hardly noticed. Then I knew, that I had to get over my nausea and actually deal with those wounds, and took a look at my medical supplies. They were minimal. The anti-septic I had, would hardly deal with half the wounds she had before running out. The same with the creams. Now what? I shoved the supplies back into my sack, and kept only the bottle of phenyl. The rest would have to be home remedies (which was what I preferred in any case).

I made a strong solution of tea in a huge pot and used that to clean the wounds. Yes, I just plunged in, and cleaned them all thoroughly, pus, maggots and all, till the flesh showed clean. Some of the deeper wounds still harboured maggots - of that, I was sure, so I used some gauze soaked in phenyle on them to dress them. On the rest, I applied a light film of honey and stuffed them full with crushed garlic.

All done, I walked away from the tent area and puked.

The evening saw a repeat performance. On the next day, the maggot wounds were clean too, and they received the honey and garlic treatment, and by that evening, some of the lighter cuts had begun to heal, and the filly was acting more interested in life, and giving me trouble to catch for treatment 🙂 But she seemed to understand that I was trying to help, so she flinched and nudged with her nose, if it hurt, but never tried to kick at me or hurt me in any way.

After that, I taught the couple how to do what I was doing, and told them that they would have to repeat this till ALL the wounds were healed, and that the filly could probably begin walking in a day or two.

They seemed to have got the point, and the two days were uneventful - so to say (not counting one of my fillies who seemed to be jealous of all the attention this one was getting)

The time was up, and the gaddi camp moved on, and the filly became another memory, until a few years later, when I ran across the same gaddi again. There was a beautiful mare in his herd - the one I had treated. I recognised her instantly and was happy for her. The couple put camp once more, to spend some time with me, and that evening, I was invited to a special dinner, where they thanked me with tears in their eyes for saving their beautiful mare.

Their animals also looked better cared for, since the last time. I was happy, that things had worked out well, and that they had developed some love and concern for the living factors in their "business"