Ahmedabad, (Gujarat) , Jan. 15 : Many birds were injured or killed as thousands took to the terraces to fly kites to celebrate 'Makar Sankranti' on January 14, marking the arrival of spring season.
The "manja" or thread used for kite flying is sharp and often lethal to birds. Several of pigeons lost their lives after being badly entangled in "manja" on the day of kite festival.
Kites filled the skies in many parts across the nation for the festival of Makar Sankranti or Uttarayan, but conservationists fear the worst as they brace for another year of avian fatalities.
The Jivdaya Charitable Trust (JCT), an animal welfare NGO, attended to 2,394 injured birds in Ahmedabad, the heartland of the kite flying festival, around this time last year, out of these, 490 died.
Sherwin Everett, a volunteer with the JCT, said that casualties of the kite-flying season started trickling in from November. Just days ago, the NGO rescued a bar headed goose with cuts on its wings and fractured legs.
The migratory bird is among the world's highest flying birds and crosses the Himalayas to spend winter in India.
Gummed and coated with powdered glass, manja is made dangerously sharp to slash the thread of an opponent's kite mid-air during kite fights.
Birds fly into these strings or are entangled in them, causing deep cuts to their wings, nerve injuries, fractures, dislocations and in many cases, death.
So grave is the crisis that the Wildlife Trust of India's Emergency Rescue Network (ERN), which responds to natural disasters like cyclones and floods, views the kite festival as a 'man-made disaster'.
Several volunteers and veterinarians work round-the-clock to rescue birds during Sankranti, but owing to the scale of emergencies more help is always needed, said Radhika Bhagat, the head of ERN.
"We particularly need more veterinary surgeons," she said.
Urban birds such as pariah kites, rose-ringed parakeets, pigeons and barn owls are commonly injured across the cities. In western part of the country, the festival also coincides with the winter visit of a large number of migratory birds, raising the toll.
Jivdaya Trust in Gujarat said at least 100 species of bird, including many threatened species, have been injured.
Among the species rescued in recent years by the JCT are sarus cranes, peacocks, birds of prey such as peregrine falcons, Steppes eagles, Indian spotted eagles; migratory birds such as ibises, flamingos, pelicans, lapwings and several species of geese and ducks (including bar headed geese, greylag geese, comb ducks and whistling teal ducks) among others.
Particular concern is the festival's impact on vultures, already endangered around the globe.
Shastri said there are records of injured Egyptian vultures and Eurasian griffons, while the critically-endangered white-rumped vultures are victims every year.
"Vultures are on the decline throughout the world due to diclofenac [a veterinary drug], here they face an additional danger," he said.
"The eggs of the white-rumped vultures hatch in January and the birds scout for food for fledglings at least three times a day. Injured birds leave fledglings starving, further impacting their numbers."
Mehul Pathak, founder of the Vibrant Kite Club that promotes kite flying, said the growing number of the human and bird victims due to the festival was disturbing but "people are still crazy about it".
In Gujarat, the festival is strongly embedded in local culture and cuts across religious differences in arguably one of the most polarised states of India. Families usually spend their entire day on the terraces and rooftops.
The festival also features prominently in the state tourism calendar and since 1989 Ahmedabad has been hosting International Kite Festival. With millions celebrating the festival and feeling very strongly about it, people are often indifferent to bird safety messages.
However, some precautions can make kite-flying safer, Pathak said. "Fly kites in open grounds, carefully dispose strings entangled in trees in your neighbourhood and use uncoated cotton threads."
Nikunj Sharma, a campaigner for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India, said the use of "Chinese manja" which is made of nylon instead of cotton has made the injuries severe.
"Unlike cotton strings these are non-biodegradable, they don't break easily and continue to cause injuries months after the festival," Sharma said.