Beed (Maharashtra): India`s national bird, the peacock, is under severe threat from nature`s vagaries at one of the largest peacock national parks in the country at Naigaon here.
The threat is not from its natural predators or humans, but from the extreme heat wave conditions in the Marathwada region, around 400 km east of Mumbai, that virtually suffocate and even kill the magnificent bird.
According to local conservationists, nearly 13 adult peafowl have reportedly perished this summer mainly because of starvation and water shortages in the Naigaon Peacock Sanctuary (NPS).
"A few years, or maybe a decade, ago, there were an estimated 10,000 peafowl flourishing here with sufficient food and water. However, in recent years, their numbers have sharply dwindled," Mayur Mitra Mandal (MMM) president Shahid Syed told IANS.
MMM is engaged in providing voluntary services by taking drums of water to the park to help quench the thirst of peafowls, but it is restrained by lack of resources, Syed said.
However, a former Range Forest Officer S.A. Bade dismissed the claims made by Syed and said that in May, just one peacock was found dead.
"Yes, there were a large number of peafowl here a few years ago, but the figure of 10,000 may be a bit exaggerated. Today, there are nearly 3,500 peafowl in the sanctuary," said Bade, who spent three years at NPS.
Though admitting the dwindling numbers, Bade said this could be more due to migration to other greener pastures rather than deaths due to shortage of food and water or poaching.
The peacock, declared a national bird in 1963, is part of Indian folklore and a symbol associated with many Hindu deities, chief being Lord Krishna and Lord Murugan.
Its beautiful colours and designs have inspired writers, poets, artisans, designers of royal jewels and the famous Peacock Throne of Mughal Emperor Shahjahan, who also constructed the Taj Mahal in Agra.
Syed said that after conferring national park status on the Naigaon Peacock Sanctuary (NPS) in 1994, there was little or no follow-up action in the form of sanctioning funds for its development and upkeep.
"The situation today is so alarming that during the four months of summer, especially April-May, the birds are hardly seen in the wild - where once they were as common as pigeons or crows," he pointed out.
This year, the summer has been particularly harsh on the peafowl with instances of birds gasping for water and being found in semi-conscious state.
The weak and dehydrated birds become easy prey for hyenas, wild cats, foxes and even humans who throng the 30-sq km NPS, spread across the Balaghat hills here, he said.
Bade explained that the NPS is not a continuous path of forest and is interrupted with privately owned pockets of land.
Moreover, the Balaghat hills have steep slopes from where the rain water quickly drains out, leaving little for the earth to soak.
While the forest authorities have constructed 110 stone weirs to hold water, it dries up by December and later the birds are left at the mercy of the fast depleting water holes.
Syed said that the Bank of India and the local Rotary Club had donated 10 open water tanks which were installed at key points in the NPS.
The forest department`s seven-member staff was entrusted with filling them up regularly, but the effort is tedious during summer. The NPS is an average one km wide and 60 km long.
Besides, there are no roads inside the NPS, and during emergencies the officials have to depend on the help of local villagers as the nearest veterinary clinic is 20 km away in Patoda town to save any sick or injured peafowl.
This is where the MMM has proved its utility by helping provide food and water to the birds.
"If the government or some wildlife NGOs chip in, it would need barely Rs.10,000 per month to provide adequate food and water to the peafowls here. We are unable to raise such funds in this small village," Syed lamented.
The MMM attempts to supply water in small drums on an individual basis, but that is not enough for the large peafowl population here.
Another MMM office-bearer Pratap Bhosale claimed that the group has drawn the attention of all officials, ranging from the Beed collector to the Chief Minister`s Office, but it has failed to move them.
Others like farmer Tukaram Madhukar said the villagers do not object even if the birds damage standings crops in the region and they even protect their eggs from predators or poachers.
"Whenever we come across any injured or ill bird, we rush to Patoda and bring medicines to revive them," said villager-labourer Jitendra Khedkar.