Monday, July 22, 2013

Animal Concern: Chemical Murder Of Uttarakhand’s Tigers

By Avinash Awasthi / Dehradun

Uttarakhand forest officials have found that poachers are using a deadly but easily available insecticide to target tigers. At first glance, the insecticide carbofuran is innocuous. Like dozens of other pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers, it comes packed in brightly colored bags and is sold over the counter under the common name of Furadan. Yet, the colorless, odorless crystals of carbuforan are stealthily being used to kill tigers in Uttarakhand. Investigations carried out by officials Dr Abhishek Singh, Dr Utkarsh Shukla and Paramjit Singh have revealed that carbofuran poisoning is the probable cause of the mystery deaths of a number of tigers in the region.
Available at only Rs 60-70 a kilo, there have been no records of insects developing any resistance to the potent toxicity of carbofuran anywhere in the world, thus making it a versatile choice for farmers to protect their crops. Other than the pests, carbofuran is also widely regarded to have the highest toxicity to humans of any insecticide. A mere quarter teaspoon can be fatal to an adult. In fact a tragic case in point is the untimely death of 23 school children in Bihar this month after eating a contaminated meal.  Police confirmed that the meal contained pesticides, in specific: carbofuran.

Informers that were interrogated by the investigation team exposed that carbofuran is being widely used to kill all manner of wildlife, from birds to tigers. The colorless and odorless quality of the chemical that is a boon to the farmer is a death knell for the tiger. Poachers liberally apply carbofuran granules on the cuts of a tiger kill and then simply wait for the animal to return to consume it. As the insecticide takes hold of the tiger’s body, it begins to salivate, excrete and experience muscle spasms. Within an hour the animal is dead and the carcass bares little sign of wrongdoing. In fact the chemical cannot be detected unless it is looked for specifically. 

The only clues to the poison are a peculiar odor from the stomach contents, frothy fluid in the trachea and bronchi, and bronze-hued liver and kidney. These observations are difficult to record by an average forest team, ultimately making it difficult to prove the presence of poison. The discovery of three dead tigers under suspicious circumstances in Uttarakhand’s high profile Corbett Tiger Reserve within a week of each other, is what prompted the investigations. Uttarakhand has a comparatively high population of tigers and is consequently targeted by poachers. According to some media reports, as many as 78 tigers were killed in 2012 alone.

Carbofuran poisoning is relatively unheard of in India, yet the insecticide is at the center of raging debates elsewhere in the world. The insecticide is banned in the United States of America, Canada and the European Union. The EU withdrew authorization for its use in 2007 and the US revoked all tolerance for Carbofuran residue in food in 2009. Statistics supplied by the American Bird Conservancy reveal that the number of birds killed in any single instance of poisoning before the ban in the States ranges up to 2,050 individual birds. 

In Kenya, 8 lions were poisoned in 2011 spurring the wildlife community to urge the government to ban Carbofuran. The protests prompted the manufacturers of Furadan to remove the insecticide from market shelves though an official ban has not yet been instated. In India, niche sections of the wildlife fraternity, especially those involved with battling wildlife crime, have been lamenting the toxicity of Cabofuran for a while. “Before poaching was bought under control in the ChilikaLake, lakhs of waterfowl were killed using Furadan. Entire flocks floating dead on the waters surface was a common sight,” says Aditya Panda, an Odisha based conservationist.

Highly toxic to fish, highly toxic to birds, highly toxic to tigers and highly toxic to humans. There is little doubt that Carbofuran is a dangerous chemical to have available at all. Yet, available it is. Uttarkhand officials found the insecticide easily procured in all the numerous towns abutting the Corbett Tiger Reserve. Paramjit Singh, the Chief Conservator of Forests, Kumaon and one of the authors of the report says, “The poachers poisoning tigers, leopards and birds are also using Nuan, a liquid insecticide. But it is difficult to administer it to target species in sufficient quantities and the targeted animal may wander to areas where it is difficult to recover it. 

A review of post mortem reports of large carnivores does not lead to definite conclusions about poison, as nobody suspected carbofuran and forensic laboratories did not specifically analyse for it. Some of the cases where gastroentritis was the cause of death are now suspected to be poisoning cases.”

Unless banned or stringently regulated, poachers may have found the ultimate weapon to decimate India’s last tigers.