Deepa Padmanaban is a freelance writer based in India. She has written for Quartz, Christian Science Monitor, BBCEarth, and more.
Citizen scientists and government agencies are joining forces to save animals from the path of urbanization.
Shivappa’s bike is his calling card. On it, he’s hung a large, rectangular box for rescued snakes. A board at the back is inscribed, in Kannada, with a plea: “If animals and snakes come from the forest to the city, do not kill them.” Below that is a sign with his name and contact number.
One recent morning, the box contained a cat snake that he had caught from a shelf in a local home. Later, when time permits, Shivappa will release the snake in a forested area on the outskirts of the city.
Over the last 15 years, Shivappa has rescued over 15,000 snakes in Bangalore. Sharing living space with wildlife is inevitable in the concrete jungles of Indian cities. A wondrous plethora of urban wildlife co-exists: snakes, bats, jackals, slender lorises, squirrels, civets, wild birds. But this urban wildlife, often at the mercy of human activity and development, is being displaced and injured as construction booms in the city. One study found that built-up areas increased by 126 percent between 2006 and 2010, while vegetation—in which many animals make their homes—declined throughout the city by 20 percent over the same period.
Shivappa’s foray into this unusual job happened rather serendipitously. In 1998, when he first came to Bangalore, he took up part-time jobs in construction and gardening. One day, while working in a garden, he and his co-workers came upon a snake. His co-worker almost struck out at the animal, but Shivappa stopped him. He gently pushed the snake with a stick into a gunny sack, tied it up, and released it in the forest nearby.
Afterwards, locals started calling him when they spotted snakes. Shivappa doesn’t have any formal credentials to rescue animals, but he has a lifelong passion and a dedication to learning more about them. He’s studied different species, how and when they breed, and their preferences for hiding places.
Now, he’s always on the move, rushing from one part of the city to another to answer calls from panic-stricken residents, restaurant owners, and even corporate offices.
It’s not only citizen scientists like Shivappa who are focused on rescuing animals from the path of development. In 2007, the city’s municipal department, Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagari Palike (BBMP), set up a wildlife rescue hotline. The helpline now triages up to 300 calls a day—a twofold increase from when it launched, though inquiries vary by season.
The department has a full-time staff of seven. But due to the large volume of calls, it also relies on volunteers from diverse fields, like software engineers and real estate employees.
From leopards to reptiles, birds, and pangolins, the team has rescued all kinds of wild animals, big and small. After the rescue, the volunteer checks the animal for injuries. If all looks fine, the creature is released back in the same neighborhood. If injured, it’s taken to an animal care shelter in a wildlife park on the outskirts of the city, where a team of trained veterinarians will treat it.
Injuries are often the result of human activity, sometimes inadvertently. Last year, Sharath Babu, who works with the BBMP project, published a study on how Chinese manja—a nylon thread coated with finely crushed glass—was contributing to avian deaths across the city. The thread is used as kite string, and became intertwined in tree branches, where birds got tangled in it.
The study drew from a database maintained by BBMP wildlife rescuers, who file reports after each excursion. Using that database, Babu found that over a period of four years, 268 birds—ranging from crows to owls and parakeets—were recovered from these threads across Bangalore. About 85 percent were rescued by BBMP volunteers either alone or with the help of the the fire brigade, government officials, or other locals. In June, the government imposed a total ban on the sale and use of the Chinese manja.
Shivappa and the BBMP rescue group continue their efforts to rescue and rehabilitate urban wildlife, sometimes shelling out their own money: Shivappa pays for fuel to ride out into the forest to release the snakes.
Sometimes, their efforts do bear fruit. A pitta bird passing through the city on its migratory journey was found injured by a young girl in a residential complex. A BBMP volunteer responded to her call and carried the bird to the rehabilitation centre. After a few weeks of care and treatment, the bird was successfully released in to the wild. This story captured the imagination of the city and even made its way in to a children’s picture book. Once, people “would be scared when they saw snakes,” Shivappa says. “Now they know who to call."