The Sounds of Silence

We are living in an age of loss: the sixth mass extinction. Following last year's shocking report that the planet has lost half its wildlife in the past 40 years, we began a new online section called 'The Vanishing', a gathering of responses by writers and artists, not only to extinction – the deaths of entire species – but to the quieter extirpations, losses and disappearances that are steadily stripping our world of its complexity and beauty.

Today wildlife conservationist Prerna Singh Bindra writes about the great silence that is spreading over the natural world in India, as the sound of the human world is becoming deafening.

is a wildlife conservationist, writer, communications and policy strategist. Her main focus is on conservation of wildlife habitats and critically endangered species. Her last book 'The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis 'was released in 2017. She is currently a student of M.Phil in Conservation Leadership, University of Cambridge
I can’t pinpoint when nature went silent . . . but it has. Nature’s magnificent symphony has dropped to a soft, apologetic murmur. Birds still sing, but the tremendous orchestra that drowned all other manner of sounds is an increasingly rare pleasure. I hear the occasional parakeet screech, welcome the odd squirrel into my garden, sparrows visit, attracted by water and bird seed I put out. Dawn breaks, silently, and dusk still falls, but minus the soft hoot of the owl, or the insistent ‘did-you-do-it’ call of the lapwing.

No wonder, there are fewer trees for owls to tuck themselves in, no messy, undisturbed corners for the ground-nesting lapwing to hatch its eggs. The lawns are manicured, lined with uniform, ornamental trees and sprayed with pesticides that does no insect, bird, or us any good. Old trees with canopies and deep roots are not favoured, as they mess with overhanging wires, and their roots interfere with underground pipes and cabling. Over the years, the architecture and the structure of buildings that dominated urban areas has changed drastically. Old bungalows with their nooks and crannies – prime real estate for birds – have been replaced with high rises and apartment complexes which offer little room for nesting.

It wasn’t just the physical spaces that were demolished though, what also shrunk was the space in the human heart for fellow beings. I recall a time when most households would spread out grain, rice and bajra (a kind of millet) every morning for the birds and sugar for ants; families made chapattis (flat wheat bread , everyday fare in most north Indian households) for the neighbourhood street dogs by rota, and would even light small fires outside for warmth in bitter winters that characterise north India. Returning home late one night, I found the dogs missing, but a couple of jackals curled cosily by the still-glowing embers!

Bees that dare to construct a hive in the odd tree that finds space amidst concrete towers are mostly doomed. In gated colonies like mine, the hives are simply sprayed with pesticides, killing the bees in one efficient stroke. As we sanitised our lives, spraying pesticides and poison on any creature we deemed as pests, our world diminished, and perhaps yet unknown to us, got lonelier.

Monsoons brought alive another orchestra – the guttural chorus of frogs as they serenaded their mates in the pools formed by the first showers. The croaks, while not high on the melody scale, were so very welcome. I have not heard the Megha papiha – pied cuckoo – or the monsoon song bird for years. Instead of its arrival (it’s a migrant), and its characteristic shrill, metallic wail, heralding the monsoon, it is TV which informs me that roads are flooded, and clogged, thus announcing the arrival of monsoon.

What moved me the most, though, were those memorable nights when the jackals howled, the eerie yowl piercing the soul. It was primitive . . . it was the cry of wilderness in a bleak and concrete jungle. I marvelled at this ghost of the darkness, which I mostly heard, rarely saw: Where did it live? Who was it calling? How did it survive in this hostile, peopled world? The night does not belong to the jackal now; the din of traffic has swallowed its taken over.

Indian jackals in Kolkata where they linger on (photo: Prerna Singh Bindra)

This silence is seeping across landscapes, as forests, fields, wetlands, lakes, gardens are cleared, pillaged, paved over with concrete. As jungles shrink and thin, animals are on the retreat. Many moons ago, I was in Dachigam National Park, in the beautiful valley of Kashmir, which harbours the hangul, a rare red deer endemic to this region. An old soldier of the forest, the late Qasim Wani recalled how when he was a child the golden valleys of the forest boomed and echoed with the rutting call of the hangul. Now, with barely about a 150-200 of these deer remaining, only the odd rut pierces the air.

There are many such examples, where within one lifetime, natural sounds have muted. Not just in the terrestrial landscape, rivers and oceans suffer the same fate. Whales are musical, with an amazing range of songs. The songs of the humpback whale are especially haunting, complex and can last for hours. Different humpback populations may have their own ‘anthems’—with populations in different ocean basins having their distinct songs. Their music is not static, it evolves . . . and travels far, reaching across oceans.

They are not the only marine creatures who make music – fish, crustaceans, shrimps, puffers – all ‘talk’ as well by varied means: gnash their teeth, swing their tails, exhale, grunt, belch. The Gangetic dolphin, one of only six freshwater dolphins in the world, is near-blind, and to it sound is everything. It speaks – even though we can’t hear its call – through echolocation, sending out sound waves that echo back so it can sense things out. That’s how it finds mates, food, averts risks and protects its young.

The repertory is shrinking, and the desolate sounds of extinction are making waves here too. As wild creatures retreat and extinctions occur – the Earth has lost half of its wildlife in the past 40 years – a silence shrouds our natural world. We are all witness to it, but we have chosen to close our eyes and ears to it.

What’s also deepening the silence of nature is the cacophony of humans. What are the sounds that surround you? If you live in a typical city, it is likely that your aural universe is a deafening mix of honking, motor engine sounds, construction ruckus, clanging of passing trains, the piercing noise of airplanes should your house be unlucky enough to be placed on a flight path . . . and so forth.

Noise is so much a part of our lives that many don’t even think of it as noise pollution. It was one of the reasons I shifted out of Mumbai. I found I couldn’t escape the constant, deafening drill of traffic and local trains that ply the city, performing the vital function of an easy commute for its citizens. My nerves were on edge, and coupled with the diesel fumes, my headaches became all too frequent, impairing my regular functioning.

I had the luxury to move, and I did, albeit to a city that is now the world’s pollution capital – Delhi (and am now preoccupied with seeking an escape route)! There is nothing out of the ordinary about my affliction, noise pollution is linked to many ailments like heart disease, hypertension, and can lead to debilitating hearing loss.

Our world is getting noisier. The increase in noise follows the graph of human populations, only it grows faster, the decibels doubling every 30 years, by some estimates. The space for ‘quiet’ is shrinking. New technology brings new noise – vacuum cleaners, car alarms, loud, and louder, stereo systems, mobile phones. I am as guilty, sucked in the tech-age as the rest of the race. My cell phone trills out a bird song, every time someone thinks of me, telephonically speaking.

Fireflies by Sangram Govardhane

Day at Night

What I also acutely miss are the nights, which are no longer nights. The darkness has gone out of our lives c and I mean it literally – by pervasive light pollution, a constant glare from excessive, unshielded night lighting. Have you seen the satellite images of our planet during the hours of darkness? It looks beautiful, a ball of black marble aglow with light, with only a few dark spots: A telling image of the earth, alight 24/7.

Surely that is desirable. Safer. Aesthetically pleasing?

We fear the dark, it is difficult for most of us to imagine light as pollution. But life on earth has evolved under natural cycles of light – night and day. Animals (including ourselves) have a biological clock that regulates periods of rest and activity, guides in their functioning of navigating, foraging for food etc. Nocturnal animals sleep during the day and are active at night. Marine turtles use the glow of moon and stars on water to guide them from land to the sea, dung beetles navigate with the help of the Milky Way.

Radically altering the light levels and rhythms these animals are adapted to is one of the most drastic, damaging changes that humans have made to their environment.

Personally, the light has robbed me of the magical nights of my childhood. As a child, one of my greatest pleasures was watching fireflies. I can never ever forget the first time I saw this minuscule pin-point of light flitting around in midair. It was difficult to grasp it as a living being . . . how does it stay alive when on fire? Full of curiosity, I chased it, trying to capture that flame. But soon more such little lights flew by, coming in thick and fast, in swarms, setting the night aflame with a brilliant, flowing gold. They flew zigzag, they lit up paths, they settled on trees. I remember our young neem tree dotted with what appeared to be a million fireflies. They seemed to be blinking their lights in some sort of rhythm. I read later that sometimes fireflies synchronise their flashing, apparently to help female fireflies recognise potential mates. Don’t ask me how.

It was magic, though scientifically speaking it’s bioluminescence, and occurs in a number of lifeforms, even in the open sea. It happened in Mumbai’s famous Juhu beach in November 2016 with the sea shimmering a bright shade of blue. It is bioluminescent phytoplankton – small microbes that produce their own food like green plants; that lit up the waters at night.

For fireflies, it’s a mating thing, that light flashing off their tiny bum is a come-hither signal that the male beetle (yeah, the firefly is a beetle) flashes to attract a mate. If the female approves, she flashes back, guiding the male to her. There are about 2,000 species, they don’t all glow, but each that does has a unique flashing pattern.

It was a rare enough event in my childhood that appears to have fizzled out, at least, from the urban landscape. Need I add that, as always, the problem is us, Homo sapiens. And our usual list of suspect activities—sprawl, rapid urbanisation, annihilation of trees, bushes, natural micro-habitats, light pollution, pesticides, and also a warmer climate which is bringing in invasive species.

How do we let such enchantment vanish from our lives? How do we fail to recognise the poverty of our present?

 

A Great Thinning

A few monsoons ago, another vacuum hit me in the gut: A loss of abundance. This epiphany occurred when I found that the rains arrived, but did not bring with them the usual menagerie of insects, frogs that one equates with the downpour. After the first rains wet the parched earth of our surrounds would suddenly be flooded with an avalanche of insects. Doors and windows would be hurriedly shut as they would rush to the light and flock around it, obscuring the angry yellow glare of the bulb. I don’t know what they were, how many kinds. There were moths. And I remember thin glassy insects flitting about – masses of them, like luminescent little fairies. I thought the rains had hatched them but was amazed to see the insects emerging from the soil. I discovered that they were termites, and some take wing with the rains. The next day they were gone . . . leaving the floor littered with silvery glassy wings.

Now, monsoons come, and they go –but the insects, have thinned, are vanishing.

Red wattled lapwng. Rajarhat. Kolkata (photo: Niladri Kundu)

The abundant may soon be extinct. A telling example of this phenomenon is that of the vulture in India, and other parts of the sub-continent like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal.

At one time, the vultures soaring in the Indian skies were so numerous, they couldn’t possibly be enumerated. Some estimates suggest there were over 40 million vultures in the Indian skies around the late 1980s to early ’90s. I remember watching the skies darken with a profusion of vultures as we lay on our charpoys in the courtyard. I have witnessed, in villages and the fringes of cities, hundreds hunched over a carcass –be it of dog, cow or buffalo – and stripping it to bone in less than half-an-hour. They would thus dispose of millions of road kills and cattle carcasses-performing the dirty, vital job of cleaning up the toxic aftermath of the dead.

Almost overnight, the skies emptied of these great birds, with populations crashing an astounding 97-99 per cent in a matter of years. The main cause was a veterinary anti- inflammatory drug, Diclofenac routinely and disproportionately used as painkillers for cattle. It’s toxic to vultures, and when they consumed cattle carcasses were poisoned by the drug. The drug has since been partially banned in India since.

Almost overnight, the skies emptied of these great birds, with populations crashing an astounding 97-99 per cent in a matter of years

.

As with most wild creatures, Indians have a schizophrenic relationship with vultures. It is worshipped as Jatayu, the vulture god of the epic Ramayana who died protecting Goddess Sita from the demon king Ravana. We also tend to think of this bird with some distaste, and morbidity, as harbingers of death. In common lexicon, ‘vulture’ has negative connotations, used as a metaphor to describe one who preys on the weak or who benefit from the misfortune of others. And so, few mourned its passing. Even as the impacts were profound. Vultures play a valuable role in the ecosystem as a scavenger and its loss has affected the health of people.

The dramatic decline of a scavenger creating a vacuum, and millions of carcasses were left rotting, increasing the possibility of the spread of zoonotic diseases such as anthrax. Other scavengers such as rats and feral dogs moved in, but they lack the efficiency of vultures, whose metabolism is a true ‘dead-end’ for pathogens. Dogs and rats, instead, become carriers of the pathogens spreading disease. A marked increase in the dog population –an estimated seven million – coincided with the period of vulture declines. A 2008 study on the wider implication of the vulture die-off indicated that this sudden increase in dogs, is thought to have at least partially caused the rabies outbreak estimated to have killed 48,000 people from 1992–2006 in India.

Extinctions have wider ramifications, some of which are beyond our scope of understanding. The loss of one bird is not just the loss of one bird, its disrupts the strands of life, it has led to a health crisis.  A conservation catastrophe had caused a human tragedy. This is the value of a vulture. This, and so much more, is the value of nature.

 

 Edited excerpts from  The Vanishing: India’s wildlife crisis by Prerna Singh Bindra, published by Penguin Random House (2017) . The book is available online and can be ordered from most leading book stores. 

 

Private: Dark Mountain: Issue 15

The Spring 2019 issue is a collection of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that responds to the ‘age of fire’.

 

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Comments
  1. thanks so much Narendra . Appreciate your feedback…and hope you like the book as well! i notice you have written too, and look forward to reading you soonest

  2. Beautifully written. Living in a suburb in India, I relate to everything you write about the daily struggles against pollution. And indeed, I have seen the habitats of foxes, mongooses, and birds destroyed and replaced with concrete buildings just within the span of a decade.

  3. A very thoughtful article. I spend a lot of my time in north India and appreciate what you are saying about concrete jungles taking over native habitat. It disappoints me to see how little concern for nature is expressed by the new generation of domestic tourists there, leaving garbage everywhere they go and taking selfies of themselves with nature as only a backdrop for photos of themselves as the principal subject. Very sad!

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