Over 250 cattle egrets, a species of small herons protected under Schedule IV of the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, died in Tangla town of Assam Udalguri district following a freak COVID-19 scare. The incident occurred after the local municipal authorities ordered the felling of a bamboo grove and trees, housing the nests and chicks of the protected species, taking recourse to a bizarre reasoning that the birds could spread COVID-19.
The order to fell the bamboo grove was issued by the Tangla Municipal Board on June 8 following a complaint by local residents that the droppings from the egret colony in the bamboo grove could potentially spread the COVID-19 virus. Soon after, officials of the municipal board began chopping the grove and trees leading to the death of the birds and their hatchlings, as they fell from their nests.
More egrets would have lost their lives if the Deputy Commissioner of Udalguri, P Uday Praveen had not intervened after the incident was brought to his notice. On June 24 itself, the DC arrived at the site and stopped the municipal board officials from felling more trees.
The incident has caused outrage among the conservationists in the region, and wildlife organisations have demanded stern action against the officials responsible for the irresponsible action.
“The egrets have been taking shelter in the bamboo grove for many years. Last week a complaint was lodged at the office of Tangla Municipal Board by some people who do not own the land on which the bamboo grove was located that the birds have been creating unhygienic conditions in the locality. Without consulting any appropriate authority, including the Forest Department and wildlife activists, the civic body issued the order to cut the bamboo grove, along with other trees,” conservationist Jayanta Kumar Das was quoted as saying in The Assam Tribune.
Reportedly, the cutting of the bamboo grove which started on Thursday morning, was scheduled in four phases. While over 250 egrets lost their lives, around 80 egrets survived and were found by the villagers. According to Deputy Commissioner Praveen, arrangements are being made to send the birds to the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation at Kaziranga in the next three days.
Dr Rathin Barman, joint director of Wildlife Trust of India, Kaziranga, condemned the incident and said that it was “preposterous that a government body could act so thoughtlessly and insensitively”, as reported by The Assam Tribune.
Meanwhile, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has reportedly ordered a probe into the incident and directed Forest and Environment Minister Parimal Suklabaidya to enquire about the deaths of the egrets.
NE Now reported that, “Sources said a show-cause notice was served under Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 & COVID regulations 2020 for spreading misinformation and creating fear among locals regarding spread of COVID-19.” An FIR has been lodged by the Forest Department under the Wildlife Conservation Act 1972, the report added.