DELHI - Monitor lizards, antelopes, jackals, raptors, monkeys, peacocks, blue
bulls ... What is this, an exotic zoo tour? No, these are the creatures often
sighted on runways on New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport, and they
manage to throw flight schedules into disarray and jeopardize passenger safety.
This happened this week when a family of meter-long monitor lizards, as well as
some jackals and raptors, scurried onto the international airport's secondary
runway and stayed put for an hour until an animal rescue team forcibly evicted
them. The ensuing ballyhoo led to the airport's closure for an hour, causing
the schedules of a about 100 flights to go haywire.
By the time the surreal situation registered on airport authorities - and they
managed to capture the menagerie and pack it off for
rehabilitation at the nearby Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary - the damage had
been done. Most of the day's outgoing flights were delayed by over two hours
and, due to the cascading effect, the evening's incoming planes took a knock of
"It was the most incredible situation," said Veena Singh, 58, a passenger who
was present at the airport at the time. "I fly abroad frequently but a delay
caused by wild animals running amok on the runway is a totally bizarre
experience for me."
But it's not such a bizarre occurrence for DIAL (Delhi International Airport
Limited), the airport's operator, for whom such incidents have now become par
for the course. In the past too, DIAL - a consortium of the Airports Authority
of India (AAI), GMR Group, Frankfurt Airport and Malaysian Airport - has faced
flak for its apparent inability to keep animals off the international airport's
Hyenas and jackals have often sauntered onto the airstrips, leading to their
closures while last year a precocious monkey created pandemonium at the
international terminal. The simian was later caught with the help of animal
trainers. This time too, animal welfare specialists were called in to chase
away the jackals and the lizards.
Wildlife experts say it isn't too uncommon for animals to make their way into
the airport confines, especially during the monsoon period, which has arrived
two weeks earlier than expected this year. According to Wildlife SOS activists,
six jackals, two feral cats and 10 stray dogs were captured from the airport
area in December 2006. The jackals were put under quarantine and later returned
to the wild. The outfit also helped relocate scores of blue bulls (known as nilgai,
and actually the largest Asiatic antelope) from the airport to the Asola Bhatti
Wildlife Sanctuary recently.
According to DIAL, what led to Monday's incident was clearing off of wild grass
and debris from the airport's periphery due to the construction of a new
terminal (or T3) which the consortium is building at an estimated cost of 300
billion rupees (US$7.6 billion).
This debris clearance led the animals to seek shelter from an unexpected
downpour. Taking advantage of holes in the airport's fencing (which is in a
state of disrepair), the animals clambered onto the warm and dry tarmac until
they were forcibly evicted by animal rescue teams.
Conservationists have often argued that the construction of T3 terminal is
destroying the wildlife habitat spread over 3,000 acres next to the airport. In
fact, the area currently dug up and fenced off for the T3 terminal was once
home to over 63 bird species, 60 blue bulls, packs of jackals, wild dogs and
wild cats. But now the bird species - except peacocks - have all flown away due
to the destruction of water resources in the area. The area earlier housed
water resources for the animals and had been their natural habitat for years.
However, DIAL insists that before beginning construction, it had ensured the
safe relocation of animals to the Asola Wildlife Sanctuary.
But according to experts at the Wildlife Trust of India, no matter how much
caution is exercised, in the long term, large-scale clearing of Delhi's
forested areas will wreak havoc on the habitats of animals, ultimately causing
them to stray. As it is, environmentalists argue, India's forested cover has
plummeted remarkably over the past few decades. From about 33%, the country's
green cover has now been whittled down to less than 12% due to unchecked
construction and urbanization. This rampant destruction of forest cover will
ultimately be catastrophic for the nation's entire eco-system.
However, DIAL refutes all talk of its insensitivity towards conservation by
stating that the area cleared for the new terminal was not forest land at all.
This 5,000-acre swathe of land, it states, belongs to the Airports Authority of
India and the existing airport is built only over 2,000 acres. When DIAL began
building the new terminal, it says it approached the regional wildlife
department and the concerned authorities for their permission to safely
relocate all animals to Asola. Millions of rupees, claims DIAL, were spent for
the animals' safe relocation.
Be that as it may, many feel it is still incumbent on DIAL to ensure that such
unsavory incidents do not recur. New terminals must be constructed to ease
pressure on the existing airport infrastructure, but sensitivity towards the
environment, and safety at the airport, are also vital concerns. Apart from
incurring flight delays, revenue loss and besmirching India's name
internationally, such incidents also compromise passenger safety.
New Delhi-based independent journalist Neeta Lal has had her work
published in over 70 publications across 20 countries.