Writer: Dr. Oishimaya Sen Nag
Recently, the bewildered residents of Rajuri village in Maharashtra discovered something very unusual. Two highly unlikely companions suffering the same ill fate – a golden jackal and a 5-foot-long spectacled cobra that had accidentally landed inside a 25-foot deep well! The villagers, well-trained in responding to such situations, wasted no time in contacting the forest department to launch a rescue. The rescue team, including forest department staff and members of WildlifeSOS, an NGO that rescues and rehabilitates wildlife in distress, soon arrived at the site. The atmosphere was tense. A single bite from the highly venomous cobra could have finished off the jackal at any moment. The jackal was also more than capable of killing the snake. Yet, it appeared both of them had formed an unlikely alliance tied to the common fate they were suffering. The golden jackal was rescued first with the help of a safety net, and the cobra followed next, demanding a rescuer to climb into the well to extricate it. Both the animals were later released into their natural habitat. The successful mission saved two lives but also served as a stark reminder of the need to address a conservation issue prevalent across the country.
In India, open wells serve as a source of fresh water for millions of rural dwellers. However, in areas where such wells occur around forested landscapes, the chances of wild animals accidentally falling into them remain high.
In 2019, a study in Karnataka published in the scientific journal Oryx revealed the shocking figure of 70 leopards falling into open wells in the state between 2008 and 2017, with the pre-monsoon and monsoon times witnessing the most such incidents. There were also records of other animals like blackbuck, elephant, sloth bear, mugger, gaur, sambar, etc., falling into open wells during this period. The study, led by renowned conservationist Sanjay Gubbi, designated open wells as an “unconventional threat that has received little attention.”
And it is not just Karnataka; the threat is also prevalent in other states of the country where such wells dot the landscape around forested habitats. In the last decade alone, Wildlife SOS also helped rescue over 40 leopards from open wells in Maharashtra.
“An estimated 8.7 million open wells are present in India, ranging in size from 2 m to 20 m in diameter and 1 m to 70 m in depth. Most wells do not possess any sort of lid or barrier walls to prevent animals from falling in, nor do they provide any form of escape for animals that do fall,” mentioned Kartick Satyanarayan, Co-founder and CEO of WildlifeSOS.
Open wells are not only a threat because of their sheer number dotting the Indian rural landscape but also because of the many challenges they pose when a wild animal gets trapped in them.
“Rescuing wild animals from wells is a complex, challenging task. In the absence of proper equipment, we usually have to make do with whatever is available locally near the rescue site. Ropes and ladders taken from villagers are often used to pull animals like leopards and bears out of wells,” informed Sita Jamra, a Range Officer at Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh.
She also mentioned how such incidents create potential human-wildlife conflict situations due to the large crowd of onlookers at the site of such incidents.
“The crowd is not only excited to watch the rescue unfold but sometimes angry and afraid as well about the presence of a wild animal near their homes. They sometimes accuse the forest department of not keeping the animals away from their village. Also, the animal in question is already petrified and exhausted from the ordeal it is going through, and there are chances that upon release, the agitated animal might launch an attack. Hence, the forest department’s work in such a situation is to ensure both the safety of the animal and the people,” continued Sita Jamra.
Many other factors, including the presence or absence of water in the well, its height, the depth of water, the nature of the species trapped in it, and the health status of the species, all influence the rescue operations. Tranquillizing wildlife in such cases becomes difficult, with the chances of the animal drowning in the water upon losing consciousness being high. Thus, open wells pose a series of threats to wildlife. However, although doing away with these wells is not possible since a large section of rural India still derives its water from them, covering them, as exhibited by a WildlifeSOS project, is definitely an option.
In 2022, WildlifeSOS launched the “Open Wells Conservation Project,” in collaboration with the Maharashtra Forest Department, intending to cover open wells to minimize the risk of loss of lives of both wildlife and people. The organization identified 40 wells in Maharashtra where leopards had lost lives or had been rescued and marked them for being covered up in a way that not only allows villagers to draw water but also prevents accidental fall of wild animals or people. Under this project, 14 open wells have already been covered. The remaining 26 will be covered in the next two years. The team is now working on launching the second stage of the project.
“In the second stage, we will work with engineers to improve well cover design to help water conservation and improve water quality by preventing debris from falling in the wells,” said Dr. Arun. A. Sha, Director- Research & Veterinary Operations, Wildlife SOS.
Recognising the seriousness of the threat posed by open wells, in 2022, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) instructed the Chief Wildlife Wardens of India’s states and UT’s to take action to cover up such wells to prevent wildlife death and injuries from falling into such wells.
Thus, while open wells add up to the many threats to wildlife, there is a relatively easy way to mitigate this threat. However, it demands the availability of funds and the cooperation of well owners as such wells are mostly privately owned. Convincing the owners is essential to initiate steps to secure them, and the results are usually very positive – allowing people to draw water while at the same time protecting wildlife, livestock, and people from suffering accidental falls in such wells.
*All Images by: WildlifeSOS and Maharashtra Forest Department