Plastic Pollution : A big threat to wild animals

The threat from plastic pollution is not confined to mankind; it is problem for the fishes in the water, birds of the air, animals on land and organisms in the soil. Now it is turning to be serious problem for wildlife and protected areas. It is the single largest threat to wild animals in the protected areas. Plastic pollution is a much bigger threat than ozone hole and global warming. With growing popularity of ecotourism, more and more people will be going to ecotourism destinations and shall bring human activities deep into nature areas. The human activities have great impact on the nature and wildlife.

The human activities are destruction of habitat for resorts, roads, and amenities, pollution, vehicular traffic and emission of noise and smoke which are harmful for the animals. Among the pollutions also, plastic pollution is the worst form of pollution in our ecotourism and protected areas. With the tourists shall come the pollution, various kinds of pollution. Worst among them shall again be the plastic pollution.

Since the 1950s almost every piece of plastic that we have ever made, used and thrown away is still here on this planet and will be here for centuries to come. They will stay with us for another one thousand years. The plastic pollution in ecotourism areas are mostly in the form of Disposable Tumblers and plates, the disposable carry bags, synthetic yarns and old backpacks, Mineral Water Bottles, Tetra packs, Cellophane packages, Food wraps, Nylon Ropes etc. They are found littered everywhere in the PAs, Mountain Tracks such as Nanda Devi, Valley of flowers in Uttarakhand, in Dal Lake, Chilka Lake and even in our Loktak. In Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve alone, every year over 300,000 mineral water bottles in addition other tonnes of wastes are littered.

It is of great impact on the protected areas on many counts. They affect the aesthetics of the PA, the environment by polluting it and affect the health and safety of the animals. Firstly, they are so ugly looking and one single piece of two shall destroy beauty of the entire landscape. In India, littering has not been officially banned and hence, we find litters everywhere in the urban landscapes and this habit are carried to the PAs when they come as tourists. Such plastic wastes are big turn offs. Secondly, plastic wastes also contaminate and harbours germs and bacteria in water and soil. They have the potential to make the wild animals sick and may kill much wildlife. Thirdly, the plastic wastes can physically kill the animals, either getting inside the alimentary canal or by creating physical obstruction. The problems with wild animals are as follows:

Ingestion: Shreds of plastic are ingested by animals by mistake or along with food materials. Water birds swallow them as they mistake plastic for fishes. Monkeys and wild boars swallow plastic pieces while scavenging for food in garbage dumps near tourist spots. They chew the plastic bags to get food inside and in the process, pieces of plastic gets ingested. Even deers come to such garbage dumps in search of leftovers. Such plastic pieces accumulate inside and make animals sick. Some water birds (seagulls) were found to have as many as thirty pieces of plastic inside their stomach.

Entanglement: The torn carry bags, nylon threads etc. are great dangers to wildlife. The birds and animals can get entangled and may act as traps. In aquatic animals it is a big problem. They cannot free themselves and may kill them ultimately. When a species gets entangled, its movement is seriously reduced, therefore making it very difficult to find food. Being entangled usually results in death or serious injuries and ulcers as the animal shall go on fighting with it to free itself from the trap. It shall wear down and exhaust the animal and make them unable to defend themselves from predators.

Suffocation: The plastic pieces when stuck up in the air passages choke wind pipes. The head and nostrils also can get covered with thin variety polybags and suffocate the animals and birds.

In developing countries, the death of wild animals due to suffocation, stomach and intestine related diseases is a common feature mostly due to improper disposal of plastic food bags that are eaten by these animals. Such plastic and other pollutant cause so much damage to the ecosystems and so much harm to the wild life that ecotourism has been taunted as ecoterrorism.

Plastic bags are lethal. In the seas, plastic kills at least 2 million birds, whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions and turtles every year. They choke or get tangled in the plastic and die. Or they eat plastic, leading to internal infections, starvation and death. On land, the monkeys and deers eat leftover and stale food inside polybags endangering their health. It has been estimated that over four lakhs marine mammals perish in a year due to plastic pollution in oceans. Our protected areas are no exception. They are also highly polluted with plastics. Cleaning up the PAs of plastic bags and bottles is a gigantic job as they are found strewn all over the park, on all sides in every corner and fishing out such plastic litters is a time consuming and labour demanding jobs for which the parks authorities does not have manpower and time. They cannot collect all the litters as they are scattered everywhere.

The wildlife areas are made dirty and not suitable for inhabitation by the animals. It is increasing by the day and unless the same is checked, it may eliminate all the wild animals. All along the safari tracks and near the resorts there is so much of polythene waste that the same needs to be cleaned up. The presence of such large quantity of plastic waste makes such tourism unsustainable. The tourists have to avoid using plastics during their trips to ecotourism areas. For whatever plastic they are taking in, a security deposit (high enough) should be made which can be refunded on return of whatever polythenes they have taken. Any other polythene has to be banned and what have already been littered have to be cleared. The ethics of ecotourism demands that the tourists leave no trace behind in the form of damage to the ecosystem and garbage, because our ecotourism sites are fragile, pristine, and relatively undisturbed natural areas. The carrying of polybags has been banned in a few PAs but it is not that effective. So we have to have responsible tourists only in our Protected Areas, because welfare of animals is more important than the interests of the tourists. Ecotourism is promoted with the purpose of popularising the importance of animals, nature education and ecofriendly industry without damaging the nature and natural conditions. We have to ensure responsible travel and low impact tourism so that sustainability of the management of the PA maintained. If not, we may have to close down the ecotourism in our wildlife areas in the interest of the wild denizens.