Text by Sreeja Rachaveelpula
Photos by Udayan Borthakur
Life on earth is always fascinating. It thrives in varying habitats such as, mountains, forests, deserts, grasslands, rocky terrain, volcanoes, rivers, oceans, and even in hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean. The health of a habitat determines the survival and reproductive success of an organism, and therefore, the organisms tend to choose a higher quality habitat (plentiful resources) than lower quality habitats in general. With increasing anthropogenic pressure, these natural habitats are shrinking, causing shortage of resources and thereby increased competition. On the other side of the coin there are many newly formed human modified areas acting as habitats. A typical example is that of a Rock Dove or Common pigeon, scientifically known as Columba livia (Kolumbos: Diver; Livor: Blue). They have now adapted to living in high-rise buildings that resemble the rock cliffs which were their earlier habitats.
Are the animals changing their habits and habitat preferences to suite the new environment? If they are adapting, does it mean they are evolving for and those that are not able to adapt will fade away from the earth? Does adapting to human modified habitats lead to conflict with humans? There are multiple questions that crop up and that one can think of, but the present article focuses on a major concern, that of animals’ adaptation to the stinking, poisonous dumping sites on land as feeding grounds (human modified habitats).
The industrial advancements and human population explosion conjointly generate massive amount of waste all over the world. In India, according to government estimates, 1.5 lakh tonnes of waste is generated per day (2018) but the World Bank estimates five times more the government figures (CSE, 2020). In spite of efforts to segregate the biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste, 77% of the waste generated in India is disposed in open dumpsites according to World Bank 2018 report “What a Waste 2.0”. Lack of civic sense coupled with blatant disregard for the rules and regulations in place, not only by the commonery but also by the public authorities turn every empty plot, the corner of every other street and a one-meter radius around every public dustbin into dumpsites in India. While declared dumpsites have some scope of waste segregation, the small sized unofficial dumpsites are dumped with all sorts of mixed wastes. Mainly in rural areas, waste management is a matter of huge concern and the villages on the fringes of Protected Areas pose a greater threat as the wild animals inhabiting such areas get habituated to consuming food waste from these dumpsites.
A large number of cattle use Boragaon, Kamrup Metro dumpsite as their prime feeding ground
Without any discretion among the faunal taxa, many animals ranging from flies to birds, monkeys, goats, and cows grace the mixed waste dumpsites to feast, turning them into a rendezvous point. However, these rendezvous points act as dangerous places that can be lethal to many organisms. Along with organic waste, there are several other harmful materials that are disposed in the dumpsites, including plastic, construction and demolition waste, rubber, metals, textiles, glass, and e-waste. When these materials get exposed to air, heat and rain, they can lead to formation of secondary pollutants such as leachate and other landfill gases such as carbon dioxide and methane that contribute furthur to global warming. According to CSE, 2020 report, the third largest source of methane emissions is from dumpsites.
The main attraction of these rendezvous points to animals is the easy availability of food. Different animals are affected differently by utilizing these dumpsites. A study on the impact of the dump yards on animals has categorized animals based on their ability to segregate the food from other waste, mainly plastic. There were peckers, handlers and gulpers. Peckers (birds) and handlers (monkeys) have the ability to segregate the waste but the gulpers (cows, buffaloes, dogs) who cannot segregate the waste are more at risk. This study also shows that the use of dumpsites can lead to a shift in the food habits of birds (Katlam et al. 2019). Other studies also reveal that consumption from dumpsites can lead to health complications, disruptive reproduction, starvation due to indigestion, can affect growth rate, change movement pattern and also cause premature death. Even animals that can defecate plastic waste are affected by other issues such as constipation.
A study on elephants utilizing dump sites in Sri Lanka revealed that most elephants that ate food mixed with plastic died of food poisoning. The food in tightly packed plastic under anoxic conditions rot, leading to food poisoning (Rodrigo, 2022). There are also many mammals like dogs, cats, and cows whose mouth or head get stuck in plastic containers, and they die of hunger and fatigue, in a vain attempt to get rid of the plastic.
In the new era of COVID, medical waste-masks have become an additional component to the existing tragedy. The dumpsites have always acted as hotspots for disease transmission, they are also a rendezvous point for pathogens with their hosts. These dumpsites are acting as ‘Ecological Trap’ by luring the animals with easy accessibility of food. However, the adaptation of the animals to the human-modified unhealthy environment is having negative effective on the survival and reproductive health of the species. Managing the dumpsites are crucial in developing countries like India, as it has lethal effects on human and animal population. Some initiations such as biomining, bioremediation, and bio capping are taken by Government of India to manage large dumpsites but the unofficial dumpsites present ubiquitously need immediate attention. Increased awareness among public regarding their incriminating role in inviting diseases like malaria, dengue etc., by dumping waste in the adjacent empty plots and barren lands is the need of the hour. There is also a need for studying the effect of dumpsites on wildlife across the spatial and temporal scale, which can give substantial evidence to emphasize the need of proper waste management at small and big dumpsites in India. Else, we will all remain mute spectators witnessing the planet turn into one colossal dump yard hurtling into the space in an irreversible damage mode.
Centre for Science and Environment. (2020). Clean it right- Dumpsite Management in India; available at https://www.cseindia.org/clean-it-right-10487.
Katlam, Gitanjali & Prasad, Soumya & Aggarwal, Mohit & Kumar, Raman. (2019). Trash on the menu: patterns of animal visitation and foraging behaviour at garbage dumps. Current Science. 115. 2322- 2326.
Rodrigo, Malaka. (2022, 20 March). Poor waste management turns dumpsites into death traps for Sri Lanka’s elephants. Mongabay. Available at https://news.mongabay.com/2022/03/poor-waste-management-turns-dump-sites-into-death-traps-for-sri-lankas-elephants/
The World Bank, IBRD-IDA. (2018). What A Waste 2.0; available at https://datatopics.worldbank.org/what-a-waste/#:~:text=As%20nations%20and%20cities%20urbanize,through%20open%20dumping%20or%20burning.
About the Author:
Sreeja Rachaveelpula is currently working as Junior Research Biologist at Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), Coimbatore, India. she is passionate about the mechanisms that operate in the natural world and keen on developing skills in communicating science to laymen. she writes about travel stories, field experience and her love for nature at her personal blog.