Trash on the menu: From scouring forests to a diet of 'fast foods', we are ruining the eating habits of wild animals and birds

How our garbage is now their diet — wild animals are seen becoming increasingly dependent on human rubbish for food. But this is hardly delicious fare for the birds and animals that are ingesting both plastic and artificial sugars and fats.

 |  4-minute read |   24-01-2019
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Remember the last time you had that burger or pizza, couldn’t finish it and threw the rest away?

It was probably eaten by an animal — not domestic strays like a dog or cat, or even a monkey, but probably by wild birds and animals like a red fox or a bear or an elephant or a stork or a vulture.

A study by a group of scientists from the School of Life Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Nature Science Initiative in Dehradun, and Delhi-based wildlife enthusiasts Asian Adventures found that wild animals were becoming increasingly dependent on human food waste foraged from garbage dumps.

“An ecological shift is happening where a few animal species at some places are becoming more dependent on anthropological food waste,” lead author Gitanjali Katlam, a member of the research team and a behavioural ecologist at JNU reportedly told India Science Wire. “If we don’t enforce proper waste management strategies, particularly in and around natural sites and forest areas, it would have disastrous implications on wildlife,” she added.

The study examined the relationship between animal type and behaviour vis-à-vis the risk of plastic ingestion.

Other than plastic, human food waste was found to be the biggest hazard in causing health complications and disruptive reproductive patterns in animals, besides completely altering their eating habits.

lead_720_405_012419041546.jpg"Is there a pizza to go with it, please?" A monkey drinks Coke during the Monkey Buffet Festival in Thailand. (Source: Reuters)

The study was based on observing the behaviour of 32 species of vertebrates — 13 mammals and 19 birds — that were feeding on garbage in two selected sites in Nainital district. Based on the observed behaviour of the animal at the sites, researchers divided them into different groups. These included ‘peckers’— who used beaks to pull out food from plastics (including 19 species of birds) and 'handlers' — animals with hand-like body parts that were able to segregate food from other waste. And 'gulpers' — who lacked hand-like organs as well as mouthparts and thus could not separate food from plastics.

The gulpers were most susceptible to ingesting plastic along with the food.

main_deer-eating-chi_012419043038.jpgBon Appetit! (Source: Sabyasachi Patra/

Speaking to DailyO, Katlam said, “The ingesting of plastic is merely incidental — the animals come to dumpsites for food leftovers. We noticed the same individuals coming to the dumpsite every single day to forage for human food — easier to find, no effort required and convenient.” This sounded eerily similar to the reasons why humans took to fast food in the first place. The urban humans have evolved to survive on fast food — it is fast and convenient and perfectly in tune with our evolving lifestyles — however unhealthy it may be. The same principle applies to the animals now.

But, unless their food is hunted or foraged for, there cannot be an effective balance — individually or ecologically.

For instance, for monkeys (macaques), feeding on human leftovers including biscuits and chips goes against their nature of eating fruits. The seeds of the fruits they consume are excreted miles away as they keep moving from tree to tree — this aids with seed dispersal.

Needless to say, the high concentration of sugars, oils and salts — processed food, in short — takes a toll on their health, besides affecting their life span and reproductive cycle.

“Macaques were found to be frequently opening garbage bags with their hands to pick out food material carefully. Insectivorous birds often searched trash for grubs and food remains. Gulpers such as deer, civets and martens were unable to extract food efficiently from the bags and thus spent more time foraging at garbage dumps,” says Katlam.

While it has not been observed yet, it remains to be seen if this will be a paradigm shift in the entire anatomy and physiological adaptation to what animals eat — will herbivores soon have traits of becoming carnivorous?

As a solution, Katlam says, there should be segregation of waste generated at the source.

This would prevent animals from feeding on it and also address the ecological impact of non-biodegradable waste accumulation.

The habits of the human species — especially urban folk — have been ruined beyond redemption. It is time we spared a thought if we would really want to lead wild birds and animals down the same path as us.

Also read: Tiger tiger - not burning too bright


Rajeshwari Ganesan Rajeshwari Ganesan @rajeshwaridotg

Assistant Editor, DailyO

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