Not to be outdone by our own Donkey Welfare Adviser team that attend equine fairs for The Donkey Sanctuary Ireland, I made the journey all the way to Barabanki close to the India-Nepal border! An annual extravaganza over one week long with some 5500 horses, mules and donkeys walked or trucked from surrounding areas to be traded: onward as store animals (an investment) or put straight to work as pack or riding animals in the fields, on the roads, building sites and in the brick kilns of India and Nepal.
Though different in some respects, e.g. in the thousands of mules concentrated in one place, Barabanki is remarkably similar to our fairs in others. There is colour, noise, smell, seeming chaos; itinerant traders gathered in knots, bargaining over everything from donkeys to drapery, preening and parading; families socializing around cooking fires in the evening and a somewhat tenuous grip on proceedings by those in authority. Westerners say that ‘India is an assault on the senses’, but they haven’t been to Ballinaloe!
Of course The Donkey Sanctuary India (DSI) were present, and present very visibly to deal with the many issues that arise for equine welfare. They set up a tent with banners and loudspeakers; set out their stall of medicines, equipment and advice sheets; welcomed countless owners with equines in need; and sent their representatives out onto the field of play – to champion their and our shared cause. And they did a remarkably job: 461 animals treated and a further 208 young mules de-wormed before trekking to Nepal.
The vets (Ramesh, Surajit, Ashutosh and Attish) and their numerous assistants cared, cleaned, examined, sutured, injected and otherwise treated horses, mules and donkeys of all shapes and sizes with all kinds of conditions. Wounds e.g. from tethering featured highly in the recorded stats, but there were also cases of Strangles, colic, distorted limbs from old injuries, acute joint infections, overgrown hooves and yes, just as in Ballinasloe abandoned unwanted animals. One, now named Biryani has been made famous by Mike Baker who was on a CEO fact-finding mission in the field. If you haven’t viewed his video blog via UK Communications yet, you really should! Biryani has been found a home with a caring, local villager who came to the tent only to have his lame mare treated but then agreed to offer sanctuary to a broken-down abandoned old equine.
But there were many more layers than vet treatments going on here. The community team led by Aditya and Sushiel were much in evidence. They gathered data on equine numbers and type. They conducted welfare assessments using ‘The Hand’ on 4388 equines to map the visible issues in zones at the fair. They encouraged stories from buyers and sellers recounting their (and thus their equines’) journey here and likely onward travel. And there was much photography for the record that will endure and inform – by Giriga from the Communications team in Devon, Rashmi from DSI Communications and Michael, a truly nomadic film maker (from Fermanagh). Michael is on a journey with DSI and the project team we fund at Animal Nepal to trace the path and record the events in the lives of mules gathered at Barabanki, sold to Nepali traders and then walked to the Nepal border for export and onward sale, to be trucked into the mountains and work carrying loads on the trails and in the brick kilns of that country.
But the biggest success to my mind was in advocacy. Empowered by having their global CEO Mike Baker and DSI country manager Mr Khurana present at the first meeting - veterinary Drs Ramesh Kumar and Surajit Nath successfully lobbied the Chief Veterinary Officer and Local Veterinary Officer for the area to agree to substantial change. Not only with promises for next year but actual tangible results this year. When we arrived at Barabanki the government veterinary facility was a walled-in, shaded oasis of calm with people and equines flowing like a mountain stream around the premises. By our last day an Isolation/Quarantine area had been set up inside the government wall with a DSI banner flying and the first infected equine contained and treated. This to accommodate animals with contagious disease conditions and those simply not suitable to stay and be traded among the thronged masses – the old, the crippled, the frankly worn-out beasts of burden.
The vets also achieved their two other key aims for this first engagement, a starting point on a journey to work with government to improve equine welfare in truly practical ways. In cooperation also with The Brooke there will be improvements in existing loading-unloading ramps (which are cruelly lacking by our standards) with a permanent purpose built ramp added at the government site; and a seat at the table for DSI whenever discussions are being held with the fair’s organisers. This engagement will help the latter make Barabanki a truly outstanding example of how an equine fair should be organised and run – to facilitate trade and provide for social interaction, yes, but also to better protect the welfare of the thousands of horses, donkeys and mules without whom this event would have no meaning. This advocacy is a prime example of sustainable welfare work by The Donkey Sanctuary, one that will leave a real legacy.
My visit couldn’t have happened without the goodwill of so many – in Ireland and in India, and in the International Department in Devon - but especially Natasha who travelled with me all the way and ensured I didn’t go astray – thank you Natasha!
DSI is truly Donkey Sanctuary India, Ireland and International – we have far more in common than otherwise.