Tie and Die

Last week I wrote about the terrible practice of dyeing animals to make them “cuter”, a practice that invariably results in their death. Thousands of fish are dyed and sold every day – you just have to look at the Internet to see how many are for sale to those dreadful people who keep aquariums that are nothing more than cages for fish.


But it is not just fish that are subjected to this torture. Few people realize that corals and anemones that are also sold for these aquaria are also animals. They come from the reefs that protect our shores. They look like plants but they are not – and corals are not just one animal, but thousands of them.


Corals and sea anemones are marine invertebrates that are now being used as marine ornaments for aquariums. They belong to the animal family called Cnidarians, and while they have the ability to catch small fish using stinging cells on their tentacles, they obtain most of their nutrition from algae in their tissue, called zooxanthella.


Soft corals and stony corals are subjected to unnatural pigmentation in gaudy pink, magenta and bright yellow. Most aquarium keepers in this country know nothing about the fish and the animals that they are going to subject to misery – just to make their drawing rooms and offices more interesting – and they are the ones who are killing our coasts and all the animals / fish that live there. They are the ones who are taken in with these wonders of incredible colour, and fuel the trade and practice of dyed corals with their purchases. Some of the most commonly dyed corals include, but are not limited to: "Leather/Finger" coral, "Colt" coral, "Cup" coral, "Flowerpot" coral, and "Trumpet" coral. The practice of selling dyed corals in the market originated in Indonesia, in 2001, and then Fiji.


Anemones are animals that live in sand (in the ocean) and retract into it when disturbed. They are already threatened by pollution and an increase in ocean temperatures. Their removal upsets the local ecosystem, and many fish that live with them die when they are removed. Moreover, these animals grow and reproduce so slowly, that their population lies threatened.


Like corals, most of the anemones sold require a good deal of light to survive. The zooxanthellae provides the anemone with sugars in exchange for a safe place to live. When the anemone is dyed, the zooxanthellae are unable to obtain enough light to photosynthesize and soon die, starving the anemone. The “Sebae” and “Carpet” anemones are naturally brown, cream or light green coloured, and are usually dyed yellow, blue or red. Sometimes they are bleached white. Most people buy them thinking that they are plants to be used as decoration in an aquarium, but soon realize that anemones are fish-eating animals that move, stinging and eating almost any fish that brushes against them.


Corals support thousands of species. They protect seashores from the impact of waves, serve as a vital input of food into the tropical / sub-tropical marine food chain, and assist in recycling nutrients, too. They provide home and shelter to over 25% of fish in the ocean and up to two million marine species. By eliminating them, everything that depends on it for survival will also be eliminated.


Without zooxanthellae, there is no food supply to them and these animals start to consume their own tissue due to starvation. This results in tissue necrosis, due to which the animal dies. Without the protection of zooxanthellae, corals and anemones also become vulnerable to pests, predators and diseases.


Another thing that kills them is the effect of bright lighting systems on an already stressed animal. A dyed or bleached animal can be quite sensitive to excessive illumination, which increases their rate of mortality. The stress of a high watt bulb, combined with shallow tank water is too stressful for them and makes them perish.


The Indian wildlife department is probably the most ill-informed, ill-equipped and corrupt of all departments. Its inspectors are rubbish – they are flat-footed illiterate constable types who can barely make out the difference between a snake and a monkey. Their job seems to be simply to take money from illegal sellers of animals and birds. Most times, members of People For Animals have to do the identifications for the police. There is one laboratory in the Wildlife Institute in Dehradun. Last time it was sent mongoose hair brushes for identification, it took one year and then returned them saying they could not make out whether these brushes were hair or acrylic! There are no workshops for officers or inspectors, no exams, no learning schedules.


The aquarium traders have taken advantage of this and the trade in illegal fish, coral and anemones is rampant. Dealers deliberately dye corals to make them more appealing to children and their parents since they are the largest segment of “hobby” customers. Exporters dye corals and anemones in a dreadful practice that compounds shipping stress and makes an animal, with an otherwise high rate of mortality, die very soon. Dealers and shop owners market dyed corals as “rare specimens”, often at extremely high prices. There are no responsible aquarium owners – an average shop is owned by illiterate thugs who sell illegal turtles under the counter as well and do not know the name of any species they sell. In fact they sell inappropriate food in the hope that some of your fish will die and they can keep selling you more.


The rules about aquaria are lying in the Ministry for Environment and Forests for the last 5 years and everytime any officer wants to make money, he simply threatens to turn them into law and Voila! he has enough money to take a foreign holiday with his family.


Maneka Sanjay Gandhi


To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org

*Proper wildlife rehabilitation is an extremely biologically and ecologically responsible attitude toward all living things.*