The nearly 3,000 spectators applauded as the tiny birds entered the ring. Some in the audience perched on trucks for a better view; others clung to tree branches.
After a nine-year hiatus, bird and buffalo fights are back at festivals in India’s northeast after the Supreme Court ended a ban on the tradition.
Despite opposition from wildlife activists, animal fights were organised last week during Assam’s Magh Bihu harvest festival under a new state law that promises to make the contests safe for the animals.
At a temple on the outskirts of the state capital, Dispur, the bulbuls — songbirds about the size of a bluejay — fluttered up in the air and swooped down on their opponents, their owners holding a string tied around their legs. Some spectators made bets with each other.
Three judges watch the birds’ technique and give the winner’s owner a cash prize of 3,000 rupees ($36).
Dijen Bharali, an organiser, insisted that the fights are safe for the bulbuls.
“The small birds get tired after the fight that lasts about five to 10 minutes each, but they do not get injured,” he said. He added that 50 families had brought two birds each to the daylong festival.
The Supreme Court of India stopped fights like these in 2014, along with other sports like bullock cart races, under the country’s 1960 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. But last year, it signed off on new laws made by some state governments that revived the custom while putting rules in place intended to protect the animals.
The popular tradition dates Assam bird fights to the 18th century when a king saw two wild birds fighting. It is a popular pastime at the January harvest festival, along with bonfires, feasts and other games.
Local people catch the wild birds in advance of the festival season, train them, and then release them after the game is over.
Mubina Akhtar, an animal rights activist, called the resumption of the fights a step backwards.
“This is the age of AI. We are going for something in the name of tradition that I feel is so primitive or medieval. It’s a kind of torture for the animals as some of them get killed or injured,” said Akhtar.
Assam’s law requires that organisers provide food and water for the birds. At the end of the contest, the birds must be set free in good health. Failure to follow the rules threatens to see events banned for five years.
But Akhtar criticised the encouragement for people to catch the birds in the wild and force them to fight. “We have to conserve species which are declining or disappearing,” she said.
The red-vented bulbul is not currently listed as a threatened or endangered species.
Buffalo fights have a shorter history in Assam, but they draw bigger crowds. Up to 10,000 people gather in stadiums in Morigaon, Nagaon and Sivasagar districts, which have a 25-year history of the sport.
As required by the new laws, veterinary teams watched the animals locking horns, ready to respond to any medical emergency. The state government also banned trainers from giving the buffalos opium or other performance-enhancing drugs.
Bharali said some buffaloes were wounded and lost blood in the fights but organisers took steps to reduce injuries.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has urged the state government to stop buffalo and bird fights.
In a letter to the state’s top elected official, the international animal rights organisation argued that the fights violate the 1960 law – Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.