Endemic birds you must know about!

If you were to describe native things about India, you could talk about the particular texture of hand-pounded coconut chutney, the inky vegetable dye splash of kalamkari, art deco buildings merging with Mughal style domes which merge with glass-fronted malls. You may speak of food, fabric, folklore, festivals.

To this, I will add: what makes India a very particular and special place is endemism in wildlife. We have over 100 bird species found only in India, and more than another 100 that are native to South Asia.

Species evolve differently owing in part to unique landscapes – for instance, the Palghat gap, a valley in the Western Ghats, has helped create endemic species like Sholicola Ashambuensis, a Shortwing bird. The small but ecologically significant Thar desert holds a breeding population of the Great Indian Bustard, a large bird found only in the Indian subcontinent – and now believed to be found only in India.

The remoteness of the Andaman and Nicobar islands have created birds that are very much Andaman and Nicobar versions. Endemics include Andaman wood-pigeon, Andaman Woodpecker, Andaman Bulbul, Nicobar Pigeon, Nicobar Bulbul, Nicobar Sparrowhawk, and many more.

Today (May 5) is Endemic Bird day. Here are six endemics you must know about:

The Indian Peafowl

It’s nice to find a total showstopper, looking like it has a hundred eyes on its tail, dancing in forests and also sitting on a roadside tree in the National Capital. In times of political turmoil, diminishing species, and conflict between communities, one national symbol still remains national in range and occurrence.

peacocksemal-2_050518020032.jpgThe Indian peafowl [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

The Indian peafowl, a South Asia endemic, is not a bird shy of drama. Greek myth says the peacock was a watchman for Hera – with a hundred eyes on its tail. This bird doesn’t just shine, it glitters.

The tail of the peacock is effortlessly glamorous, and its dancing to attract females is the stuff of lore. It also manages to strut its stuff in the oddest, most protocol-ridden places. There was a peafowl nest in India International Centre, which the staff nurtured, rather than destroyed. There are peacocks at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

peacocksemal17mar_050518020102.jpgA peacock with its effortlessly glamorous tail. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

There are peafowl in crop fields and near old monuments. But we don’t know how many peafowl we have in India, and we should start counting, because peafowl regularly die in crop fields after pesticide poisoning. Peafowl is also being poached.

peacock-wooing-1_050518020126.jpgPeacock trying to woo potential mates [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

The Great Indian Bustard

The thing about a species being named after India is that you expect to be able to see this bird. Sadly, for the GIB, its magnificence has not granted it protection. Found in Thar desert, scrub land, grassland and crop fields, the GIB is close to extinction, a death by a thousand cuts. At the time that India became independent, the GIB was found in a range of states – Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh and others. Today, the only significant populations are in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

The bird has lost out on habitat – farmlands are laced with poison, and skies are full of wires, and grasslands are taken over. This large, heavy bird collides with wires and dies instantly, with wires being a new, urgent threat.

Upcoming solar farms and intensifying lattice of transmission wires in the Thar desert and the Kutch area have killed several GIB in the recent past. India may be the last country on earth to hold the GIB – some were found in Pakistan, but their status now is unknown. It would be a chronicle of a death foretold if this critically endangered species, down a global population of a paltry 150 birds, went extinct.

There are plans for captive breeding, and stopping habitat loss. While the plans continue to get made, the bird is in shock – and disappearing because of it.

Indian Pitta

Native to South Asia, the Indian Pitta is a truly beautiful bird. “Pitta” doesn’t describe the bird the way its Hindi moniker, “navrang”, does. This forest bird has nine colours, and a presence that ricochets through the forest. It likes a thick understory, and has a distinctive, sweet, two-note whistling call. Usually, you won’t find the Pitta in open areas. The bird is also a marker for good forest cover, and with forests getting diverted everyday, you won’t find it in every forest.

indian-pitta_050518020145.jpg

indian-pitta-2-1_050518020159.jpgIndian Pitta, a bird many may never have heard of. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

The colours of the pitta are emblematic of the kind of hues associated with India – a deep yellow, a flaming orange, turquoise, emerald green – bold, unapologetic colours, the sort you’d find on the houses of village walls, and saree pallus. The Pitta calls with its head up towards the sky, often together or in pairs, charming the woods with sweet music.

Green Avadavat

You may never have heard of this little bird. If you see it though, you won’t forget it. The Green Avadavat is in big trouble, partly because it is good-looking. It has a crayon-red, perfectly triangular beak, zebra like stripes on its flanks, a green upper body, and a yellow lower body. The bird is a part of the illegal cage trade, which has pushed this bird to being listed as a species vulnerable to extinction. This is a shame, because this bird breeds only in India, and is a true Indian endemic.

It lives in scrubland and grassland, which development projects also like. The future of the bird lies in India and we must hasten to protect it, before desire wipes it out. A caged avadavat will not sing, and does not have much of a future.

Nicobar Megapode and Narcondam Hornbill

Of the many island endemics, there are two every Indian should know of, chiefly because ill-conceived plans threaten their existence.  The Narcondam Hornbill is found only on the tiny, wind-swept island of Narcondam in the Andaman sea. This island is all of 7sqkm. The bird has nowhere to go, and no other place to hide. The government has given permission to make a radar station and a power station on Narcondam island.

If construction does happen, this further imperils the bird, already facing the threat of invasive species like rats and goats, which have been introduced by policemen residing on the island. The Nicobar Megapode is considered related to the chicken. It has a major breeding population on Tillanchong island. Here, of all things, the government is making a missile firing station. One can hardly think of a more negligent way to deal with birds that India calls its own. As this headline says, the government has put bombs before birds.

India’s locales, mountains, islands, shrubs and forest have contributed, painstakingly, century after century, feather by feather, to create these species.

Let’s be mindful, let’s be proud. Let’s learn our endemic names. And let’s learn to protect them.

This first appeared in my DailyO column. 

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Is the Great Indian Bustard the modern Dodo?

If someone calls you a dodo, you shouldn’t be flattered. You’ve just been called dumb, as someone who does not heed warnings.

The Great Indian Bustard, whose last viable population is in India, is now declared extinct in the Central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. This adventurous bird does not ‘heed’ conservation plans made for it, flying outside protected areas. (But really, is that the bird’s fault?) With its steep local extinction curve, are we looking at the modern dodo? Leave your comments below.

This is a follow up to my previous piece.

There was once an Indian bird It asked us for a word,

Or two: “do grant me grass and do save me the farce”.

The Great Indian Bustard has gone extinct in Madhya Pradesh. Let’s take a step back: I won’t blame you if you have no idea what I’m talking about. Let’s look at the name again. This is a bustard, presumably some sort of bird, or perhaps just a misspelling of a favourite English abuse used in old Hindi movies.

Well, it is a bird, it’s obviously Indian, and it’s also “Great”.

Yes, and no.

Impressed by its large size — it’s one metre tall, up to 14 kilos in weight, ornithologists of yore called the Indian Bustard “Great”. But really, there is nothing great about being the Great Indian Bustard. Critically endangered, the GIB is down to the last 150 birds in India, and this is possibly the last viable population on earth. For the past two years, GIB have disappeared from Madhya Pradesh, after going extinct from Uttar Pradesh and other states.

Why, you ask?

Well imagine there is a classroom of naughty animals. Some are wilder, and more unpredictable than others.

bustard-2_120414031541.jpg

There are birds such as crows and animals such as Nilgai, which eat a whole range of things, and can exist in a whole bunch of places. They are doing fine, going forward and proliferating. Then there are birds like the GIB, which is found in a place no one really cares about: grasslands and scrub forests. They fly long distances, secretively, and unpredictably. They don’t stay in the protected areas which have been made for them. Crazy, did I hear you say? Dodo, do I hear another person say?

It’s ironic that among people, “disruptive” thought is sought after for the best fellowships on earth. People who think out of the box are the leaders of tomorrow, the mad geniuses, the chosen ones. Not true for a big bird that flies out of the box of protected areas.

Consider this. The GIB inhabits grasslands and scrub forests, which look bone-dry and not even green, very different from the lush emerald forests Indian wildlife and wilds are associated with. Grasslands and scrub forests are often classified as “wasteland” in governmental record, which goes to show that they are considered productive only if they are annexed and changed. The GIB was in the running for national bird of India, but anecdotes say that it lost out, because its name was considered too reminiscent of “bastard”.

Apart from linguistics, the GIB also presents a pulsating conservation challenge. It really combats the box, and asks for the box to be kicked at and utterly dismantled. The GIB doesn’t stay in protected areas: it flies outside designated reserves like Karera (Madhya Pradesh) and Great Indian Bustard (Maharashtra) sanctuaries, foraging in private fields, meeting real people who may or may not care about a harmless, rather hefty bird. This presents a defiance to the forest department: protecting this bird is a classic conservation challenge.

For any GIB conservation plan will have to consider private land, many players, people’s fancies, and the bird’s whims. And that’s why GIB conservation has failed absurdly. In some places such as the Great Indian Bustard sanctuary in Solapur, people’s needs — such as building bigger houses — have been curtailed so ridiculously that they have begun to hate anything to do with the Bustard.

great-indian-bustard_120414032219.jpg

In Karera, protection of wild animals has been so successful, that swiftly breeding Blackbuck have destroyed adjacent crops. Even while there is no increase in GIB numbers. Here as in elsewhere, non-traditional management decisions have to be taken.

So there you have it: an elusive bird, which defies plans. No half-hearted, just-on-paper attempts will do for it. It asks instead for smart and adaptive management, something we are just not good at.

But again, consider this: if we learn how to conserve the GIB, then we would be able to tackle many multi-faceted and multi-tailed, sweaty and sticky environmental problems. The forest department will need to engage outside its constituency, ie start talking to the farmer as priority. Conservationists will have to stitch together plans with goals that are not fixed, but constantly appraised and updated adaptively.

There is a thing known as generational amnesia. It’s where the new generation forgets what the earlier one knew as truth. For instance, children from the USA think milk comes from cartons (whose heard of cows?); and children in Delhi think house sparrows are rare species (even though their parents grew up with the ubiquitous, charming sparrows).

The dodo is used as a euphemism for a stupid creature. But was the dodo, not-shy of humans and thus readily hunted — stupid, or were the people who hunted it, wanton and indiscriminate? There may be a time wherein the GIB will remain a pretty picture on an Indian stamp; permanently elusive and permanently extinct. And will the GIB, in its defiance of neatly-set out conservation plans, be known as the modern dodo?

Once upon a time, there was an Indian bird.

Not that Great being a Great Indian Bustard

Telling the story of a bird that doesn’t seem to want to conserved. It flies where it wants– that is, outside protected areas– it shows itself only on a few days a year. More reason for us to conserve the enigma that is the Great Indian Bustard! What are your thoughts?

This piece first appeared here.

Not that Great being an Indian Bustard

NEHA SINHA

The Great Indian Bustard

The Great Indian Bustard

Unorthodox models of conservation are needed to save this elusive and magnificent big bird

“Have you seen the Big Five?” That’s the question you will invariably be asked if you visit the East African states. The Big Five, Africa’s largest, and thus most prominent, mammals — the lion, the rhino, the leopard, the buffalo and the elephant — have dominated camp fire stories, tourist expectations and the growth of conservation.

Across the world, big animals have a lure that is unmatched — they inspire knee-knocking fear, awe and wonder. The Galapagos tortoise, weighing over 400 kilograms, is also called the Galapagos “giant,” the Indian Rhino is also called the “Great” Indian Rhino, and the elephant is often called the “gentle giant.” In India, much like in Africa, we share habitat with a range of veritable giants: the tiger, the largest of all big cats; the lion, also called the “king” of the jungle; and the brown and black bears, possibly the largest of all carnivores in this country. Yet, one giant has missed out, even though its very name gives away both its endemism as well as its size: the Great Indian Bustard.

Rajasthan’s lead

Found only in India and Pakistan, the sole viable range and population of the Great Indian Bustard is now in India. Here too, the bird, which weighs between 18-20 kilograms and the size of a terrier, has lost more than 90 per cent of its habitat, and is down to a miniscule population of 200 individuals. Thus, it is possibly one of the most critical of all critically endangered bird species in India. Last year, the Ministry of Environment and Forests issued guidelines to start a Centrally sponsored plan called “Project Bustard” in the bustard range States — a much delayed clarion call for three neglected types of bustards, of which the Great Indian Bustard is numerically the closest to extinction. On the lines of Project Tiger and Project Elephant, other Great Indian Bustard States such as Rajasthan, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra have been invited to submit species recovery plans to the Centre to avail of funding and start long-term conservation programmes. Last month, the Supreme Court called for the operationalisation of the National Wildlife Action Plan and specifically directed the Government of India and the Union Environment Ministry towards starting species recovery plans for the bird. This month, on World Environment Day, Rajasthan became the first State to declare Project Great Indian Bustard. This is the first time that the west Indian State has announced a landscape plan for its State bird. While we need more range States to actively pursue Project Bustard, we will have to move away from traditional approaches to Centrally sponsored conservation schemes and look at a truly unorthodox protection regime for this unorthodox bird.

Ecological and social niche

The Great Indian Bustard is one of the heaviest flying birds on earth. With its head turned up at a characteristic 45° angle, it gives out a deep “hoom” call, which can be a heard up to a kilometre away. Its local names, Godawan and hoom, are derived from this booming call, an indication of the way its presence has built up in local consciousness. In the 1960s, ornithologist Salim Ali proposed that to “focus interest and solicitude” on a bird that represented the country, the bird should be chosen as the national bird. Despite this consideration and its prominent size, it has since been relegated to complete neglect, perhaps because of the habitat it lives in: semi-arid grasslands, which to untrained government eyes, is an epithet for a wasteland. The only habitat protection law that India has is the Forest Conservation Act (1980). And therefore the question is: are grasslands “forests”? Biologists argue that grasslands should be legally considered as forests, for the purpose of conservation of both the habitat and the unique assemblages of species they hold. The only species that went extinct in independent India was the Cheetah, also a grassland species. In its report of the Task Force for Grasslands and Deserts, the Planning Commission notes that species closest to extermination are grassland species, found in dry, wet and high altitude grasslands, such as the lesser florican, the pygmy hog, the Bengal florican and the Nilgiri Tahr. Forest “management” has led zealous forest departments, trained to raise forests and nothing else, towards burning grasses, ploughing soil, and planting trees where grasslands once swayed.

The Great Indian Bustard, with most of its habitat range lost, today poses one of the most pressing challenges to conservation design and management. Despite being such a huge bird, it is a cryptic giant. It converges before the monsoon at sites where it displays for breeding, enlarging its neck and “moustaches.” But where it goes in the non-breeding season is a mystery. With the display season now on, Gujarat, for the first time, has granted permission to the Wildlife Institute of India and others to satellite track the Great Indian Bustard (in the way tigers have been tracked before) to understand its foraging and dispersing ecology. Conserving this bird will mean both legal protection of breeding and display areas, and joining hands with communities over a large, legally unprotected landscape where the Bustard “disappears” to. Herein is the biggest challenge — to help create ownership towards the last few individuals of this wandering, vagrant bird, the very last evolutionary dregs of a species whose habitat is now an anachronism. It will, in effect, mean creating a vibrant social niche among people, for a bird which is near forgotten.

Community-driven

Where semi-arid grasslands are not available, the Great Indian Bustard is found in pseudo-grasslands — traditional cropping areas of traditional crops, such as millets and sorghum. Here, it has also been found to nest. If arid and semi-arid grasslands — both natural as well as pseudo — can escape land-use change, the other pressing concern is to allow some areas to retain their traditional Great Indian Bustard friendly crops.

Instead of a strictly protectionist or legally-enforced approach, we will need a management approach, most of which will have to be self-enforced by communities. Conservation planning will have to involve new players, like district commissioners, the revenue department, agricultural officers and gram sabhas. All of them have to be roped in to identify and protect revenue and private lands that bustards forage on, and to encourage natural agro-biodiversity.

If we can save the Great Indian Bustard from extinction, it will mean a triumph against the fatal end, but also a template for facing the typical problems of contemporary conservation today: working with whatever habitat we have left, using principles of restoration ecology to safeguard ecological baselines, and creating reconciliation with dense human communities who hold rights to these areas and are a reality in wildlife conservation today.

(Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society. The views expressed are personal. E-mail:n.sinha@bnhs.org.)

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