The Imbalance Act
There is very little concern for bird conservation in government circles
In a developing country like India, nature conservation gets the last priority. Funds allocated for protecting forests and environment by the Planning Commission in the Five Year Plans have rarely exceeded one per cent of the country’s budget. Within this meager allocation, birds are among those that get least priority. The country has a high-profile Project Tiger, flush with funds. There is a Project Elephant and a newly declared Project Snow Leopard. There is also a demand to start Project Dolphin. But there is no long-term project on birds, despite India being home to some of the world’s rarest birds.
There is practically no concern in government circles about India’s disappearing bird species. Most decision-makers think that Project Tiger will take care of all species as this project protects habitat, besides protecting the national animal. But then what about the many endangered and critically endangered species that live outside forests?
BirdLife International, a conglomeration of 112 conservation organisations from all over the world, is the official assessor of the status of birds for IUCN. The exercise, an annual affair involving thousands of volunteers, amateur birdwatchers, ornithologists, scientists, conservationists and field biologists, is reputed to be very comprehensive. It is said that among all taxa—mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians, insects, plants, marine invertebrates—the assessment of bird conservation is the most thorough and exhaustive. Many Indian experts, ornithologists and conservationists participate in this exercise.
The list of threatened birds, a testimony to human culpability, exploitation and neglect, is increasing every year. Just to take India’s case there were seven critically endangered species in 2000. Their numbers went up to nine in 2001; they increased to 12 in 2008; 14 in 2010 and 15 in 2011, when the Great Indian Bustard was added to the list.
Slotting the threatened
According to IUCN, critically endangered species are those facing extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future, and if nothing is done, the species might become extinct in 10 years, or in less than three generations (see http://iucn.org/themes/ssc/siteindex.htm for more details).
Marginally less threatened, according to the IUCN criterion, are endangered species. There are 16 endangered bird species in India, including Lesser Florican, Egyptian Vulture, Narcondam Hornbill and Masked Finfoot. Then there are vulnerable species: these face high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium term. Fifty-eight Indian birds fall in this category.
The species that are at a lower risk are termed near threatened. These are species I consider “sick”. They are not likely to die soon, but need our care and support to survive. There are 68 such species in India based on existing information but a comprehensive assessment of Indian birds is quite likely to make the list longer.
The species that are doing well are classified as “least concern” by IUCN . However, the dramatic decline of vulture species in the past 20 years and the slow decline of house sparrow indicate no species is safe enough in this human-dominated world. For example, in the 1990s, Gyps vultures of Asia were deemed as doing well according to IUCN but by 2001 the status of the bird had plunged to that of critically endangered species. We do not know which other species faces such unfortunate fate.
150 bird species need help
According to the BirdLife and IUCN list of 2011, more than 150 bird species with homes in India fall in globally threatened categories. Some of these like the Dalmatian Pelican, Marbled Teal, Japanese Quail, Grey-sided Thrush are migratory species; they make India their home in winters. A few like the Socotra Cormorant, Lesser White-fronted Goose and the Buff-breasted Sandpiper are occasional visitors. There are also some birds like Little Bustard, Hooded Crane and Red-breasted Goose which used to visit India but have not been seen in the country in the past 100 years. Since these birds make India their home for a part of the year, they figure in the threatened birds list of the country. We, however, cannot do much for their conservation as threats to them lie outside the country’s borders.
But even if we exclude these visitors, there are more than 130 Indian bird species that need immediate attention. The country certainly has a major responsibility towards birds unique to it and threatened like the Narcondam Hornbill, Grey-headed Bulbul, Nilgiri Blue Robin, White-bellied Blue Robin and Nicobar Bulbul. Then there are birds like the Great Indian Bustard, Lesser Florican, Rufous-rumped Grassbird and the Spot-billed Pelican whose global population will be in jeopardy if they disappear from India. The question is: are we doing anything to see that such birds survive in the increasingly human-dominated and materialistic country?
Apart from listing many bird species in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and all other bird species in Schedule IV (a list of protected species), and banning bird trade in 1992, not much has been done in India to protect the avian wealth. Many threatened species like the Austen’s Brown Hornbill in Namdapha in Arunachal Pradesh and Black-breasted Parrotbill in Kaziranga get incidental protection as they live in protected areas, while some like the Grey Pelican and Painted Storks in Kokkre-Bellur in Karnataka and Telineesapuram in Andhra Pradesh are protected by communities. But overall there is no government scheme to protect Indian birds. Harmful pesticides, many of them prohibited in other countries, are still being used and, in fact, being strangely promoted by the government of India, though it is proved they are harmful to insectivorous birds.
The result is that once common Indian Roller or neelkanth and the Black Drongo are now uncommon. Raptors, or birds of prey, which are at the apex of the food chain in the avian world are the worst victims of pesticide poisoning. During surveys and field work in the Thar Desert over the past 30 years, I have noticed massive decline of raptors. The sky is now almost empty of these birds. Similarly, nightjars which totally depend on nocturnal flying insects for food, are disappearing (although no data are available) even in protected forests. Next time you go to Dudhwa or Corbett National Park, you might have to strain yourself to hear the characteristic resonant chunk, chunk, chunk call of the large-tailed nightjar or the whiplash-like noise sweesh, sweesh of the Savanna Nightjar.
Do note that the Indian Roller, Black Drongo, Large-Tailed Nightjar and Savanna Nightjar are birds that require least concern according to IUCN. I have cited their example just to show that even “common” species are not so common anymore.
No uproar for these birds
The Great Indian Bustard, once found in Punjab and Haryana in the north to Bihar and Odisha in the east and to Tamil Nadu in the south is now critically endangered with perhaps less than 300 of them left in the world. In the 1980s, after a successful international conference on bustards at Jaipur, eight bustard sanctuaries were announced. But due to mismanagement and neglect, the bird has disappeared from four such “bustard” sanctuaries and is dying in the other four.
When the tiger disappeared from Sariska, there was national and international uproar and the prime minister had to intervene and promise urgent remedial measures. When the last bustard died in Karera Bustard Sanctuary of Madhya Pradesh in 1992, there was no one to cry.
The Greater Adjutant, a large ugly bird once extremely common in north and northeast India (and some south-east Asian countries), is now fighting a losing battle of survival. Perhaps less than a thousand are left in India, mainly in Assam. About 50 per cent of the bird’s population can be seen on the garbage dump outside Guwahati where it feeds on human waste. The proud owner of the jheels and marshlands where it fed on fish, frog and snakes, now forages for scraps left by humans because we have overtaken its home and resources by overfishing, poisoning and drainage of wetlands.
Ten years ago, a very active local conservation organisation, Green Guards, set up a rescue centre in Nagaon district. Here fallen and injured chicks of Greater Adjutant were rescued, raised, and later released when they were capable of looking after themselves. When the funds given by US Fish and Wildlife Service ran out, the rescue centre had to be closed. Since then attempts to raise funds within India have failed. No one has funds for a species on the verge of extinction. For mandarins in the Planning Commission, what difference will it make if one more species becomes extinct?
Let us now see an example of a species that IUCN has placed in the vulnerable category. The Indian Skimmer is very handsome tern-like bird, whose orange bill is perfectly adapted to skim over water. As soon as the bird touches any food item, its upper mandible shuts and the prey is caught. However, millions of years of evolution did not help this bird of larger Indian rivers adapt to this human-dominated world. The Indian Skimmer nests during summer on undisturbed sand islets that appear when the river water recedes. This adaptation lets it escape ground predators such as cats, fox, jackal, mongoose, dogs and snakes.
It now faces two major problems to which it cannot adapt: heavy withdrawal of water from most rivers for human consumption which leaves the sand islands accessible to ground predators, and contrastingly, sudden release of water from upstream dams which wash away its eggs and chicks. The result is that the bird’s number has plummeted during the last decade and it may even plunge to the endangered category. But will that make any difference to the planners?
Among the 68 near threatened Indian bird species, I will cite the example of Nicobar Parakeet to highlight the problem of birds in small islands.
The bird is unique to the Nicobar archipelago, where it is found in the Great Nicobar, Little Nicobar, Menchal and Kondul islands. It is found nowhere else in the world. This inhabitant of the rainforests, locally called chauraulo, was earlier hunted by traditional methods which did not make much difference to its numbers. But now air guns have tilted the balance: the parakeet has no defence against the gun pellets, and nowhere else to go. Their number is going down but since the forest is largely intact, the bird is still around. But for how long? Any further exploitation of forest and increase in hunting pressure will bring the species to the vulnerable category. Many other species in the Andaman and Nicobar islands face similar threats.
To protect Indian birdlife and all other taxa, we have to move away from a tiger-centric conservation paradigm. The government should treat all threatened species equally and make sure that species-targeted and habitat-targeted conservation actions are in place. The government is organising the next Conference of the Parties of the Convention of Biological Diversity in October 2012.
Can we prove we are taking sufficient measures to see that no Indian bird species goes extinct in the near future.