Their population dispersion in Kerala, a wet state, points to climate change and the drying up of formerly wet areas like the southern Western Ghats
The Indian Peacock is an intriguing bird, with its striking feather train and metallic blue-green plumage. Peacocks are male Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus) belonging to the Phasianidae family.
The Indian peafowl is a native of India and some parts of Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The Arakan hills prevented their spread further east while the Himalayas and the Karakoram did so northwards.
As our national bird, the peacock has the utmost level of legal protection. It comes under Section 51 (1-A) of Schedule I of the Wild (Life) (Protection) Act, 1972, with imprisonment that may be extended up to seven years, along with a fine that shall not be less than Rs 10,000.
Despite this, these birds experienced dwindling populations for many decades due to habitat loss, poaching and contamination of their food sources.
In 1991, the peafowl population census conducted by the World Wide Fund for Nature revealed that 50 per cent of the species had declined, compared to their number at the time of independence.
The primary cause of their decline was poaching. Our laws allow the collection of shed feathers of peacocks, but once the feathers are being used on artefacts or other items, it is difficult to judge whether they were shed or pulled out.
Peafowl have been mercilessly killed all over Rajasthan, Haryana and the peripheries of Delhi — once a rich peacock belt. Peacocks were killed in higher number than peahens, giving rise to skewed populations.
Demand for their feathers also increases before festivals like Janamashthami. These birds have a habit of sleeping on the same tree every night, not very high above the ground due to their heavy weight, making them easy targets for poachers.
Their regal beauty and courtship dance during the monsoon is unfortunately the cause of their downfall as they are mostly killed during the mating season, when they are out in the open, displaying themselves.
Due to their wide bio-geographical spread, they are generally killed outside protected areas. Thus, the reporting and conviction of cases is quite low, encouraging illegal trade.
Peafowl poaching is also for their white meat, largely consumed by the Mongiya, Kangar and Bheel tribes of Rajasthan, due to an unfounded belief that it makes them more energetic and powerful.
Peacock herl fibres were bleached, burned or dyed for fly-tying by fishermen. Even their heads were used as charms or talismans for a long time.
The Narikurava gypsy tribe of Tamil Nadu poached peafowl for their oil, which is considered to be an aphrodisiac in many Siddha preparations.
Their cadavers are also used. Their legs are dried for powder preparations to be used by Siddha physicians to relieve arthritic pain. The Rabari community of north, west and central India, used peafowl ashes mixed with honey as a medicine to cure asthma.
Bhasma and churnam (feather ashes), claiming to cure hiccups, sickness, vomiting were also sold in many Siddha drug stores in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat and Rajasthan.
The other leading cause of peafowl decline was attributed to environmental contamination by agrochemicals. According to the Earth Island Journal, the use of Chloropyriphos, 2-4D and Endosulfan seed treatment by farmers in order to avoid termites, was responsible for poisoning peafowl.
There is the case study of 40 peacocks that were found dead in the city of Morena (name derived from ‘Mor’, Hindi for ‘Peacock’) in Madhya Pradesh. Their post-mortem revealed that the deaths were caused by consuming seeds washed with insecticide from nearby fields.
They were observed as being unable to fly and were falling off trees. The concentration of insecticides in the dead peafowl was determined to be around 0.7575 parts per million, which is at least three times higher than the prescribed levels of insecticide applications on seeds.
Incidents of direct poisoning of waterholes by locals in order to kill peafowl for meat and feathers have also been reported.
Since 2014, Indian Peafowl have been protected under Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and India’s export and import policy, in which animal articles are subjected to stricter restrictions along with additional documentations upon import.
Thanks to increased awareness and strengthening of legislative action, their population has reached stable levels in recent decades. Peafowl are now listed under the ‘Least Concern’ (LC) category of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red Data list.
They have been found to be stable under the range size criterion and population trend criterion (>30 per cent decline over the last three decades).
According to the State of Bird report 2020, more than 50 per cent of Indian bird species have shown a declining trend, except peafowl and house sparrows that have increased dramatically over the last few decades.
Spread of peafowl
Over the span of the last 20 years, birdwatchers in Kerala have been noticing Indian peafowl in their region — a dry land bird in a wet state.
Their expansion to newer regions may appear to be good news, but the deeper reasons are worrying. Increasing urbanisation, local extinction of their natural predators (like jackals) and even climate change have led to changes in peafowl population dynamics, although this is not supported by thorough research at the moment.
A recent study conducted by Sanjo Jose and PO Nameer of Kerala Agricultural University, addressed this issue. Peafowl prefer regions with less than 75 mm rainfall in the dry season and 1,500 mm rainfall annually.
They conducted climate modelling along with peafowl population comparisons, with 11 bioclimatic factors. This helped them in developing maps to predict the peafowl’s population trends in the future.
Prevailing pre- and post-monsoon precipitation patterns associated with the general trend of increasing temperatures is contributing to the peafowl population explosion.
At present, peafowl populations are on the rise in 19 per cent of Kerala. These birds have been found in Thrissur, Palakkad, Mallapuram and Kasargod districts. This newly colonised area is also expected to increase up to 55 per cent of the state’s area by the 2050s.
However, the model also predicted a reduction in their range by 22-32 per cent by the 2070s. Still more research is needed to understand and support what is influencing such patterns.
These findings are backed up by projected climate change scenarios. Peafowls prefer semi-arid biomes and dry deciduous forests. Their population dispersions point towards more open areas with suitably drier conditions, which were not formerly present in the southern Western Ghats.
Agricultural lands acting as a breeding ground for peafowl in Kerala has its own share of associated hassles. Peafowl eating habits, based on seeds and saplings, has led to large crop damage, especially paddy, over a period.
This also fuels man-animal conflicts which can cause unexpected ecological disturbances.
A deeper understanding of the real reasons behind the spread of peafowl makes one circumspect about celebrating it.
Even though these magnificent birds exhibit stable populations as compared to previous decades, along with newer colonisations, the main question is: Are these changes beneficial on a holistic level to peafowl, their associated organisms or even us?
Swasti Kaushik is a student of the Institute of Environmental Studies, Kurukshetra University. Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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