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Threatened Birds Of India

August 2012: Threatened Birds of India, Author Asad Rahmani
Published by Oxford University Press, Hardcover, XVI + 864 pages, Price: 3,000/-


There is probably no organisation as critically poised to lead India towards an ecological recovery than the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). Why? Because its founding fathers and the visionary legends, who set up and subsequently ran the Society for over 100 years, understood viscerally that honing in on species and then protecting their habitats was a worthwhile mission in life. Today, with climate change having become the number one threat to the survival of a billion souls who inhabit the landmass upon which this book is focussed, the ecological restoration of wetlands, grasslands, deserts, coasts, forests, rivers and mountains is probably the only real hope we have of overcoming the dangerous trials of life thrust upon Homo sapiens by development ambitions of an ill-informed coterie of developers who are proving extremely difficult to rein in.


The Black-breasted Parrotbill Paradoxornis flavirostris, photographed here in the Dibru Saikhowa National Park, Assam, is endemic to the Indian subcontinent and in recent times only to India, where it is known from Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. Credit:Dhritiman Mukherjee 


The Threatened Birds of India by Dr. Asad Rahmani highlights the fact that birds are amongst the finest ecological indicators of the health of the Indian subcontinent. Apart from all else, the book details and illustrates 15 ‘Critically Endangered’, 15 ‘Endangered’, 52 ‘Vulnerable’, 66 ‘Near Threatened’ and two ‘Data Deficient’ bird species. And why is this significant? Because like a barometer, or a thermometer, the presence-absence of birds in a given space gives us a snapshot of the ‘health graph’ of landscapes. In the book Birdlife International puts it this way: “The Houbara Bustard Chlamydotis undulata should be classified as Vulnerable because it has undergone rapid population decline over three generations (20 years) owing largely to unsustainable hunting levels, as well as habitat degradation.”


Now the above sentence, untranslated, may not mean much to Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, but if he were to allow even minimal good-governance to prevail then he would heed even a novice scientist in his Ministry of Environment and Forests who might translate the Birdlife International comment as follows: “Sir, by pushing government policies that undervalue and therefore lead to the degradation and destruction of the grassland habitats of the Houbara, and by simultaneously depriving protection agencies of the resources to protect the birds and their habitats... we are consciously pushing the bird towards extinction.”


The Satyr Tragopan Tragopan satyra, is a pheasant found in the Himalayan reaches of India, Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. It prefers moist oak and rhododendron forests with dense undergrowth and bamboo clumps. In the breeding season, males develop blue horns and a gular wattle. Although the least threatened of the tragopans, Satyr Tragopans still face many threats including hunting and habitat loss. Credit:Shantanu Prasad


The author of the book, Dr. Asad Rahmani, far from being a novice scientist, is one of the most experienced ornithologists in India. Good governance would suggest that policy makers in the highest echelons of decision making listen to him at the very least. Here is what he recently wrote in a letter to the Environment Minister, Mrs. Jayanti Natarajan, asking that a road not be built that would adversely affect flamingoes in Kutchh: “If the proposed road is allowed to be constructed, it would in all probability result in the abandonment of this breeding site and thus India would lose the only breeding site of flamingoes, which in turn could spell doom to the population of these birds in the Indian subcontinent.” Simple. Direct. And based on the baseline data collected down the decades by the BNHS, much of which is represented by the content of the book under review.


There is more sage advice by the author contained in the book: “While the noble efforts to save our national animal through Project Tiger should be better funded, better staffed, and expanded by including many rich tiger-inhabited areas, we need to look beyond Project Tiger if we want to save all wildlife and all wild areas.” That he goes on to state unequivocally, is the purpose of the book, which I would strongly recommend not just to birders and ornithologists, but to anyone interested in the survival of India itself.


A quick overview of the content of this mammoth enterprise should explain why.


The Greater Adjutant Leptoptilos dubius is a member of the stork family, Ciconiidae. Once found widely across southern Asia, mainly in India but extending east to Borneo, the Greater Adjutant is now restricted to a much smaller range with only two small breeding populations with the largest colony in Assam and the other in Cambodia. Credit:Clement Francis 


Critically endangered


A total of 15 species ranging from the White-bellied Heron Ardea insignis and White-backed Vulture Gyps bengalensis to Jerdon’s Courser Rhinoptilus bitorquatus and the Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewitti have been described. Each description is accompanied by specific expert advice on how the future of the birds can be made more secure. For the Forest Owlet Heteroglaux blewitti for instance, he suggests: “Where teak forests have been destroyed or damaged, the Forest Department should undertake restoration through the removal of non-native species and replanting of teak.” This may sound obvious, but anyone who has experienced the monumental ecological ignorance of some actions taken by Forest Departments across Indian states will agree, that someone needs to take forest policy makers through the basics all over again.


Critically endangered


Listed here are another 15 birds including the Green Peafowl Pavo muticus and Red-breasted Goose Branta ruficollis, Lesser Florican Sypheotides indicus and the Narcondam Hornbill Aceros narcondami. The last mentioned bird is now even more threatened precisely because poor governance prompts decision makers to ignore good advice. On page 293 of The Threatened Birds of India, Dr. Rahmani writes almost blandly: “Any further tree felling on the island should be stopped and larger trees especially, should be protected... no infrastructure should be developed in the interior or top of the island.” That should have been sufficient for the correct action to be taken. Instead, the author and his colleagues find themselves pitted against policy decisions to set up, believe it or not, a new coastal radar installation on the island, with its attendant
paraphernalia – buildings, lights, roads when the radar facility could easily have been redesigned to be located in existing buildings in the police complex.


The Bengal Florican Houbaropsis bengalensis seen here in the Manas National Park, Assam India, is a rare bustard species from the Indian subcontinent, with a smaller separate population in Southeast Asia. It is the only member of the genus Houbaropsis. Probably less than 1,000 and perhaps as few as 500 adult birds are believed to exist. Credit:Dhritiman Mukherjee 




That as many as 52 species have been earmarked for this chapter should send a pall of gloom through all of us who care about the ecological health of our country. These birds are not yet critically endangered, but it looks like these species are quickly headed in that direction. And that is not surprising, given the lack of knowledge about the ecological services that wild nature provides. The Nicobar Megapode Megapodius nicobariensis heads the list, which fans through the geography of India to demonstrate that virtually no wilderness is safe any longer. The Manipur Bush-quail Perdicula manipurensis in the Northeast, which the author suggests may be more threatened than presumed, needs its grassland habitat to be protected. Equally the Black-breasted Parrotbill Paradoxornis flavirostris in Dibru Saikhowa and the proposed extension zones of Kaziranga will probably vanish if we do not “promote widespread conservation awareness initiatives focusing on sustainable management of grasslands to maximise both thatch productivity for local people and make available habitat for grassland birds.” Way on the other side of India, the Nilgiri Pipit Anthus nilghiriensis too needs its grasslands protected and it needs resources allocated to study its natural history.


Near threatened


The Satyr Tragopan Tragopan satyra, a stunning bird that graces the cover of this invaluable book, needs to be studied, surveyed and protected with the involvement of local communities who could benefit from controlled tourism. What is causing the bird to vanish, apart from the demand of the wildlife trade, are simple things like firewood collection, dogs abandoned by army units that go feral and hunt wild species, and the lack of protection infrastructure in protected forests such as Neora Valley, Singhalila and Maenam. The author advocates a well-supported, scientific breed and release programme, for which India clearly does possess the technology, and human resource, but perhaps not yet the political will. The Grey-headed Fish Eagle Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus, says the author, is threatened by the pesticides that it ingests with the fish it depends on. The future of the eagle, and that of our children who are equally threatened by pesticides, depends on whose writ runs in the days ahead – that of Dr. Asad Rahmani and other ecologists, or that of the hard-lobbying pesticide peddlers whose lethal business has been discredited by scientists in public, but has not yet been displaced in policy makers’ corridors! This is one species that the author lists as benefiting from tiger habitats such as Tadoba, Nagzira, Nagarahole, Corbett and more, even as he (justifiably) suggests that the wildlife conservation-sweep includes much more diverse and widespread bird habitats.


The Great Indian Bustard Ardeotis nigriceps or Indian Bustard is found in India and the adjoining regions of Pakistan. Once common on the dry plains of the Indian subcontinent, today perhaps as few as 250 individuals survive and the species is on the brink of extinction due to hunting and loss of its dry grassland and scrub habitat. Credit:Nirav Bhatt


Data deficient


Just two species are listed here, the Large-billed Reed-warbler Acrocephalus orinus and the Nicobar Scops-owl Otus alius, both of which so little is known that even the threats to them cannot reliably be listed. Wisely, he suggests, however, that even as international scientific cooperation efforts are launched to study the bird, its most potential habitats including Rampur in Himachal Pradesh and similar habitats in Uttarakhand and Ladakh, need to be immediately preserved. As for the owl, though “virtually nothing is known of its ecology... little needs to be done (other than launch studies) since the whole of Great Nicobar is a Biosphere Reserve, which is very well protected.”


The book closes with brief descriptions of the Andaman Barn Owl Tyto deroepstorffi and the Andaman Cuckoo-shrike Coracina dobsoni (both of which should be listed as Near Threatened) and the Andaman Teal Anas albogularis, which the author suggests should be listed as Vulnerable.


The Pallas’s Fish Eagle Haliaeetus leucoryphus, also known as Pallas’s Sea Eagle is vulnerable because of direct persecution, habitat degradation, pollution, and draining of lakes or overfishing. In India, the eagle is also threatened by the spread of water hyacinth in lakes which makes it difficult to find prey. Its large range is deceptive, as this bird is rare and isolated throughout its territory and may not breed in large areas of it. Credit:Dhritiman Mukherjee


To begin with the book perfectly represents the “small blue planet” reality. Not only because the subject is birds that best exemplify the ‘border-lessness’ of our world, but also because it is a collaboration between scientists who recognise no boundaries either. Quiet, purposeful men and women from Birdlife/IUCN who tramp the four corners of the globe joined purpose with ornithologists, naturalists and academics in India to come up with a manuscript that puts together archival and current information that could help us to intelligently target our protection resources to secure habitats that will give us the best chance of keeping threatened bird species alive in the subcontinent.


The money generated from sale of the book will go to the Indian Bird Conservation Network and for threatened species conservation. The book is available at Oxford University Press outlets and also at the BNHS.


A Reviewed by Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Vol XXXII No. 4, August 2012


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