With the conservation effort in India still tiger-centric, the threatened birds need immediate attention
Right at the start, this book sets the argument in motion by rapping the conservation effort in the country across the knuckles. Most of the action, it notes, is tiger-centric, with little attention paid to other taxa.
Threatened Birds of India is a fine example of worldwide collaboration among organisations and individuals with contributions from hundreds of ornithologists, field biologists, avid birders and wildlife photographers, making it a comprehensive collection on the threatened birds of India and their conservation requirements.
The field characteristics, distribution, ecology, threats and recommendations of conservation for each of the 158 threatened birds, have been covered in detail with snippets on taxonomy and etymology and a cover photo beautifully depicting the natural beauty of the birds and a few more pictures revealing their habitats facing slow death, mostly due to anthropogenic and development pressure. Sample this: In 2001, Uttarakhand State’s Secretariat was built on the main habitat of the western population of Yellow Weaver bird.
The book is a follow-up to the Threatened Birds of Asia. It is not a substitute but a supplement on only birds found in India and important in the Indian context with maps indicating general distribution from verifiable site records, says Asad R. Rahmani, the lead author of the book.
One of the recurring themes is the arbitrary listing of species in various schedules which does not follow any scientific pattern or guidelines. For instance, the Edible-nest Swiftlets in Andaman and Nicobar Islands is listed in Schedule I which has a nullifying effect on the in-situ and ex-situ conservation techniques initiated by Ravi Sankaran. This book has followed IUCN guidelines which are more scientific, dynamic and taking into consideration the threat and population trends.
A look at the graphs of the endemic, semi-endemic critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable and near threatened species clearly indicates that a majority of them occur in forests, wetlands, grasslands and landscape and the main issue in conservation is habitat management.
Before it details the threatened birds, it offers a few masterly articles. Abrar Ahmed has been for years painstakingly travelling the country to track trading of birds. Accompanied by pictures showing the cruelty, he has listed the threatened birds being traded and how the traditional tribal hunters still eke out a living while the ‘legal’ trade is now handled by a new breed of smart, educated upper class, hobbyists-turned-dealers.
The article on status of pesticide contamination in birds presents a painful picture based on scientific analysis. The study of organochlorine pesticide residues in 56 species of birds indicates varying levels of contamination, the authors say while emphasising on the impacts of pesticides on birds. In a predominantly agrarian economy, can there be any other solution?
An article by Neeraj Vagholikar spells out the danger to birdlife in Brahmaputra floodplains as there are plans to develop at least 137 hydel power projects in Arunachal Pradesh alone. Taking the case of Subansiri river, he says the 2,000 MW project could cause daily floods during peak hours of power production endangering birds like Swamp Francolin which breeds on the ground downstream. In his article, Asad R. Rahmani talks about the need to look beyond Project Tiger as it is not the final answer to all conservation programmes and does not cover desert, grasslands, coastal areas, marine ecosystems, wetlands, high altitude areas and wetlands. The reason is simple as nearly 50 per cent of threatened and near threatened bird species are not found in any Tiger Reserves.
Every book, somehow, serves a purpose. This book, however, has been written with a purpose — conservation of threatened birds. As it is born out of the inability of officials at the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to browse the net for Threatened Birds of Asia, the content of which is there absolutely free, here I list a few recommendations from the book for MoEF to take up as early as possible: The Centre and States should strictly implement the ban on veterinary use of diclofenac, including the use of human formulation of diclofenac, on livestock to save the Gyps vultures that have seen a drastic decline in population in a decade; declare Great Indian Bustard as the flagship species of the grasslands, and formulate a framework for interstate cooperation and prevent afforestation and conversion of grassland into cropland in bustard areas; start Project Bustards which should include Bengal Florican and its alluvial grassland habitat; commission studies on wintering ecology of Sociable Lapwing; implement Jerdon's Courser Recovery Plan prepared by BirldLife International through Andhra Pradesh Forest Department; stop removing of teak trees in known or potential Forest Owlet locations and support proposals to provide effective protection at Namdapha National Park, the habitat of White-bellied Heron, including creation of buffer zones.
These recommendations are only for the critically endangered species listed in the book. However, the read clearly reveals the MoEF has to focus on North Eastern and Himalayan States plus the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to save about 30 per cent of the threatened birds in the country. As for the others, the MoEF and State Forest Departments have to go through this mammoth collection to work out conservation strategies. The forest departments could do well to print region specific details in local languages and distribute it to the communities involved in conservation action. The content will be uploaded in BNHS and ENVIS websites for easy access to all.
Another thought that emerges is that the country definitely needs a few hundred more ornithologists at least as the book repeatedly stresses on the need to undertake surveys and studies for each and every threatened species. The best scientific minds need not be sitting in front of computers all their life. The natural world, birding and conservation action can be much more satisfying.
As a journalist keen on protection of wildlife habitat, I am left wondering who will save the habitats of birds when humans were being forcibly evicted from their traditional homelands in forests, grasslands and coastlands, the very habitat of birds. Do the governments listen to the calls of the birds?
There is a personal travel with every book. For my ten-year-old painter-daughter, the book is a treasure trove of unimaginable shades of colours. As for me, I find, as in my dreams, the Pink-headed Ducks (last seen in 1935) in reed-filled, still pools in the deep jungles of Myanmar.