Fifteen birds from India continue to be critically endangered as per the IUCN Red List of Birds 2013. With awareness, conservation and accountability, we can hope for 2014 to be a better year

How was the overall bird scenario in India in 2013? Not so good, if the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List is anything to go by. According to the Red List of Birds 2013, 15 birds from India continue to be critically endangered.

As India’s partner with BirdLife International, an international Nature conservation partnership, which is the authority for birds for the Red List, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) has culled out a list of threatened birds of India. The picture it presents is quite depressing.

Birds such as the great Indian bustard (GIB), Jerdon’s courser, white-rumped vulture, slender-billed vulture, long-billed vulture, red-headed vulture, Bengal florican, and the forest owlet, among those in the Critically Endangered category, are in “grave danger”, according to Asad Rahmani, director, BNHS-India. He points out that all these are resident birds.

Of these, GIB, Jerdon’s courser and forest owlet “are almost confined to India” and hence, it is our responsibility to protect them, feels Rahmani. Also, a majority of the world’s population of the vulture species in the list is found in India, holding us further responsible for their protection.

But how protective are we of the birds? “The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) is doing very little about globally threatened Indian bird species. Even for our vulture conservation breeding programme, we have to depend upon outside agencies, mainly the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for funding,” says Rahmani in an email interview. He adds that conservationists must look beyond Project Tiger and pay attention to all wildlife, including threatened birds. “I have shown in my book Threatened Birds Of India (2012) that more than 50 per cent of threatened bird species do not occur in the tiger reserves.”

Rahmani calls for accountability and a scientific approach in conservation. “The GIB disappeared from Karera Bustard Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, but no one was held accountable. No one was punished and no lesson learnt,” he points out.

The Red List is only the “tip of the iceberg” says Rahmani. If studies are carried out on other bird species, many more could join the list. It’s sad that birds such as the Indian roller, black drongo, hoopoe, Oriental magpie robin, Indian pitta, paradise flycatcher and various species of nightjars that were considered common are not so anymore. Rahmani blames this on habitat destruction, hunting, and pesticides.

The use of pesticides in agriculture is affecting birds a great deal. “We have to document the impact of pesticides on birds at the all-India level,” says Rahmani and adds that he has suggested that the MoEF develop an ‘All-India Integrated Project on the Impact of Pesticides on Birds’.

According to the IUCN list, the river lapwing and river tern, have been “uplisted” from Least Concern to Near Threatened and the long-tailed duck, which was under Least Concern is now in the Vulnerable category.

But there’s hope. With increasing awareness and interest in birds, the spot-billed pelican, painted stork, Asian openbill and black-necked stork have benefitted from conservation, points out Rahmani. Perhaps the New Year will ring in better prospects for our winged friends.

The Chennai connect

Birder Gnanaskandan K. from Madras Naturalists’ Society spotted the river tern in January 2012 at the Siruthavur Lake. “It had a yellowish-orange beak, a long, forked tail and a black cap on the head,” he recalls. He points out that the Madras Museum has a specimen of the bird collected from Tada creek near Pulicat. The Museum also has a specimen of the Indian vulture, collected from St. Thomas Mount. The pink-headed duck, a bird that is now considered extinct was seen in Madras many years ago. The bird, along with the Himalayan quail, has been listed as Critically Endangered. Field guides point out that the pink-headed duck was sighted near Pulicat, says Gnanaskandan. A near-extinct bird has visited our city!