A concerted Hornbill conservation programme in Kerala has given the bird a new lease of life

They are magnificent, and look awkwardly huge with their oversized beaks. But Hornbills are beautiful with a splash of yellow on their beaks and with striking feathers.

The existence of the State bird was threatened with rapid habitat loss in Vazhachal forest division, till a community conservation programme, launched ten years back, and has today given the bird a new chance.

Though the bird is protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, for long there was little that could be done to save its depleting population. This was largely due to degradation of forests and hunting of the bird.

Vazhachal is a unique hornbill nesting site in the Western Ghats and is endemic to three varieties of the bird -the Malabar Pied, the Malabar Grey, and the Great Indian Hornbill.

Scientific studies on hornbills, initiatives of the Kerala Forest Department, Western Ghats Hornbill Foundation, along with partnership of the Kadar tribes have successful carried out extensive, sustained monitoring of nesting holes and conservation of the hornbills.

“Ten years back when this community-based conservation programme was launched the challenges were manifold.

Like in the case of any eco-system we had to create a benchmark data. We knew that the tribes were hunting the birds but this was not for trade but as a natural part of their life. An alternative plan for the tribes involving them, educating them had to be evolved based on their basic instincts. We also had to address it scientifically trying to locate the threat and provide a sustained solution,” informs K.H. Amita Bachan, of the Western Ghats Hornbill Foundation.

When the hornbill conservation programme started in 2004-05 six threat factors were identified. “Poaching by tribes, hunting of the birds by the non-tribals, forest fires that destroyed nesting trees, degradation of forest cover as a result of deforestation, urbanisation, health status of the nesting trees were the threats we had to address.”

Along with the forest department the foundation set about the task of training tribesmen in monitoring the species.

“Initially 20 of them, predominantly from the Kadar tribe were selected and trained to look for leftover food, faecal matter, and other visible signs of presence of the bird in and around trees. The sites were observed at least once a week and monitoring went on till the hatching of the eggs. We found the tribesmen earnest and their knowledge regarding the nesting trees of the bird invaluable.” Along with the monitoring the tribesmen also looked out for the other wildlife species in this area such as the tiger and the lion-tailed macaque.

When the project began there were 23 nests and around 100-120 birds. Today, there are 57 nests, abandoned nests have been re-established, new ones adopted, there are more than 200 birds now and the frequency of visibility of the birds has increased.

“The programme continued every year involving more tribal people. We have developed a nest monitoring protocol in local language and usually engage at least two tribesmen at a time, an elder experienced in forest dwelling and a youngster with knowledge to read and write. The initiative has received national and international attention as a successful indigenous community-based species and habitat monitoring programme. Its results were accepted by the 5th International Hornbill Conference held at Singapore 2009 where I got a chance to present two papers. We also produced and screened a documentary The Fragile World of Great Hornbills.”

The hornbills have a unique breeding biology and they also play a significant role as seed dispersers. But several other questions remain unanswered about their seasonal movement patterns and roosting behaviour. They move over large areas spreading seeds, and by conserving their populations the regeneration of forests is assured.

“Decline of hornbills, researches has shown will result in reduced seed dispersal and altered regeneration patterns of tree species. In Vazhachal there are 23 species of large trees where these birds usually nest. Around 50 per cent are endemic to the Western Ghats and 30 per cent of them are endangered. So, they need to be conserved if the hornbills are to survive.”

More than the overall progress of this conservation programme what is significant is the involvement and empowerment of the tribal community. “This has helped us revamp community gatherings and decision making in all the eight Kadar settlements in Vazhachal. The gramasabhas here today decide on the individuals to be deputed for monitoring, take decisions and also keep a record of what they have seen in the jungle,” says Amita Bachan.

As part of the 10th year of the monitoring programme, the foundation plans to release a book on the experience. “We also propose to publish an ecological monitoring protocol in Malayalam and English, with illustrating, regarding monitoring of hornbills, hornbill nest trees, list of non timber forest produce trees, fishes, endangered mammals, ancient trees and phenology (study of seasonal plant life cycle) of trees as a measure of climate change. We are in the process of developing an interactive, web-based portal where the public can also take part actively in the whole hornbill conservation programme,” informs Amita Bachan.

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