Let's imagine a remote, pristine island in Indian waters, with thick forests, hilly terrain (flat sandy beach islands are so passé), lots of birds, plenty of lizards, a freshwater spring, incredible coral reefs. No snakes, did you say? Let's have a harmless, colourful little fellow. I had dreamt of visiting just such an island for many years. In April, I had to pinch myself several times for there I was, with nine friends, in a 48-foot-yacht headed across the Andaman Sea toward an extinct volcano, Narcondam.

A few civilians have visited this island, most of them birders, attracted by the Narcondam hornbill. About 400 of these birds are confined to the 7 sq. km hillock and not found anywhere else on earth. Well actually, somebody did smuggle them, as the members of the Bird Ecology Study Group posted photographs of a female Narcondam hornbill from a couple of locations in Singapore a few years ago.

Even as we rounded the southern tip of the island and made for Police Post Bay, the anchorage point on the northeast coast, we could see the birds flying back and forth. From the yacht, Narcondam looked densely forested all the way up the 710-metre peak.

A posse of the Indian Reserve Battalion, a paramilitary force, ensures that the Indian flag remains planted on the island. The original groves of Burmese fish-tail palms have been replaced by extensive coconut, banana, and areca plantations maintained by the residents. Hidden under the dense foliage, scores of goats were reported to be eating the hornbills out of their fragile home.

These caprines are not among the original inhabitants of the island. Through the Age of Exploration that lasted from the early 15th Century to end of the 17th Century, there had been a widespread practice of seeding remote isles with livestock such as goats, pigs, fowl, rabbits and even giant tortoises for passing ships to stock up on their transoceanic voyages and occasionally as sustenance for shipwrecked sailors.

In 1899, A.O. Hume says that “pigs, goats and fowls” had been released on Narcondam, but there is no record of when the first releases took place. We don't know if these were eaten up by unfortunate sailors and pirates known to frequent these waters, or whether the domestic animals just died out.

Prolific growth

When island authorities all around the world were actively exterminating these feral animals, in 1976, the Indian Police brought two pairs of goats to keep their personnel stationed on Narcondam provided with animal protein. Perhaps the men got sick of eating mutton every day, maybe raising ungulates, like the plantations, became a lucrative business or just that goats have a habit of getting out of hand as they have on so many islands. By 1998, there were 400 of them, most free-ranging through the island with no fear of predators.

From the early 1990s, ornithologists have been campaigning for the goats to be removed. Since Narcondam is covered by loose volcanic rocks, some argued, tree roots were essentially holding the island together. The fig trees in particular, on which the hornbills depended to feed their chicks, were in danger, as the ungulates ate all the seedlings, preventing regeneration. In short, goats were bad news for the island.

Over three days we trekked almost a third of the island, looking for goat droppings, trails, nibble marks on plants, any signs of these alien herbivores, but found none. Astonishingly, despite the tough terrain, the authorities had done what the bird people wanted: removed all the goats! Or, did they? The resident police told us that just the previous week they had seen a pair skitter away up the slopes. Before two goats become many, they have to be removed! Only time will tell what impact these ungulates have had on the island; perhaps inedible species of plants have proliferated as the goats whittled the competition away.

(The author can be reached at janaki@gmail.com)