International experts are looking into the issues plaguing the Important Bird Areas (IBA) of Kerala.

A two-member team from the BirdLife International (BI), the agency which assesses the conservation status of birds worldwide, visited Kole wetlands in Thrissur on Wednesday. The team consisting of Ian Barber, Partner Development Officer, Asia, and Helen Byron, Senior International Casework officer of the Royal Society for Protection of Birds reached the Periyar Tiger Reserve on Thursday.

Neha Sinha, policy officer of the Bombay National History Society, is also accompanying the visiting team. The delegation will visit Vembanad and Kumarakom wetlands in Kottayam and Ernakulam districts on Friday.

An IBA, according to BirdLife International, “is an internationally agreed priority for conservation action.” They are “key sites for conservation – small enough to be conserved in their entirety and often already part of a protected-area network.”

The IBA programme aims to “to identify, protect and manage a network of sites that are significant for the long-term viability of naturally occurring bird populations, across the geographical range of those bird species for which a site-based approach is appropriate,” according to the agency.

The IBAs “hold significant numbers of one or more globally threatened species and are one of a set of sites that together hold a suite of restricted-range species or biome-restricted species.”

Kerala has 24 IBAs to its credit against the 466 in the country. Most of the bird areas of Kerala are either in protected areas or Reserve Forests, which are managed by the State Forest Department. This includes Silent Valley National Park, Chinnar Wild Life Sanctuary and Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary. However, a large number of the wetland IBAs are owned by private individuals and not covered by any strict conservation regime.

It is estimated that around 120 bird species of Kerala are wetland-dependent ones as revealed in the annual water foul census. The wetlands of Kerala are homes to around1.25 lakh birds. The Kole and Vembanad wetlands together support around 80 per cent of the water bird population of Kerala.

The reclamation of the wetlands and the resultant habitat loss of wetland-dependent birds were the major threats faced by the Kerala IBAs, said P.O. Nameer, the Kerala coordinator of the State coordinator of the Important Bird Area Programme. The delegation is also holding discussions with farmers, he said.

A major chunk of the wetlands of Kerala are in the possession of private persons and the use of wetlands for non-agricultural purposes is prevalent. This has huge impact on the habitats of wetland birds. Targeted poaching, use of pesticides in agriculture and runoff from the fields were taking its toll, Dr. Nameer said.

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