Hornbills are beautiful birds familiar to many as farmers of the forest that ensure the dispersal of fruit seeds. Nine species of these large birds are found in India, mainly in the Northeast and the Western ghats; Narcondam island in the Andamans hosts the critically endangered Narcondam hornbill. The great hornbill, a magnificent bird reaching a length of three-and-a-half feet, is distinguished by a big yellow beak with a casque and striking tail feathers. Sadly, accelerating habitat loss threatens its future, and hunting has depleted populations. It is protected at the highest level under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, but that can do little to save the habitat. In the Western ghats, the proposed hydroelectric project at Athirapilly across the Chalakudy river will destroy precious landscape sheltering the species, and three others — the Malabar pied, the Malabar grey, and Indian grey hornbills. This area is part of the Athirapilly-Vazhachal-Chalakudy riverine region, a biodiversity hotspot. There is some hope that continuing scientific studies on hornbills in the Western ghats will save the birds; they have highlighted the role of undisturbed forests, as opposed to degraded ones, in sustaining healthy populations. It is heartening that the Kerala Forest department, in partnership with researchers and Kadar tribal people, is carrying out a large-scale exercise of monitoring nesting-holes over an extensive area of hornbill habitat.

Scientific studies done in Arunachal Pradesh establish that the great hornbill thrives in unlogged forest, in comparison with selectively logged forest and plantations. A similar pattern emerged in a study covering the Agasthyamalai and the Anamalais in Tamil Nadu. Clearly, the abundance of hornbill species depends heavily on the availability of suitable fruit and nesting trees. But more important is the evidence that the great hornbill is particularly vulnerable to habitat alteration. What this highlights is the need to preserve the fragile remnants of the Western ghats, and carefully nurture food-providing trees in fragmented forests. The community-based conservation model involving the Kadar being implemented in Kerala can add vital data to existing knowledge on nesting activity. An experiment to place artificial nest cavities in large evergreen trees in the Anamalais a few years ago did attract great hornbills — but disappointingly, no nesting activity took place at the end of two seasons. Hornbill conservation must proceed along the twin paths of weaning away tribal hunters — some of whom use the beaks as decorative crests — through the provision of substitutes, and nursing forest fragments back to health using science.

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