A dire future awaits species endemic to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, if we do not intervene soon

This June, Lonesome George, the last of a subspecies of Galapagos tortoise, died. “Lonesome” is a funny, humanised way to refer to an animal, but lonesome, George certainly was, suffering human stress on the single isolated island of his origin.

And let me proffer another thought — there are George’s in the making in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a global biodiversity hot spot. These islands are habitat to endemic species, or unique speciations. Some bird species here are found nowhere else — like the Nicobar pigeon, Nicobar Bulbul, Andaman Scops-owl, Nicobar Parakeet, Andaman Drongo. There are 12 endemic bird species in Andaman Islands, and nine in Nicobar Islands, which occur nowhere else. 19 Important Bird Areas, indicators of both general and avian biodiversity, have been identified here. Practically speaking, the endemics of A&N Islands may not be able to survive elsewhere: they are hemmed in by their differences, and the specialised habitat niches they have evolved with. As was the case with the extinct Mauritian Dodo, island endemics cannot escape, and fall prey to introduced invasive species.

Two bird species specially stand at risk today.

On an island in the Andaman Sea, rise thick undulating moist evergreen forests on volcanic soil. This pristine island, Narcondam, is tiny for all the richness of flora and fauna it offers: it is short of seven square kilometres in size, covered in vines and tall, flowering trees. On this island lives the Narcondam Hornbill. At 300 individuals, it is a globally threatened species. These 6.8 square kilometres are its entire habitat — making it, quite distinguishably, the threatened bird with the smallest habitat in India. Other endemics on this island include the Andaman Scops-owl, two bats and one gecko. (Unlike the Narcondam Hornbill, these are found on other Andaman islands too.)

On Tillangchong, an island in the Nicobar group, lives another unique, endemic bird: the Nicobar Megapode. This once-prevalent, widely-hunted bird was left to its devices on the windswept Andaman and Nicobar Islands, suffering in turns the benefits and losses of island isolation. The tsunami of 2004 finished off 70 per cent of its population, and it is no longer on at least two islands it was earlier found on. Its biggest, most stable population now exists on Tillangchong island sanctuary, where this bird successfully builds its unique brand of nests — eggs laid on a gathered mound of rotting vegetable matter.

The Coast Guard wants to build a radar, a power station and a road in Narcondam. And the Navy has received in-principle approval for building a missile testing range on Tillangchong. Construction poses direct and indirect risks: apart from habitat destruction, construction material is known to be a potent source of invasive species on islands, carrying spores, seeds and rodents.

The question posed to both projects should not be “why?”, but “where?”. If we have to safeguard the future of these species, projects such as these will have to shift, because the endemics cannot.

And we must ask: are these birds going to be the next Lonesome Georges?

(Neha Sinha is a writer and conservationist with the Bombay Natural History Society. Views expressed are personal.)

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