Increased hunting of waterbirds leads to reduced diversity

Sitting targetsNearly 1,750 waterbirds are hunted per wetland each season every year.Special arrangement

Sitting targetsNearly 1,750 waterbirds are hunted per wetland each season every year.Special arrangement  

What used to be low-intensity, subsistence hunting has now transformed into a commercial, lucrative livelihood option. A recent study shows that increased hunting of wild waterbirds is decreasing bird numbers as well as drastically altering bird communities in some of the country’s wetlands.

India’s wetlands — natural and manmade — account for nearly 4.7% of the country's total geographic area. They provide numerous ecosystem services, including serving as refugia for nearly one-fifth of the country’s biodiversity, such as migratory birds. However, many of these waterbirds are hunted illegally in wetlands.

Scientists documented waterbird communities and their habitats in 27 wetlands in Tamil Nadu’s Kanchipuram district and interviewed 272 practising hunters to know the species hunted, hunting intensities and motivations for hunting.

Of the 53 bird species recorded in these 27 wetlands, 47 are hunted. Hunters usually preferred to poach larger birds, thus altering bird communities by skewing it towards smaller species, as the results published in the journal Ambio show.

The large waterbirds hunted include black-headed ibis, Asian openbill, Eurasian spoonbill, glossy ibis, great egret, painted stork and spot-billed pelican.

Birds even in protected wetland sites were not spared — hunting was prevalent in one (Karikilli bird sanctuary) of the two protected wetland sites. Nearly 1,750 waterbirds are hunted per wetland each season every year. The hunting is primarily between December and April and at dawn and dusk when birds are more active.

Wild meat

Contrary to belief, hunting was driven by market demand and not subsistence: a hunter made an average of Rs.12,500 per month with just a few hours’ effort daily. More than 70% of hunters said that there was an increase in demand for waterbird meat over the past decade from local eateries — three-quarters of the hunters supplied waterbirds to 426 eateries in the region. However, only eight of the 681 eateries surveyed acknowledged that they serve wild waterbird meat. Customers often had no knowledge that they were eating illegally-caught wild meat and not the domestic chicken or duck.

This hunting is causing drastic declines in waterbird diversity and numbers. The scale of hunting is shocking, says lead author Ramesh Ramachandran who currently works with the Wildlife Trust of India. “Habitat deterioration and wetland conversion are often cited as important pressures for waterbirds. Here, we demonstrate that illegal hunting is an additional and serious threat,” they write. Incidentally, hunting remains “one of the least studied aspects of biodiversity conservation”.

“In seven days, over visits to five open markets alone, we counted 21,864 birds for sale,” Ramachandran says.

“Law enforcement is crucial here. However, it should be targeted at buyers and middlemen. Direct enforcement will not be able to curb the over-three-lakh such hunters who operate in the state.” If consumption of wild meat continues, a zoonotic disease outbreak may also not be far away, he adds.

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