Flight to extinction

As many as 88 species of Indian birds are severely endangered. Sounding a red alert, 
Asad R. Rahmani says it is time to take immediate steps to save them

As far as bird diversity is concerned, India is a blessed country. It has more than 1200 bird species, or over 13 per cent of the world’s bird species. But India also has the unfortunate distinction of being third among the countries having the largest number of rare and threatened species. Only Brazil and Indonesia have more threatened species of birds than us.

Habitat loss is the greatest threat to most of the Indian birds. Over half of the Indian subcontinent’s globally threatened birds and two-third of its endemic birds are dependent on forests. India boasts of more than 500 protected areas, out which about 35 were established especially for bird protection.

The most famous of these is the Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan. It is well known all over the world for its huge assemblage of waterfowl, nesting colonies of storks, egrets, ibises, herons, darter and cormorants, and, the only site in India for the migratory Siberian Crane (which was last seen here in 2002).

But unfortunately, due to water politics, the condition of this National Park is pathetic and not many bird species have bred there of late.

In other states like Haryana and Punjab, Harike lake, Bhindawas and Ropar wetlands and Sultanpur National Park were established for the protection of waterfowl.

Throughout the Gangetic plains there are many bird sanctuaries.

In Uttar Pradesh, the Bombay Natural History Society has identified nearly 20 wetlands and marshes as potential Ramsar Sites (wetlands of international importance, particularly for waterfowl).

Besides the legally declared bird sanctuaries, there are many areas, which are protected by people for sentimental, religious or sheer economic reasons. Vedanthangal in Tamil Nadu, Nelapattu in Andhra Pradesh and Kokkelabelur in Karnataka are the finest examples of these. Birdwatchers can see pelicans, storks, egrets, herons etc breeding on large trees in these villages. The villagers traditionally protect the birds and sometimes don’t even allow inquisitive bird photographers to click pictures.

Bird trade

India has a long history and tradition of bird keeping. The birds were captured and traded for various reasons. Partridges, quails, pheasants and ducks are caught mainly for eating.

During festivals like Makar Sankranti hundreds of birds are ‘released’ particularly in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra.

Another unique reason for catching birds that is perhaps confined to the Indian subcontinent, is fortune telling. Owls are captured for black magic and sorcery.

One of the most interesting reasons for which a large number of birds are captured is the ‘release’ purpose. It is not uncommon for religious-minded petty businessmen to release some birds before starting a business, or before opening their shops in morning. No doubt, this has resulted in the lucrative business of catching birds, sometimes the same ones are caught again and again.

Threatened species

Nearly 12 per cent of India’s birds are facing extinction. The BirdLife International and the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) have listed 12 species in India as ‘critically endangered’ (the highest and immediate risk of extinction). These are in dire need of a ‘conservation ICU (intensive care unit)’.

This unfortunate list is shared by the Jerdon’s Courser, Forest Spotted Owlet, Pink-headed Duck, Mountain Quail, Bengal Florican, Siberian Crane, and White-backed, Long-billed and Slender-billed vultures, and some more. Almost 99 per cent of the population of the three species of vultures has vanished during the past 15 years due to poisoning by the veterinary drug diclofenac. The drug is given to livestock as a painkiller. The Pink-headed Duck is perhaps already extinct as it was last seen in 1935. Similarly, the Mountain Quail, earlier called the Himalayan Quail, was reportedly seen last in 1890 near Mussorie in the present day Uttarakhand.

Ten other species are considered as ‘endangered’. They are also at risk of extinction, maybe not immediately but in another 10 to15 years, if the current trend is not reversed.

As many as 53 more Indian birds are considered ‘vulnerable’ by the BirdLife-IUCN — they are also dying out due to various biotic pressures and unless effective measures are taken immediately, they may also find place in the ‘endangered or critically endangered’ categories.

Fifty-six bird species are considered ‘near threatened’ which means that at present they are at a lower category of rarity, but they will reach the threatened categories if their declining trend continued.

The BirdLife International, based on the field data supplied by country partners like BNHS, updates this list every two to four years. For example, the Spot-billed Pelican which was considered ‘vulnerable’ till 2004 is now considered ‘near threatened’ as there has been considerable recovery in its population.

Unfortunately, most of the other species have not been so lucky. We mostly see ‘upgradation’ — not a complimentary situation — from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘endangered’, and from ‘endangered’ to ‘critically endangered’. For example, the Bengal Florican has been recently upgraded to ‘critically endangered’ level as its global population has crashed.

Wake-up time

Unless we take effective conservation measures quickly, it is feared that many more species will join the Bengal Florican group.

The major threat to birds is from habitat destruction, fragmentation, hunting and illegal trade. To which now we have added pesticide poisoning, emerging diseases and climate change.

Most of these threatened species live in forests, grasslands or wetlands — the three habitat types that are in greatest danger. Some of these birds are captured for commercial trade even though all types of bird trade has been banned in India.

Even the ‘common’ species are not so common anymore. For example, the house sparrow has disappeared from densely populated areas, particularly the metropolitcan cities. The reason being that these birds don’t find place for nesting and adequate food for chicks. Adult house sparrow mostly lives on seeds of grasses, but the young ones require insects and other small creatures for growth. The excessive use of pesticides and herbicides has killed the insects — both harmful and useful ones — thus the house sparrow finds it difficult to sustain a family.

Similarly, many other insect-eating birds have also disappeared. The rare sighting of nightjars, rollers, drongos etc alarms birdwatchers.

The impact of climate change on birds is yet to be studied in India. It is likely that climate change will re-arrange the distribution of birds and disrupt the migration patterns.

The BirdLife International, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), a UK-based organisation and the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) have identified 466 sites in India which are extremely important for the long-term protection of Indian birds— both threatened and common. These are known as Important Bird Areas or IBAs.

The IBA programme of the BirdLife International is going on in nearly 110 countries and till now nearly 10,000 IBAs have been recognised based on four scientific criteria. Many of these IBAs in India are under the protected area system (national parks or sanctuaries), but about 200 IBAs are not legally protected. They need protection status under the Community or Conservation Reserves — the two new categories added in the Wildlife Protection Act. Some IBAs can even be declared as bird sanctuaries.

The BNHS, in collaboration with the BirdLife and RSPB, has recently come out with a book titled Potential and Existing Ramsar Sites in India which lists 25 existing Ramsar Sites and 136 potential sites (many of them are also listed as IBAs).

If we protect all IBAs and Ramsar Sites, most of the Indian bird species will have a bright future; otherwise we are heading for empty skies and silent forests and this is not the India of my dreams.

The writer is, director, Bombay Natural History Society