Mammoth effort to preserve avian world
Reviewed by Lieut-Gen Baljit Singh (retd)

Threatened Birds of India: Their Conservation Requirements
By Dr Asad R Rahmani. Bombay Natural History Society.
Pages 861. Hardbound Rs 3,000

In the Hall of Fame of ornithologists in India, the two names that stand above the restare, Surgeon Major T C Jerdon (Madras Presidency Army) and A O Hume of the ICS. Their combined energies had unveiled the riches of our birds both in species and of their gorgeous plumages. The publication of The Birds of India by Jerdon in 1862-64 (in two volumes) was the first book in this discipline, describing 1,008 species. What escaped their keen eyes were about 250 species only which bring the current tally to 1258, today!

In the backdrop of the Jerdon-Hume avian legacy handed down, the question that now begs an answer is that, are we capable of preserving that incomparable heritage for the future generations?

Well, believe it or not, the UNO through its nature watch-dog, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), has posted a grim notice to India by listing in the latest Red Data Book, 152 bird-species whose care and survival are of paramount concern. The India list categorises 15 species as critical, another 15 endangered, 52 vulnerable, 66 near-threatened and two as data deficient. That is where Dr Asad Rahmaniís extremely well-researched book, with a balanced text, excellent photographs/illustrations and outstanding site location maps succeeds in persuasively pleading the case for safeguards for all the 152 affected species. In short, Rahmani has shown us the path for the long-term conservation of our endangered avifauna and it is now up to all Indians to stand up and declare, a la President Barrack Obama, "Yes We Can".

Let us not forget that the history of wild life extinctions in India began with its birds: the mountain/Himalayan quail in 1865/76, the forest/blewitti owlet in 1884, Jerdonís courser in 1900 and the pink-headed duck in 1935. Luckily, just a few among the accursed courser and owlet species had survived the extinction-Armageddon. In January 1986, Bharat Bhushan of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) spotted a lone Jerdonís courser in Cuddapah District (Andhra Pradesh). Undoubtedly, a moment of jubilation but we failed to convert it into a story of permanent rejuvenation of a species in dire straits. For instance, a sanctuary of 465 sq km which was created around the rediscovery site as the minimal survival zone for the miniscule population of less than 200 coursers, is being constantly nibbled at in the name of "development".

Similarly, when on November 25, 1997, Pamela Rasmussen (an American scientist from the Smithsonian, Washington) happened to photograph one forest owlet from Shahada (Maharashtra), that too was exciting but here again the population is less than 300 and we ought to do much more than mere vocal support. For instance, Minister of Environment Jayanthi Natarajan has lauded the book in the Preface but the need of the hour is that the Government must (a) fund the Bombay Natural History Society adequately to enable the cost of the book to be brought down from Rs 3,000 to about 1,000 so that maximum Indians can buy and imbibe Rahmaniís message for action, and (b) list the book for inclusion in the Natural Sciences syllabus in all educational establishments through out India, by an HRD Ministry fiat.

Talking of the abysmally small populations of the rediscovered species, let us remember that among the IUCN critically listed avians, the Great Indian Bustard may number no more than 150 birds, today. In fact, the numbers count-sheet for each of the first 52 species listed is none too comfortable. The fundamental causes both for the extinctions and the shrinking populations in every case as stressed by Rahmani are: Destruction of habitats, hunting for food, trapping for commerce, and pollution of their food chain through unbridled use of chemicals by industry and agriculture.Governments and scientists shy away from the common sense-approach to crises management, which in suggests a National Captive Breeding Project for all the species in the critical, endangered and vulnerable categories (82 species) as an immediate national undertaking? Be that as it may, this book is worth its weight (five kg!) in gold and Dr Rahmani and his team deserve to be applauded for their dedication to avian conservation over the last two decades.

Let us talk about implementing the bird survival strategies suggested in the book. As the Red Indian Chief Seattle had warned the US President Franklin Pierce (on witnessing the Prairie Bison driven to the brink of extinction by the White settlers), through a letter dated 1854 that "Once all the beasts are gone, man will surely die from a great loneliness of the spirit."