Se­cu­rity threat to horn­bill

Armed with a feather and a mem­ory, VIVEK RA­MACHAN­DRAN pitches for sav­ing the last 300 Nar­con­dam horn­bills from radar sta­tion

Down to Earth - - WILDLIFE - The au­thor is a PhD and works on the ecol­ogy of canopy birds and small mam­mals

NAR­CON­DAM HORN­BILL, an en­dan­gered bird found only in the Nar­con­dam is­land in the An­damans, could be the first vic­tim of the new gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to strengthen na­tional se­cu­rity. The habi­tat of the bird species, with a pop­u­la­tion of just 300, is un­der threat be­cause of the gov­ern­ment’s nod to con­struct a radar sta­tion on the is­land.

Though much has been writ­ten about the bird in the re­cent times be­cause of the pro­posed radar sta­tion, my first en­counter with the Nar­con­dam horn­bill hap­pened way back in 2002, when I de­cided to study its ecol­ogy for my Masters dis­ser­ta­tion. I sup­pose my fas­ci­na­tion with this bird lay in the fact that it was found only on this one par­tic­u­lar is­land of Nar­con­dam. I dreamt of an­swer­ing the ques­tion of why they had cho­sen to live there.And when I reached Port Blair, I also dreamt of ly­ing on a pris­tine beach and sip­ping fruity drinks. Lit­tle did I know that it would take one month of bu­reau­cracy and run­ning around to get per­mis­sions. What kept me go­ing was that I would be re­trac­ing the foot­steps of the great bi­ol­o­gists and ex­plor­ers A O Hume, E C Stu­art Baker, Hu­mayun Ab­du­lali and Jac­ques Cousteau.

The light at the end of the tun­nel made the ef­fort worth­while. A three-day jour­ney from Port Blair had me look­ing up, awestruck at the tow­er­ing cliffs and lush green­ery that made up the Nar­con­dam is­land. I left the boat that brought me about 60 me­tres away from the shore, and waded out with my lug­gage.It was then that I hap­pened to look up at the cliffs on my right, and spot­ted my first pair of horn­bills. That im­age is etched in my

mind and is not some­thing I will for­get soon.

In the com­ing months, my bond with th­ese birds strength­ened.And what sur­prised me the most, was the hu­man­ism of their re­la­tion­ships. See­ing the ju­ve­nile birds flock­ing at higher al­ti­tudes only re­minded me of hu­man teenagers, try­ing to get away from their par­ents who, in this case, dis­creetly su­per­vised them from a lower al­ti­tude. Or watch­ing the horn­bills fight with other bird species for nest cav­i­ties. Any­one who has ever seen a fight over park­ing spa­ces in res­i­den­tial ar­eas, will def­i­nitely know what I am talk­ing about.But the most im­por­tant les­son was prob­a­bly learnt when I saw a pair of horn­bills ward off a mon­i­tor lizard that came too close to their nest. That par­tic­u­lar les­son came handy when I had to fend off a seven-foot long lizard cu­ri­ous to know what I was do­ing in the for­est. Need­less to say, those eva­sive tech­niques worked equally well on peo­ple with the same sort of cu­rios­ity.

The Nar­con­dam horn­bill, whose sci­en­tific name is Aceros Nar­con­dami, was first de­scribed by Hume in 1873. David Prain, the then direc­tor of the Royal Botan­i­cal Gar­den in Cal­cutta vis­ited the is­land in 1892 and briefly de­scribed its veg­e­ta­tion.

But due to its iso­la­tion, the is­land has been vis­ited only by a hand­ful of bi­ol­o­gists in the sub­se­quent years.The limited shore­line of the is­land is clothed by lit­toral forests and the lower slopes by moist de­cid­u­ous and semiev­er­green forests.As one as­cends up the steep vol­canic slopes the veg­e­ta­tion be­comes ev­er­green and the crater at the top is cov­ered by stunted cloud forests fes­tooned with epi- phytes and lichen and car­peted by ferns.

The is­land has no ter­res­trial mam­mals ex­cept for rats and goats and a cat, ob­vi­ously in­tro­duced by the po­lice per­son­nel. The is­land is home to the gi­ant fruit bat and a smaller fruit bat that is also en­demic to the is­land.The late or­nithol­o­gist Ravi Sankaran was in­stru­men­tal in get­ting most of the goats off the is­land af­ter his sur­vey in 1997 found that the goats were se­verely af­fect­ing the re­gen­er­a­tion of the forests by brows­ing on the saplings of the for­est trees.

The is­land is the only place in In­dia where the par­adise tree snake or fly­ing snake is found.It is also home to the Banded Sea Krait that are abun­dant in and around the un­manned light­house on the north-western shore.At nights, the for­est floor is cov­ered by land crabs. The off­shore wa­ters are team­ing with ma­rine life with gi­ant manta rays, schools of Indo-pacific king mack­erel, yel­lowfinned tuna,gi­ant bar­racuda,sail fish and va­ri­ety of reef fish abound.

I re­turned from that is­land three months later, with a sense of ca­ma­raderie to­wards the horn­bills, and a dis­carded feather as a me­mento.But af­ter all th­ese years,it was not the birds, the peo­ple, or even the mon­i­tor lizards that made me sit up and take no­tice of the pro- posed radar sta­tion for the is­land. At the risk of sound­ing the­atri­cal, it was be­cause I was there when it all be­gan.

The sol­diers ap­peared in­no­cent enough, com­ing to scout for a lo­ca­tion for an ob­ser­va­tion post. As some­one well versed with the routes on the is­land, I was happy to ac­com­pany.In my en­thu­si­asm, I was made an un­wit­ting ac­com­plice in their plan to con­vert those less trav­elled paths into tarred roads, and the is­land into a radar sta­tion. In hind­sight, point­ing out horn­bills to them along the way, prob­a­bly wasn’t one of my bright­est mo­ments.

Having said that, I do not wish to use the ig­no­rance of a 22-year-old as an ex­cuse to un­der­mine the ar­gu­ments in favour of the radar sta­tion. The geopo­lit­i­cal im­por­tance of Nar­con­dam is un­de­ni­able, pri­mar­ily due to its lo­ca­tion, be­ing on the sea links between the Straits of Malacca, Kolkata, Chit­tagong and Yan­gon. A radar sta­tion built on this is­land would cer­tainly pro­vide a strate­gic ad­van­tage.

How­ever, build­ing the same sta­tion on the nearby Land­fall is­land could prove to be an equally effective al­ter­na­tive for im­prov­ing re­gional se­cu­rity.We were over­joyed when the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment shelved the idea and thought that, we may just have pre­vented the death of the 300 odd horn­bills that have cho­sen to make Nar­con­dam their home. Now, with our Union min­is­ter for en­vi­ron­ment tak­ing a per­sonal in­ter­est in this project, it may well be the knock­out blow for the is­land and its pre­cious denizens.

In the time I spent on the is­land, I may have failed to an­swer the ques­tion why th­ese birds live only there and nowhere else. How­ever, I can def­i­nitely say with con­vic­tion that any de­crease or sud­den change in their habi­tat can cause ir­repara­ble dam­age to an al­ready frag­ile pop­u­la­tion. It’s time to pull out all the stops, and go to the mat­tresses.But the so­lu­tion lies not in a fu­tile war, but a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial truce between the war­ring par­ties.

Some might say I am be­ing diplo­matic in my re­sponse, while oth­ers may call me bi­ased. I cer­tainly plead guilty to the lat­ter.But I also con­sider my­self a real­ist, which is why I am pre­serv­ing that feather I brought from the is­land. Just in case we need to res­ur­rect the pop­u­la­tion at some point in the future.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: DHRITI­MAN MUKHARJEE

This bird is found only on Nar­con­dam is­land in the An­damans. No one knows why

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