Hornbill must not be forced out of its habitat

Hornbill must not be forced out of its habitat
Asad R Rahmani
RARE SIGHT: A Narcondam hornbill in the northeast
In a remote tiger reserve, Namdapha in Arunachal Pradesh, I was most amazed when I heard a “wired” sound, like some big aerial object flying over my head. The guide told me it was a hornbill flying by. I had no idea that hornbills were such huge birds and that their wingspan was as broad as six feet and that they produce such loud sounds.

Hornbills get their name from the horn-like projection on their beaks. This projection is called casque, and is also worn as a traditional headgear by tribal people in the northeast. In fact, during the election campaign in Arunchal Pradesh, prime minister Narendra Modi was seen wearing this special cap at one of his rallies, a fact that had been frowned upon by conservationists.

Conservationists have often lamented the fact that there is so much ignorance about the importance of the hornbill that is such a rarity in our country. Not enough is known about these birds and their role in the ecosystem. Recently, there has been a citizen science initiative by NCF, an organisation that is collecting information from all over India about the hornbill’s presence on an interactive website- http://hornbills.in/. Such forums are involving scientists and common man to connect with nature.

A total of 55 different species of hornbill exist in the world, of which nine can be found in India. The Great hornbill, Rufous–necked hornbill, Wreathed hornbill, Narcondam honrbill, Malabar Pied hornbill, Oriental Pied hornbill, White-throated honbill, Malabar Grey hornbill and the Indian Grey hornbill. All these birds play a significant role in maintaining the health of the forests, especially in fragmented rainforests. How? These birds are mainly fruit eaters and can fly over long distances with the fruit and seed and can spread them in open patches. There are many fruit dispersal animals like primates and rodents but they do not use open patches, so the importance of such flying birds is even more, as they can easily fly over such rubber plantations, paddy fields and orchards. Also, there are so many man-made barriers like dams or highways or human settlements where other animals cannot reach, but these birds can. Which is exactly why wildlife biologists call them ‘Mobile Link Species’.

Out of the nine hornbills in India, at least five are facing conservation threat, especially the Narcondam hornbill which is found only on a small island called Narcondam in Andaman and Nicobar. The Indian army was planning to install a large radar on this island but a powerful campaign against it and conservationists’ intervention stopped it. But only for a short while, it seems.

The latest development is that the government is in the process of giving clearance for Indian Coast Guard radars on the island. If this clearance happens, the future of the Narcondam hornbill is truly in jeopardy, for it will be forced out of the only habitat it has. The Coast Guards can surely look for other locations to install their radars, but the hornbill does not have another home.

(The writer is a conservation biologist at Tiger Watch, Ranthambore)

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