India must prioritise the protection of its birds| Analysis
Birds considered common are now disappearing rapidly. Policy must look at ways to conserve their native habitats
The Sirkeer Malkoha is a bird with darkly-fringed eyes, and a lush, scarlet beak tipped with yellow. Because of this beak, it is also known as the lipstick bird. The Large Cuckooshrike is a grey bird with a hooked beak, an alert hunter and a lively forest presence. Both birds are considered common in India. People may not know their names, but would have seen them in the business of life. And, they are both vanishing rapidly.
For the first time, a report has looked at how India’s birds are doing. The State of India’s Birds report examined 867 bird species, gleaning their abundance and range size after studying over 10 million records uploaded by birdwatchers, including old records. The results are a wake-up call. Looking at the species for which enough data existed, more than 50% of birds are in clear decline since 2000, and over the last five years, 79% of birds have registered declining numbers. Most declining groups include coastal birds, birds of prey (like eagles, kites, vultures and others) and habitat specialists.
At this time of the year, birds flock to wetlands and coasts, completing epic migrations from areas as distant as the Arctic, Europe and Central Asia. This has traditionally meant millions of birds, because India is the largest landmass before the Indian Ocean, and holds 90% of critical stopover sites for birds that migrate in the Central Asian Flyway in this region. If you look closely at a wetland or coast, grey dots on the horizon may be Bar-headed geese from Tibet, framed by Greater Flamingos from Central Asia. Closer to the shore, a bird that looks like mud, streaked through with gold — the Pacific Golden Plover — forages on coastlines. Coming from the Arctic, this bird has registered a steep decline, like many other migratory coastal birds.
Several Indian birds considered common, are no longer so common. This has not been adequately reflected in policy instruments for years. For instance, the global Red List of species maintained by the inter-governmental organisation, International Union for Conservation of Nature — a global list that ranks species in terms of how close they are to extinction — places the Sirkeer Malkoha and the Large Cuckooshrike in the lowest-ranking category of least concern. More worrying, our very own Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, has schedules for protecting species, and both birds come in the low-ranking Schedule IV. This will prohibit hunting, but is unlikely to exhort managers to create specific plans for protecting the species.
Clearly, updates are needed on the decades-old wildlife Act. And India needs to set its own regional and national priorities, with its own version of the Red List.
An even more pertinent question then becomes: How do we go about the business of protecting these species? Of the assessed 867 species, 101 are of high conservation concern. These cover a large area of habitat — including the colourful Indian Nuthatch from hilly areas and the Small Minivet from scrub forests, both of which are decreasing in numbers. This indicates the obvious: Scrub forests and hilly areas require conservation.
Policy and conservation must now look at innovative ways to conserve these varied habitats. India is party to the Convention for Biological Diversity, the United Nations-led convention for conserving wildlife. The convention calls for Other Effective area-based Conservation Measures (OECM). These are tools that don’t always find themselves in land records like national parks, but comprise informally conserved places. For a country as diverse and complex as ours, OECMs should form a bulwark for conservation. Sacred groves, private land, community areas and institutional campuses can all form OECMs. We don’t need more gardens with foreign plants, but a renewed appreciation for native habitat like open scrub and thorn forest, favoured today by the Small Minivet and once by the Cheetah.
Names are deceptive. The Common Hoopoe, also a scrub and open woodland species, is now no longer so common, registering a moderate decline. There have been huge land-use changes to scrub habitat, and more bird habitat will likely be lost further. For instance, the Wetland Rules, changed in 2017, has a new definition for wetlands. Salt pans — thousands dot our coastlines, sheltering millions of wading and migratory birds — are no longer considered wetlands. We will need OECMs and flexible approaches to conserve birds, providing shelter during times of migration and breeding.
We need thousands of school and university campuses to join hands in conserving bird habitats, with lists of once-common birds of high conservation concern in every curriculum. At the end of the day, conserving these bird species is about conserving native habitats, those suited to our climate. And our birds are suited to our temperament: We may not know all their names, but we know the birds.
Perhaps relearning names can be a way of relearning memories. It would be a shame to never truly know what we are losing.