Friday, April 09, 2010

Will we force the Narcondam Hornbill Aceros narcondami into extinction?

Editorial in Indian Birds vol. 5 no. 5 (published on 5 April 2010).

Human actions, whether direct or indirect, are nowadays almost singularly responsible for nudging species towards their doom. Redemption from such a, potentially, lost cause lies in the adroit harnessing of resources, an assessment of the situation, the application of rigorous science, and hopefully, the forestalling of a threatened species careening towards extinction.

In India, vultures have been the hapless victims of a seemingly innocuous human act—that of using a drug as a painkiller for cattle—resulting in a population crash that teeters on the verge of extinction. Just ten years ago, who would have believed that E. H. Aitken’s laudatory “unsalaried public servants”1, would come to this? In the nick of time, the culprit that caused the vultures’ drooping death was identified. If the drug were to be banned, its usage completely stopped, the vultures would have a slim chance of recovery. Banning a drug is difficult, enforcing that ban, a nightmare. A tug-of-war between players only erodes resolve into time-fed laxity—all at the expense of the vultures’ future.

The Edible-nest Swiftlet Collocalia fuciphaga is found throughout southeastern Asia, but in India, it inhabits only the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Its pure ‘saliva’ nest is a victual delicacy in southeastern Asian cuisine, wherein lies its nemesis. Protecting the bird in the wild is impossible, given its preferred breeding terrain. The conservation solution is to ranch it in such a way that its eggs are slipped under surrogate Glossy Swiftlets C. esculenta, and its nest, harvested. A misinformed government order placed the Edible-nest Swiftlet in Schedule I of The Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, thereby protecting it totally, and paradoxically, blocking the only scientific solution that would ensure its continued survival on the islands. The only way forward was to remove the bird from Schedule I, allow its nest to be harvested, and prevent the species from becoming extinct (in India) by protection!

The third scenario is centered on the 6.82 km2, volcanic, Narcondam Island—home to the endemic Narcondam Hornbill Aceros narcondami. In 1905 the population of hornbills on Narcondam was c200, in 1972 c400, in 1998 c3602, in 2000 c4323, and in 2003 c3404. Why is this bird at a cul-de-sac, when its population has been more-or-less stable over one hundred years? The simple one-word answer is—goats. Lavkumar Khachar’s article highlights this issue and the urgent need for action. Will we allow goats to eat an island from under the Narcondam Hornbill? Indeed, will we allow them to do what we sent a posse of policemen to prevent Myanmar from doing—take the island away from India? Without vegetation holding it together, the volcanic rock will erode over time. Today it may sound fatalistic to say that an island devoid of vegetation might not survive the vagaries of tropical weather, but water and wind are an unstoppably potent force of erosion—and this, a one-way street to environmental disaster.

Island natural histories are mortally susceptible to invasions of flora and fauna and the introduction of goats on Narcondam is an act of criminal negligence, a slap in the face of our cognitive intelligence. The immediate solution is to remove all the goats, both captive and feral, from Narcondam, by whatever means necessary—delay would be catastrophic; implementation might restore equilibrium over time.

Paradoxically we only learn about a critically threatened species when it is already slipping downhill. Narcondam, however, is a situation that can be rectified easily. Yet, it is more than a decade since the late Ravi Sankaran of SACON raised these concerns and alarms in a report published by the institution, as did the late S. A. Hussain of BNHS, in several publications. The Indian government has taken no corrective action up till now. It is still not too late in the day to salvage the situation. If there is quick action, the magnificent Narcondam Hornbill will certainly survive, in splendid isolation, on a wild volcanic outcrop jutting above the storm-tossed waters of the Bay of Bengal—the unquestioned icon of a potential Peace Park between India and Myanmar and a symbol of successful conservation.

—Aasheesh Pittie

1Aitken, E. H. 1947. The common birds of India. 3rd ed. Bombay: Thacker & Co. Ltd.
2Vijayan, L. & Sankaran, R. 2000. A study on the ecology, status and conservation perspectives of certain rare endemic avifauna of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Final report. Coimbatore: SACON.
3Yahya, H. S. A. & Zarri, A. A. 2003. Status, ecology and behaviour of Narcondam Hornbill, (Aceros narcondami) in Narcondam Island, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India. J. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc. 99 (3): 434–445 (2002).
4Vivek, R. & Vijayan, V. S. 2003. Ecology and conservation of the Narcondam Hornbill Aceros narcondami at Narcondam Island Sanctuary, India. Coimbatore: SACON.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Books in my life: to see ourselves as others see us

Nine lives: in search of the sacred in modern India. By William Dalrymple.
[Bloomsbury; 284 pp.]

The first book of Dalrymple’s that I read, i.e., before Nine lives, was The last Mughal. I loved it for the portrayal of an India I had learnt of almost furtively, in school. If only we were taught history the way it was narrated here. At several instances, as I read, tears welled up, at the helplessness of Bahadur Shah Zafar, not in himself as a person, bereft though he was, but as the legatee of a virasat completely incomprehensible to his insensitive contemporaries. But who is sensitive in times of war, and rebellion?

When Nine lives was published, I bought it enthusiastically, but it stood for almost five months on the shelves, in line with other unread works, biding its time. Then the author came to Hyderabad, and I resolved, ecstatically, to attend his reading. Lurking behind this wish was the bibliomaniac’s thrill of getting a first edition autographed by the author! How I would savour it for all time!

The evening arrived, and with it the tired-looking Scot. The reading went off quite well. He spoke a bit about the book, and read a couple of sections. There was a Q&A session with some interesting back-and-forth, but not without a display of that irritating habit people have at such moments, of expressing opinions rather than querying.

When I walked up to the table, and asked for an autograph, Bill almost snatched the volume from my hand, flattened it to the title page, asked my name, misspelled it and scrawled something illegible across its top, and middle. No eye contact, no moment of any sort of connect. There was a flight to catch at the end … and so

No sooner did Nine lives resume its place in the lineup on my bookshelf, than a friend borrowed it from the missus! My precious autographed 1st ed! I could only dream of dog-eared pages, and split spines. Thankfully its dust jacket was left behind. Frantically I called the one who held my copy of Nine lives, and she had a good laugh at my genuine discomfiture! But the book came back in immaculate condition.

Now that I’ve read it, I can say that my favourite ‘life’, of the nine, is that of ‘the singer of epics’ (pp. 78–111). I warmed to this story immediately, primarily because it is based in Rajasthan, the land of my forbears (even though I’ve never visited it, except for two trips to Bharatpur, to birdwatch at the famed Keoladeo Ghana sanctuary), and also because it harks back to a time of pastoralism that we urbanites are separated from, but as Indians who survive on a largely ‘backward’ agrarian economy, are able to relate to spontaneously. In this chapter Dalrymple compares that lifestyle to the landscapes and livelihoods in the works of Tolstoy, and Turgenev. Many years ago, conversing with a friend who teaches Russian (he is Indian), I happened to mention that I partook the works of those masters. He asked me why? And I replied that the landscape, the people, and the rahan-sahan, which they wrote of, resembled the leisure and laid-back pathos of Indian pastoralist life.

You must read Nine lives yourself, to sink into the culture of this ancient land, but I’ll take you through some text that I particularly enjoyed. First, there is the incandescent one-liner from the bard, “the flame of my voice only really starts to glow after midnight” (p. 85). Then there is the intimate relationship between the patron and the beneficiary; the thakur and the bard. “Every prominent family of the land-holding Rajput caste, I discovered, inherited a family of oral genealogists, musicians and praise singers, who celebrated the family’s lineage and deeds. It was considered a great disgrace if these minstrels were forced by neglect to formally ‘divorce’ their patrons. Then they would break the strings of their instruments and bury them in front of their patron’s house, cutting the family off from the accumulated centuries of ancestral songs, stories and traditions. It was the oral equivalent of a magnificent library being burned to cinders.” (p. 87).

Before closing I must point you to a review of this work that appeared in Open, which speaks of an uncharacteristic complacency that has crept into this work by Dalrymple. Sadly, I must confess this is true. The editing should have been tighter.