Could Rare Bird on Tiny Island Be India's Ecological Canary?

Activists are concerned by new government's lax line on conservation.

A little over a month after India's new government came to power, conservationists have begun worrying that the administration may be less than committed to protecting some of the country's environmental treasures.

Within days of the election, the government granted clearances to several defense projects that had been pending for years due to potential environmental impacts. The environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, also declared that projects relating to national security would be given expedited clearances.

Other early warning signs, say environmentalists, include a decision by the Ministry of Environment and Forests to facilitate industrial activity by relaxing the definition of forest areas. And the new government attempted to take control of the finances of environmental nonprofits like Greenpeace, which it declared to be a "threat to national economic security" for opposing mining, coal-fired power plants, and nuclear power projects.

But the first victim of the new government's focus on security could be the odd-looking Narcondam hornbill, an endangered bird found only on Narcondam Island, a tiny volcanic isle located 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) east of the Indian peninsula, near Myanmar (Burma).

India alleges that China has set up a "listening post" aimed at intercepting Indian communications on the Myanmar-owned Coco Island, about 76 miles (122 kilometers) away. In response, the Indian government has revived plans to build a radar station on Narcondam Island.

The station had been rejected by the previous government in 2012, largely over concerns about the hornbill. That may not be enough to stop the project this time.

"Whole Population Might Be Washed Off"

The Narcondam hornbill was first described in 1873 by A. O. Hume, an amateur ornithologist and British civil servant in India. Hume was struck by the sight of the strange, somewhat clumsy-looking birds. About the size of a little egret, the birds have velvet-black bodies and wings, with oversize yellow beaks and flouncy white tails.

Naturalists who visited the island later noticed the bird's curious breeding habits: After mating, female hornbills clamber into the hollows of old evergreen trees and imprison themselves with a wall of their own droppings for the duration of egg-laying and chick rearing. The males are expected to pass food through a slit in the wall during this time.

There are just 350 to 400 Narcondam hornbills left, though their numbers have been relatively stable in recent years. The bird has a tiny range of just under 2.7 square miles (7 square kilometers) and flies only short distances, explaining why their numbers are limited to Narcondam Island.

The land available to the birds shrunk in 1969, when Indian police set up an outpost on the island. They lopped down trees for firewood and to clear land for farming plots to feed themselves. And hundreds of goats, both feral and domestic, whittled down the undergrowth and prevented the forest from regenerating, leaving hornbills with fewer nesting sites.

With the goats now removed, the hornbills would seem to be doing well, based on numbers alone. "When I was there last [year], they were as common as crows," said Shirish Manchi, a field researcher with the Sálim Ali Center for Ornithology and Natural History in Coimbatore, India.

"However, their breeding population has shrunk dramatically," he said. In 1999, breeding birds made up half or more of the population. But as of last month, they constituted less than 10 percent of the birds.

That loss, which Manchi suspects might be related to a loss of habitat quality, may have further restricted the hornbills' genetic diversity. "So if one diseased chicken comes to the island, the whole population might be washed off," he said.

The loss of the hornbills could spark other extinctions, Manchi said. The fruit-loving birds are called "feathered foresters" because they consume, defecate, and spread seeds from at least nine species of evergreen trees and climbing plants on the island, some of which are found only on Narcondam and are little studied.

Researchers worry about the future of the plants—as well as butterflies, reptiles, birds, and other animals that depend on them—should the hornbills disappear.

Little Island, Big Plans

The Indian Coast Guard's development plans for the tiny island are ambitious, according to Asad Rahmani, director of the Bombay Natural History Society in Mumbai. Rahmani undertook a site inspection in 2012 as a member of the government-appointed National Board for Wildlife, whose approval is required for projects in areas home to protected species.

The radar equipment needs just 1.6 acres of land on top of a hill, which wouldn't do much harm to the bird, but the coast guard told Rahmani that it also needed to construct a road up the hill through the birds' breeding areas, along with residences for technicians and supervisors, a helipad, and a large generator to power it all.

The Indian Defense Ministry has argued that national security interests, such as the coast guard station, should prevail over environmental concerns. When contacted recently, the coast guard said it was not authorized to make any statements on this subject to the press.

However, the government has said that it fears that the Chinese "listening post"—the existence of which has not been confirmed—could monitor India's satellite and missile launch stations, as well as the movements of the Indian navy.

The government also contends that the coast guard's presence on Narcondam would help monitor the movement of vessels and curb illegal activities such as poaching, smuggling, and the dumping of toxic wastes.

"If you have a situation where China is sitting in front and we won't do anything, how can you run the country like this?" Javadekar asked in a public address in June.

Nature and Development

Narcondam Island isn't the only site where the Indian government's response to China may have environmental effects. The environment ministry has said it intends to expedite forest clearances for 3,700 miles (5,955 kilometers) of roads and a further 12,000 acres of land for the establishment of a new army base in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, the site of a border dispute with China—and a hotspot for biodiversity that is home to nine wildlife sanctuaries.

But a final decision on the army base and island radar has yet to be made. A 1972 wildlife protection law mandates that projects in reserved forests and sanctuaries be reviewed by the National Board for Wildlife, which the new government has yet to set up. And after pushback from environmental activists, Javadekar took to Twitter on June 11 to say that he was reviewing the case of the Narcondam hornbill.

T. R. Shankar Raman, a wildlife scientist with India's Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysore, said that India didn't have to choose between defense and the environment.

Raman was part of a committee that framed guidelines for Indian roads in protected areas in 2013. His committee concluded that roads in forested areas fragmented tree cover, interrupted migration paths, drove up roadkills, caused soil erosion and landslides, and paved the way for poaching, logging, and commercial development.

However, he noted, "if environmental concerns are integrated up-front, it should still be possible to serve development and defense needs." When building roads, for example, damage can be minimized during the planning, construction, and maintenance phases.

But defense projects may be just the beginning for the new government. Last week, Javadekar, the environment minister, declared that the course of border roads would henceforth be decided at the local level, no longer requiring approval from the environment ministry. And he extended the permissive treatment previously given to defense projects to public works projects such as highways, railways, and airports.

Before the arrival of the new government, "the environment ministry was perceived as a roadblock ministry ... a speed breaker to the growth," Javadekar recently said. "We care for nature. But we want development also. Decisions are in, delays are out."

Follow Shruti Ravindran on Twitter.

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