Island In Peril: Conservation caveats

An endemic hornbill threatened by proposed developments on Narcondam Island and a swiftlet whose nests are a commodity in wildlife trade provide lessons for conservation.

Scientific papers and field reports on wildlife conservation often carry a caveat. It goes something like this: conservation must be species- and site-specific. To save a threatened species or ecosystem, the research provides some conclusions of a general nature, but the action needed on the ground depends on the specific context of each species and site.

In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, this caveat is well illustrated by two endangered bird species. The Narcondam Hornbill is a large bird of the rainforests, eating fruits and small prey and dispersing seeds of forest trees. The Edible-nest Swiftlet is a small, drab greyish bird that lives on the wing above the forest canopy, hawking insects from the air.

Extreme nests, extreme threats

The nests of the hornbill and the swiftlet rank among the strangest nests in the world of birds. The hornbill nests in cavities in large, tall trees. The female stays sealed-in for weeks incubating the eggs, with only a slit-like opening retained in the cavity wall for the male to feed her and the chicks. In contrast, the swiftlet makes a nest using its own saliva, plastered as a little cup against the wall of limestone caves.

This hornbill survives as a single population of a few hundred only on Narcondam, an extinct volcanic island spanning only about 680 hectares. The swiftlet ranges over a huge swath of islands and coasts in South-east Asia. Partly because of this, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists the Narcondam Hornbill as ‘Endangered’ and the swiftlet as ‘Least Concern’. Yet, both species are considered endangered in India and listed in Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act.

What makes them peculiar makes them endangered. The hornbill, restricted (endemic) to Narcondam, was threatened by alteration of its forest habitat accompanying the establishment of a police outpost and the introduction of goats on the island. The swiftlet was threatened by exploitation of its nests due to the bizarre taste for edible-nest soup in China and eastern Asia. With nests fetching upwards of two thousand dollars per kilogram in wildlife trade, over-exploitation of unprotected swiftlet populations in the islands ensued.

Research to action

The research and conservation effort for these two species were spearheaded by a stalwart field biologist, Dr. Ravi Sankaran, a doyen of Indian wildlife scientists who passed away three years ago. The field research and on-ground conservation programme he launched in the 1990s through the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), Coimbatore, is also developed and continued by SACON scientist Dr. Shirish Manchi.

In Narcondam, the forests were under threat. With the police outpost established in 1968, ostensibly over a dispute with Myanmar, some forest was cleared for plantations and disturbances such as hunting and alien plants followed. Introduced as a food source for the outpost of less than 20 people, a population of goats boomed from a handful in 1976 to around 400 in 2000, over half being feral. Goat grazing stripped the forest regeneration and posed a major threat to the future of the hornbill’s habitat. Translating field research to action, the Forest Department was persuaded to evacuate the goats. Virtually all goats were removed and strictures against hunting declared to the outpost. On-paper protection under the wildlife laws, of the hornbill under Schedule I and of the island as a wildlife sanctuary, was changing towards actual on-ground protection.

For Edible-nest Swiftlets, research by the SACON scientists showed that swiftlets had vanished from 60 per cent of the unprotected nesting caves and declined by over 73 per cent in numbers, suggesting initially a need for stricter protection and listing in Schedule I. Field efforts helped swiftlet populations increase by around 52 per cent as thousands of chicks fledged from caves protected by erstwhile nest collectors. Their incentive being that they could harvest the used nests after the breeding season was over. In the harsh and remote landscapes of the islands, protection without incentive was virtually impossible, as caves left unprotected even briefly were plundered overnight, killing thousands of hatchlings.

Simultaneously, another solution emerged: the Edible-nest Swiftlets could be cross-fostered in the nests of its more common cousin, the Glossy Swiftlet that nests even in houses. Hatchlings from foster nests return to their natal houses to breed. Nests may then be harvested from these ‘house ranches’, a technique successfully implemented in South-east Asian countries and where swiftlet populations are also thriving. Nests may be harvested after chicks fledge without destroying broods or domesticating free-ranging swiftlets, thereby providing lucrative livelihoods for local people from a relatively ecologically-benign activity. Ongoing field research also indicates that this is a feasible solution.

Troubles persist

Yet, for hornbill and swiftlet, problems fester like rumblings of a dormant volcano. On Narcondam, a few feral goats are still reported and disturbances emanating from the police outpost and their plantations continue. Another proposal has been tabled before the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife to clear additional area on Narcondam to install RADAR surveillance and diesel power generation stations by the Indian Coast Guard, with little heed to ecological consequences. Recognising its extraordinary evolutionary and conservation importance, the fragile island and its endemic hornbill deserve higher protection, including strictures against plant and animal introductions, rather than being bandied about for insensitive uses.

In contrast, higher protection of the Edible-nest Swiftlet — listed in Schedule I in 2003 — may paradoxically compromise the species’s survival. While lending paper protection, the listing stymied effective action for house ranching by mandating a bureaucratic quagmire of Central and State permits. Well over a decade ago, Ravi Sankaran, stressing immediate protection of swiftlets and nesting caves, suggested house ranching enterprises by local people and eventual downlisting of the swiftlet as populations recover. A new lease of life for the swiftlet may yet come if the authorities recognise this and act on findings of field research and experience.

In their own way, these two bird species show how conservation may require very different approaches if it is to achieve its fundamental goals. Saving threatened or endemic species in islands often requires highest protection (general pattern), but not always (caveat). The protection efforts should be sensitive to the ecology of the species, the site, and the people involved.

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