It’s February 16. A clump of reeds on an overflowing drain draws a motley crew of birders. Huddled together, they are glued to their binoculars for a glimpse of two rare and elusive birds—spotted and Baillon’s wintering crakes. A few kilometres north, at a boutique wildlife safari camp, another group counts hundreds of waterbirds on a flooded agricultural field. Here, dainty greater flamingoes and Eurasian spoonbills have put on a show of frenzied feeding. The flamingoes are dancing a jig on shallow waters, keen to dig up choice algae that lends the brilliant shade of pink on their wings.
The two groups of birders are in constant touch with each other as they record sightings for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). A citizen science event, the GBBC collects data on birds to determine the health of an ecosystem. On the last day of the GBBC, an astonishing 60,000 waterbirds were recorded at a marshland in Nalsarovar, Gujarat. Overall, 65 per cent of India’s bird species were mapped over 10,000-plus hours at the GBBC. A little further away at Gandhinagar, scientists, bureaucrats and naturalists from 120 countries gathered at the UN’s convention of the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) to discuss conservation strategies. India has now assumed Presidency of the CMS’ Conference of Parties (COP 13).
This comes on the heels of our country drafting a 10-year plan for protecting the country’s avifauna. Internationally, India has boasted about how coexistence with wildlife is ingrained in her culture. After the disastrous avian botulism at Rajasthan’s Sambhar Lake last year, where over 20,000 waterbirds died, the plan reiterates a commitment towards wildlife. At the convention, the State of India’s Birds 2020 report was released. It assessed the status of 867 bird species out of 1,317 recorded in the country. Out of this total, 72 were found endemic to India. The study is the first documenting distribution, trends in bird life and conservation trends across our nation.
Alarmingly, 50 per cent of bird species recorded showed a declining population— except for the Indian peafowl, our national bird, which has bounced back dramatically. The house sparrow, too, was found roughly stable. Migratory birds, though, are not doing so well. Using more than 10 million observations uploaded to online platform eBird, the report identified species that are high in conservation concern (101), those doing relatively well (319) and those of low concern (442). In the last 25 years, species such as the white-rumped and Indian vultures, and the Curlew sandpiper, known for breeding in Siberia’s tundra, have seen the greatest decline. On the other end, species that saw a rise in numbers include the rosy starling, feral pigeons and the glossy ibis.
The decline demands research into the causes, and action to protect the highest concern names with better policies, management and funding. “Earlier, many conservation decisions...were not based on much evidence; this report helps bring much-needed data to bear on these issues. We are now amongst the top three countries (after Colombia and Ecuador) in data generation in (the) GBBC,” says Dhananjai Mohan, Director, Wildlife Institute of India. As part of a larger chain of events, the GBBC is promising. Earlier last month, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change floated a draft of their 10-year protection plan in the public domain. The Visionary Perspective Plan (2020–2030) hopes to conserve avian diversity and habitats via short-term, medium-term and long-term strategies. This includes generating genome sequences for select species, installing monitoring and evaluation protocols, plus capacity-building for local stakeholders. Salim Ali was India’s most famous birder, so it is fitting that an institute honouring him— the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON)—will be a focal point in its execution. The plan found 554 sites as ‘Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBAs)’. Out of these, 219 are outside wildlife reserves and face anthropogenic pressure. The report also recognised an often-ignored but rich bird habitat wetlands. Presently 201,503 wetlands (above 2.25 ha) suffer from urbanisation and agricultural runoffs, and need tailor-made management plans.
India has drawn up policy papers and plans on biodiversity before, but on-field implementation is a challenge due to political will. The centre and state governments work in silos and fail to engage with grassroots stakeholders. The educated make poor efforts to increase their knowledge of natural history. We must recognise that wild species do not merely inhabit national parks or sanctuaries; they co-exist in the backyard of humanity.