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Trouble in avian paradise as the hunt goes on

Researchers report on large scale hunting of water birds from wetlands, which do not come under the conservation lens

What was thought to be subsistence hunting by indigenous and marginalized sections of society has turned into a well-organized local business.
What was thought to be subsistence hunting by indigenous and marginalized sections of society has turned into a well-organized local business.

As we slip into autumn, millions of birds are leaving the northern latitudes and heading south on their annual migration. Waterfowl of various shapes, sizes and colours will spend the winter months in favourable weather, mingling with local migrants in wetland ecosystems.

In the coming months, all kinds of wetlands across the country—natural, man-made, waterlogged agricultural farmlands—will turn into an avian paradise. While some of these are protected by state agencies, many are strewn across landscapes far removed from the conservation spotlight. And this is where the threat looms large.

The birds are such easy prey for poachers that over the years, what was thought to be subsistence hunting by indigenous and marginalized sections of society has turned into a well-organized local business. In June, this writer witnessed widespread hunting by locals in Ossudu lake (local name Ousteri), which borders Puducherry.

Since 2014, field studies from Tamil Nadu have been pointing to the large-scale hunting of waterbirds. “Out of the 53 species recorded in different wetlands, we have found 47 species with local hunters," says Ramesh Ramachandran, lead author of the research paper Hunting Or Habitat? Drivers Of Water Bird Abundance And Community Structure In Agricultural Wetlands Of Southern India, published earlier this year.

In 2013, a study in Uttar Pradesh (UP) by ornithologists K.S. Gopi Sundar and Swati Kittur reported hunting in all of the state’s wetlands. “Hunting by local indigenous communities continues across most wetlands in the country, especially in human-dominated areas where forest department presence is negligible," says Sundar. Local and regional media regularly report the hunting of waterbirds during the migratory season.

“Our field studies reveal that illegal hunting for traditional demand for wild meat has increased in recent years, and is driven by market demand. This overturns the widely held belief that waterbird hunting in India is a low-intensity subsistence activity and undermines the importance of agricultural wetlands in waterbird conservation," says Ramachandran.

Their report makes the point that “subsistence hunting can be a bigger threat to wildlife because it targets a wider variety of species and is carried out by many people..."

Ramachandran, who switched careers from policeman to conservation biologist, befriended local hunters to collect data. He estimates that 1,745 waterbirds are hunted in each wetland every season.

This data was for Tamil Nadu’s Kanchipuram district. Information from across the state is now being collated, but hunting is believed to be widespread, especially from December-April. “For a person who loves wildlife, seeing the scale of the massacre was horrifying. Our data show that hunting is leading to drastic declines in waterbird diversity and numbers," adds Ramachandran. They found that the birds were being sold largely to local food outlets-cum-bars, not the local markets.

Around 70% of the 272 active hunters that Ramachandran interviewed reported a decline in species, especially of large-sized waterbirds, over the past decade. These include the Bar-headed Goose, Eurasian Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis, Painted Stork, Indian Black Ibis and Spot-billed Pelican. During the same period, hunters also reported an increase in demand for waterbird meat. Most of them hunted on weekends, with locally made single-barrel, muzzle-loading guns, and earned around Rs13,000 a month by supplying wild meat to local food outlets.

Although hunting, especially in agricultural wetlands, is well documented, the impact on bird populations remains largely unknown. Conservationists, however, fear that populations will crash in the coming years, pushing many species to the brink of extinction. “It’s anybody’s guess when you add up, or extrapolate the poaching numbers, where the future of the many waterbird species lies," says Sundar.

India’s National Wetland Atlas (2011) shows that around 30% of the country’s wetlands are semi-natural inland water bodies in agricultural use. Since they do not fall under the jurisdiction of a national park or wildlife sanctuary, government and non-governmental agencies often do not monitor the biodiversity that takes refuge in these wetlands.

There is huge anthropogenic pressure on these wetlands. For example, birdwatchers in Delhi raised the alarm when wetlands in Basai, Gurugram, near the Capital, and Dadri, UP, were being gobbled up by urban residencies (residences). Birders have also documented hunting in Dhanauri village, a popular birdwatching site near Greater Noida, UP.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) is currently hearing a petition to save whatever is left of Basai, which has recorded several species of resident and migratory avifauna, including threatened species. On 16 August, the Supreme Court expressed disappointment at the repeated failure of state governments and the Union environment ministry to honour the NGT’s directive to identify and protect wetland ecosystems. “This is an extremely unfortunate situation and a matter of concern for the preservation of wetlands which are absolutely necessary for the preservation of the environment and water resources as well…. Our dissatisfaction as recorded in the order dated 13th of July, 2017 continues and has now transformed into disappointment due to governmental apathy," stated the apex court.

Ornithologists say that instead of focusing on isolated large wetlands in and around the protected area network, there is a need to look at landscape-level, long-term protection—else, conservation of waterbirds will remain a challenge.

Out In The Wild is a column on the good, bad and ugly of nature conservation.

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