On an early afternoon on February 2 this year, a lone Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata) was spotted in Maguri beel (Maguri wetland) in Assam in northeast India, close to the site of an oil well fire that had occurred some months ago. The appearance of the perching duck – males marked for their ornate plumage – was no ordinary incident; this species has visited the beel after (possibly) over a century, according to local communities.
Experts state that this species doesn’t usually visit India. It is primarily found in east Asia and over the years has migrated to northeastern China, Korea and Japan.
The excitement surrounding the duck’s arrival at Maguri, led avid birders Deborshee Gogoi and Madhav Gogoi to trace the bird’s flying route. For this, with the help of a country boat, they sailed to a nearby lake where it was roosting with two pairs of Indian spot-billed ducks (Anas poecilorhyncha) and a few chestnut-hued ferruginous ducks (Aythya nyroca).
Referring to the appearance of the duck, Deborshee Gogoi, a lecturer in the Department of Commerce, Digboi College and co-author of Birds of Maguri-Motapung Beel, said, “In the past too, the contribution of Maguri beel has been very rich. Baikal bush warbler, a species new to the Indian subcontinent and white-browed crake, a species new to South Asia, was recorded from the beel. The critically endangered white-bellied heron was also recorded in the wetland in October 2015.”
The Maguri-Motapung wetland complex is spread across an area of about 10 square km in Assam’s Tinsukia district and is classified as an Important Bird Area (IBA). Together with the neighbouring Dibru Saikhowa National Park (DSNP), the wetland forms a unique biodiversity hotspot where scores of tourists visit every year. In May 2020, a sudden and uncontrolled release of gas occurred from an oil well near Baghjan village, less than a kilometre from the national park and only 500 metres from the wetland.
The spillage has reportedly damaged acres of the Maguri-Motapung beel extending even beyond the Dibru Saikhowa Park.
Sighting in Arunachal Pradesh
In late February, there was another sighting of a Mandarin duck in Dirang Valley and Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh – a first for the state. The team of Divisional Forest Officer Abhinav Kumar in Ziro, in Arunachal Pradesh, has recorded nine species of birds new to Siikhe Lake, including the Mandarin duck. Siikhe was a water conservation project started by the Arunachal Pradesh government; the area earlier was a rice field. “The lake became active in 2018; ever since we’ve been observing migratory winter bird species in the lake and surrounding foothills,” he said. There’s a hypothesis prevailing that it could be the same bird that was spotted at Maguri or the sighting is a random occurrence, he said.
According to a 2015 paper by researchers in Assam, in India, there are “a few records of this species (Mandarin duck) including one on the Dibru River, Rungagora, Assam, in 1901 or 1902 and six individuals on the Subansiri River, Lakhimpur District, Assam in 1902. Besides that, on 03 March 1934 two pairs were shot in Manipur.”
“The second report in Manipur was on February 5, 2005, at Loktak (Keibul Lamjao National Park) and the third was on December 11, 2013, at Loktak (Jawa Lamjao of Toubul),” said wildlife photographer Premjit Elangbam. “The following year in February 2014, it was sighted at the same spot during the Waterbird Census. The most recent spotting is from December 24, 2020, at Imphal River of Ithai Laikhong area (not from Loktak).”
Too premature to say Maguri beel has revived
Rathin Barman, co-director at Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) told Mongabay-India that it is difficult to say why exactly migratory birds stray from their route, or if they lose their original flock, but rare appearances are not unheard of. “Last year in Kaziranga, a swan was spotted and a black-necked crane was seen most recently, the latter being the first record in Assam.”
He cautions that it’s “too premature to conclude immediately that Maguri has already revived just because the birds have arrived.” Barman states, “The six-month-long burning of Baghjan is bound to leave its impact. Once a grassland burns away, one cannot predict whether there will be the growth of weed, or grass or something else in that spot. The upcoming rainy season will determine that,” he said.
He added that wetlands are interlinked ecosystems with birds being only one aspect, there are various others too – insects, plants, hydrophytes, fish and more. “All of it has to renew and recover for Maguri to holistically revive.”
Punyasloke Bhaduri, professor at the Department of Biological Sciences, IISER Kolkata suggests that to draw long-term implications on whether or not the spotting of the bird in the wetland signifies major biodiversity changes, we have to look at aquatic and other resident bird/animal/plant species. “It is possible that the duck could have found certain fodder in the Maguri wetland, but even this is controversial because, after the blowout, there has been a high quantity of hydrocarbons in that area,” he shared.
He added, “In any ecosystem, a charismatic species brings an aesthetic value and hope for conservation. But we must also look at the birds that come every year. It is important for the state government, stakeholders, forest department and environment NGOs, etc., to tag the species, critically endangered and rare species – both resident and migratory,” he said.
Bhaduri notes that robust monitoring can help us look into impacts of the oil well blowout in the neighbouring ecosystem, like the effects on biodiversity in Dibru Saikhowa National Park, adjoining downstream riverine areas, and other beels. Certainly, with the spotting of the Mandarin duck, attention can be drawn and this can help us draw some funds for conservation.
The vigilance of local communities can go a long way
Aftab Ahmed, a researcher at WTI remarks that after the Baghjan blowout, the government has been proactively trying to minimise the damage to the nearby Maguri beel. However, parts of the beel will still need restoration. “Local communities can form conservation societies/groups which can closely monitor their beels and wildlife for any disturbances. They can also build ecotourism around the beels to promote eco-friendly livelihoods,” Ahmed shared.
Certain local schemes in the Maguri-Motapung Beel involve embankment construction, canal digging, cleaning and aqua pen culture. Gulaap Sonowal of the department of geography, Cotton University, Guwahati told Mongabay-India, “There is a group of people who formed a committee to look after the wetland and have established pen aquaculture. Maguri is located far from the human habitat compared to other beels. Due to lack of transportation, communication and the zeal to promote indigenous technology, it still hasn’t received ecological attention it deserves.”
Manipur’s Loktak lake is frequented by lesser whistling duck, gadwal, northern pintail, northern shoveler, red-crested pochard, green-winged teal, though the numbers are decreasing these days, pointed out photographer Elangbam. “The government with local organisations/NGOs are taking initiatives to protect them through mass awareness though no strict plans or actions have been taken up yet,” he said.
Ziro valley is a high-altitude plain coupled with the practices of the local tribe (Apatani) attracts many birds in general too. DFO Avinash Kumar added: “Birds are usually attracted to places that have rice fields or potato cultivation in the summer months. This gives them good stubble that allows them fodder – worms, insects, etc. Since hunting and fishing activities are prohibited in the Siikhe lake, its fish density is very good. The area in Ziro valley functions as good nesting sites because of degraded forests post jhum cultivation in the past. In the sanctuaries of the state, we have strict regulations for visitors and what they carry inside – as such, we’ve been able to maintain good figures in flora and fauna. Principles of ecotourism are very much conserved when we speak of within the sanctuaries. Tourism in the sanctuary is different from the Ziro valley in general, this is crucial to note,” Kumar said.
This story first appeared on Mongabay.