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Why tiger reserves are about more than just big cats

With its first summer bird count, Panna Tiger Reserve is the latest protected wildlife area to expand its inventory on other smaller animal species

Bird watching enthusiasts, local safari guides and forest staff at the fifth bird count in Satpura Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh conducted earlier this year.
Bird watching enthusiasts, local safari guides and forest staff at the fifth bird count in Satpura Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh conducted earlier this year. (Satpura Tiger Reserve)

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Around 36 bird watching enthusiasts and experts will be thronging Panna Tiger Reserve on June 9. The tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh is hosting its first summer bird survey, where it will scientifically document all the residents as well as migratory birds of the season in the protected area over a period of four days.

Also read: Guwahati gets its very own bird atlas

Unlike other tiger reserves in the country, Panna is famous for not just the big cats but also home to the highest number of vultures. The reserve has 737 vultures, which include seven of the nine species found in India. Since it has two major attractions to make it attractive, why conduct a bird survey? To understand and catalogue the avian fauna of the reserve, says Uttam Kumar Sharma, field director of the reserve. 

“Tiger reserve doesn’t mean just a place for tigers. It’s a reserve of biodiversity and tigers are just a representation of it. At present, we want to prepare a complete checklist of the entire diversity of birds in the reserve,” he said. Since it is a protected area, the birders will travel in vehicles on certain identified routes that pass by the river that runs through the park and other water bodies.

Panna joins the rising number of tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuaries in the state that have been conducting official bird surveys in the last seven to eight years. Some of these include Satpura Tiger Reserve, Kanha Tiger Reserve, Pench Tiger Reserve and Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. The common motivation seems to be to do an inventory of the flora and fauna of the reserve, which includes the birds. The increasing awareness and popularity in bird watching as a hobby is an added bonus as it ensures additional footfall. The Satpura Tiger Reserve is a good example. 

"It’s perhaps the only reserve which has done a bird survey consistently for the last five years,” says Anup Prakash, a bird enthusiast, who was part of the first bird survey the reserve conducted in 2018. It set a benchmark for other tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuary, says Prakash. “After the first survey in Satpura, the bird survey scene exploded. The participants (for this survey) went out and took the lead to do surveys in other parks as it was close to where they stayed,” he adds.

From sending invites to birding veterans and experts to take part in the survey back then, it received 400 applications for this year’s survey held in February. Of these, only 74 were allowed to participate in the survey. “The number of applications has certainly grown. However, it’s a scientifically done survey with certain documentation protocols. So, we look at the credentials of the applicants, how they can add value and then select them,” says L Krishnamoorthy, field director, Satpura Tiger Reserve. Till now, the reserve has documented 334 bird species, with 284 recorded this year.

Also read: Salem soars high in 2022 Great Backyard Bird Count

According to Krishnamoorthy, there are some objectives for continuing the survey for these many years. Besides promoting bird watching as a tourism activity and creating awareness about birds, it helps the park create a database and identify the hotspots that attract various avian species.

In fact, in both Panna and Satpura, forest staff and safari guides are part of the survey to increase their knowledge. “It’s to enhance their (park guides and forest staff) knowledge of birds, that will help when bird watching is promoted as a tourist attraction. It will be an additional source of income for them. The forest department also encouraged some guides by giving them binoculars and field guides,” says Praver Mourya, editor and reviewer of eBird in Madhya Pradesh. Mourya is also a research associate with the bio-acoustics research project Dhwani.

The database will also help in making a case against infrastructure development that can harm certain ecosystems within the park, believes Sharma. “For instance, the Ken-Betwa River Interlinking project (which will submerge areas within the park) will not affect the tigers so much but will prove to be a disaster for the vultures and other bird species. With the data, we can also look at habitat management activities as well,” Sharma adds.

In future, Sharma hopes that they can promote the various bird species that visit the reserve during the different periods. For now, they will do three surveys this year and look at the frequency based on the data they collect.

Also read: First-ever Himalayan Bird Count shows encouraging results

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