On Feb. 4, images of a rare oriental darter struggling to free its beak from a piece of plastic went viral. The incident was reported from Palwal in Haryana which, according to the news report, has lost more than half of its wetlands in 30 years (1970s-2000) due to land-use change like agricultural expansion. In June 2018, in a similar incident, in a wetland just outside Delhi, a black-necked stork had its beak sealed with a plastic ring around it. Its photo had gone viral. The bird was later rescued after extensive efforts by forest authorities.
Such incidents where birds are impacted by trash and plastic waste could be reduced as part of a new plan to conserve birds and control dumping of waste into areas like wetlands that are bird habitats.
With the focus on tigers and elephants, conservation and protection of birds take a backseat in India. Now, a 10-year plan proposed by the Indian government hopes to help in the conservation of birds and their habitats in India.
The draft—visionary perspective plan (2020-2030) for the conservation of avian diversity, their ecosystems, habitats and landscapes in the country—was put in the public domain by the ministry of environment, forest and climate change on Feb. 3, seeking comments from all stakeholders.
The plan proposes a series of short-, medium-, and long-term plans to protect the rare and endangered species of birds, start species recovery programmes of critically endangered ones, introduce landscape approach to control their declining population, protect birds in urban areas, protect their habitats from turning into wastelands and conserve wetlands and coastal areas that are frequented by birds.
The plan also noted that anthropogenic activities leading to increased levels of greenhouse gas emissions are also impacting the environment on a global scale and thus urged scientific interventions to minimise and mitigate such impacts on avifauna.
Save them from extinction
At least 1,317 bird species have been recorded in India against around 10,000 species found worldwide. Of the 1,317 species recorded in India, 72 are endemic to the country. According to an assessment of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 2018, a total of 100 species of Indian birds are classified as “threatened.” Of these, 17 are categorised as “critically endangered,” 20 as “endangered,” and 63 as “vulnerable.”
Besides these threatened species, there are several other species that are marked by sparse population size and restricted range and are generally considered rare by conservationists. The draft plan observes that it is documented that 270 species (21%) of Indian avifauna fall under the “rare” category and these include the raptors, pheasants, bustards, hornbills, cranes, storks, etc, which together are classified as Rare, Endangered and Threatened (RET) bird species.
Birds perform various ecosystem services like controlling pests in agriculture and forestry, rodent control, pollination of plants, seed dispersal and forest regeneration, scavenging services, indicators of environmental health and have socio-cultural and religious values.
The pressure of anthropogenic activities destroying their natural habitat and factors like environmental degradation, changes in land use like rapid urbanisation and pollution poses a serious threat to their survival. It also leads to ecological imbalances. For instance, the plan noted that the decline in the population of vultures led to an alarming increase in the population of stray dogs especially in urban areas across India. It quoted a study that found that this abrupt increase in the stray dog population resulted in high rates of rabies incidences costing the country about Rs3,400 crore ($472 million) between 1993 and 2006.
The draft plan noted that considering the ecological services that birds perform and their role in the stability of ecosystem functioning, it is imperative that a long-term plan for the conservation of avian biodiversity, their ecosystems and habitats is prepared.
With their 10-year plan, the environment ministry aims to do just that. The draft plan envisages 15 major programmes and various activities that would be implemented over short-term (2020-2024), medium-term (2024-2027), and long-term (2027-2030).
This is an addition to India’s National Wildlife Action Plan (2017- 2031), which, too, has several conservation actions for the protection of birds and their habitats. The MoEFCC had also recently come out with “India’s National Action Plan for Conservation of Migratory Birds and their Habitats along the Central Asian Flyway (2018-2023).”
Count your birds
There is a network of 870 protected areas (PAs) across India which includes national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, community reserves and conservation reserves and many of them have high avian diversity. A total of 554 sites across the country have been designated as “important bird and biodiversity areas (IBAs)” of which 219 IBAs are outside the protected area network and are under severe anthropogenic pressure. The worrying part is that most of them do not have any conservation action plan or management prescription for their sustenance.
But the IBAs, which are exceptionally rich in avian diversity and other RET species, are vulnerable to pressures from anthropogenic activities resulting in the destruction of their habitats which leads to a decline in their numbers. “Therefore, conservation of such habitats which support a high number of bird species assumes greater significance as strongholds for biodiversity conservation,” said the draft plan.
Of the 554 sites, 506 have globally threatened species and thus it is important that comprehensive management plans for IBAs outside the protected area network are given priority, said the draft plan.
The draft plan recommended “bird surveys” in select landscapes to identify new IBAs for the conservation of birds and other biodiversity. It recommended an assessment of the adequacy of existing protected area network with respect to bird biodiversity and representation of biogeographic zones along with the prioritisation of areas with high avian diversity for developing conservation strategies. It also called for quantifying the economic value of ecosystem goods, services, and functions mediated through the establishment of the IBAs.
Last year, the Indian government came out with similar reports quantifying the economic value of ecosystem services of tiger reserves.
Noted ornithologist Bikram Grewal said proper implementation of such plans is the key. “A focused plan for the protection of birds is a laudable idea as it is probably for the first time that such a plan is proposed. But the real test is always the implementation as there is huge development pressure on the environment ministry. In the hierarchy of conservation actions, birds come well below major species like tigers. Where is the money for protection and conservation of birds and their habitats,” said Grewal.
In the 2020-2021 budget presented by the Indian government, Rs300 crore are allocated for Project Tiger alone.
Better wetlands, safer birds
There are presently 201,503 wetlands (above 2.25 hectare) in India and most of them are under stress due to impacts of urbanisation, agricultural run-offs which require specific management plans for conservation.
While talking about the importance of inland aquatic ecosystems that are important bird habitats, the plan suggested an assessment of the health of the 37 Ramsar Sites in India, ecology of the Myristica swamps of the Western Ghats, conservation plans for select high-altitude wetlands, microplastics in select inland wetlands and their accumulation in the food web, the impact of invasive alien species in wetlands and the ecosystem services provided by the inland aquatic ecosystems.
India is a party to the Ramsar Convention which is an international intergovernmental treaty for the conservation of wetlands.
“Wetlands are one of the safe areas for birds but what is happening to wetlands across the country tells the actual tale of the conservation of birds in India. For instance, look at the unplanned development that has taken over all wetlands in Delhi and all the National Capital Region. So, many of them have been encroached upon and destroyed,” said birder Savithri Singh.
“Another point is that as far as policies around the conservation of birds is concerned, there is no concerted effort to develop wholesome strategies. There is no continuity in thought processes. Implementation of these policies is a far-off thing,” said Singh.
The draft further recommended identification of coastal and marine areas that serve as suitable habitats for pelagic and coastal bird species followed by an integrated conservation and management plans for promoting sustainable practices.
It also called for assessment and monitoring the impacts of “anthropogenic activities such as discharge of wastes and untreated sewage, disposal of solid wastes including plastics, oil spills and discharge of ballast water, trawling, etc and impacts of invasive and alien species and pathogens on coastal biotic communities with an emphasis on bird populations.”
The draft plan also sought an assessment of the marine debris including macroplastics that affect coastal bird population by choking or accidental foraging.
Map sites critical for migratory birds
Of the 1,317 species recorded in India, about 30% are migratory. Nearly 370 species of migratory birds visit India through three flyways—Central Asian Flyway (CAF), East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF) and Asian-East African Flyway (AEAF). Over 80% of migratory birds (307 species) visit India through CAF and among these, 87 species are of high conservation concern including two critically endangered, five endangered and 13 vulnerable species.
The draft plan suggested mapping and assessment of critical wintering and stop-over sites for migratory birds in India. It recommended species-specific action plans for conservation of select migratory birds, a national database on migratory birds and their habitats, assess threats to migratory birds and their habitats, and develop mitigation measures.
It asked for assessment and monitoring of bird-human conflict zones including agroecosystems, wind farms and airfields to mitigate such conflicts and also the impacts of night lights, air and noise pollution on avifauna. It recommended the development of SOPs and guidelines for the management of airfields to minimise bird hazards to aircrafts and strategies for bird-free airports in the country.
Urban census matters
The draft plan also drew attention towards the dwindling population of birds in urban areas. For instance, several species of birds such as the house sparrow, red-vented bulbul, crow, spotted owlet, etc. have shown a drastic decline in their populations due to increasing urbanisation in India.
It called for consolidating baseline information on birds and their population status in major cities and towns in the country, study the impacts of urbanisation on avian diversity, their habitats and behaviour, monitor bird-human interface in urban environs for emerging issues with respect to health and other conflicts, conduct bird census and studying ecology of scavenging birds in urban agglomerates.
It also recommended the establishment of a state-of-the-art disease surveillance centre for identification and monitoring of diseases in wild birds, surveillance of zoonotic and non-zoonotic diseases in wild birds at select locations in the country and developing standard operating procedures for mitigating disease outbreaks in birds.
The draft plan also sought to develop a “national network of birdwatchers for effective dissemination of information and success stories on bird conservation through citizen science initiatives and electronic media.”