Environment

Where Are the Large-Bodied Waterbirds of the Wetlands?

A majority of the waterbird population occurs in wetlands not conserved under law. New research makes a case for the prevention of illegal hunting in such areas.

A painted stork at the Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary, Rajasthan. Credit: sankaracs/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A painted stork at the Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary, Rajasthan. Credit: sankaracs/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Vrushal Pendharkar is a writer at IndiaBioScience.

Mughals hunted waterbirds for game and pot. The British continued the tradition and indulged in hunting them mainly for sport. Some of the most extravagant British hunting expeditions saw them shoot thousands of waterbirds and tens of tigers in a span of few days.

Although India banned hunting under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, hunting continues illegally. In a recent, and first of its kind, study, researchers from the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru, and the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), Mysuru, documented the intensity of hunting and its impacts on waterbirds. The study found that hunters killed birds to cater to demands of the market and not necessarily for their sustenance, as was previously believed.

Several reports in the past from across the country have reported the hunting of waterbirds in lands both protected (wetlands) and unprotected (e.g., agricultural farmlands and city lakes). But no study has systematically recorded the scale, reasons and effects of hunting on waterbirds in any of these habitats. “We went in knowing there is absolutely nothing to compare [our results] with,” Kolla S. Gopi Sundar of the NCF, who supervised the study, told The Wire.

The researchers wanted to assess how hunting impacted the community of waterbirds in India’s wetlands.

To understand this, they surveyed 27 wetlands that varied in their size, shape, area under vegetation cover and water cover in Kanchipuram district, Tamil Nadu. Of these 27, only two – Vedanthangal and Karikilli – are protected bird sanctuaries, where hunting is prohibited, while remaining 25 are agricultural wetlands.

In total, the researchers counted 8,279 individual birds belonging to 53 species in these wetlands. The birds recorded were classified into three classes according to their sizes. The common sandpiper, cotton teal, common kingfisher, etc. were called ‘small-sized’. The pond heron, cattle egret, purple moorhen, yellow bittern, etc. were put in the medium category. The painted stork, Eurasian spoonbill, Asian openbill stork and grey heron were ‘large’.

This bird data threw up many patterns. The cattle egret was unsurprisingly the most abundant bird because it occurs commonly throughout the country. At the same time, it was the only species encountered across all the wetlands. Some other birds that also commonly occur in most wetlands in the region – such as the spot-billed pelican, painted stork, grey heron and Eurasian spoonbill – were spotted only in Vedanthangal, a protected waterbody. “This was a clear indication of something wrong going on in the landscape,” according to Sundar.

Although the habitat was conducive for birds to exist, they were not to be seen. “Probably outside the protected wetlands the birds were being targeted by hunters and that is the reason why we didn’t find them,” says Ramesh Ramachandran, a postgraduate student at NCBS at the time he carried out the study.

The researchers knew hunters operated in the wetlands and suspected they chose certain species over others. From this premise, they were able to identify 272 hunters and built trust over frequent visits to their hamlets. The researchers found out about their hunting habits and estimated the hunting intensity in a wetland.

The hunters looked for waterbirds seasonally between December and April. This period coincides with the winter migration of several waterbirds species, like the sandpipers, plovers and Eurasian spoonbill, from temperate regions to the tropics. The bulk of the hunting happened over weekends and at dawn and dusk – times at which the birds were active. According to Ramachandran, weekend hunts could be attributed to a spike in demand for meat on those days.

In total, the hunters took out 47 out of 53 species of birds. “With the hunting aspect, the scale of the number of species being affected is mind-boggling,” says Sundar. Although pond heron was the most hunted bird, all hunters preferred to bag large waterbirds like the Asian openbill, Eurasian spoonbill, glossy ibis, great egret, painted stork and spot-billed pelican. This explains why most of these large birds were missing from the agricultural wetlands: hunting has reduced their numbers.

The researchers report that even the hunters acknowledged observing fewer large-bodied birds over the last 10 years. “Historical records mention that the bar-headed goose and black ibis were commonly found in the region,” according to Ramachandran, but these birds weren’t spotted. The bar-headed goose otherwise occurs across south India in winter while the Indian black ibis can be regularly found in agricultural fields.

Anyway, the hunting of large-bodied waterbirds has skewed the local avian community towards smaller-bodied birds. The researchers don’t yet know what the ecological impacts of such changes would mean for the birds themselves. “Instead, we are very likely to see disappearances of functions [for wetlands] we don’t know much about,” says Sundar.

The researchers also surveyed five markets and 681 eateries in the neighbourhoods to assess if these places had waterbirds on their menus. Some 426 did, and they got their bird-meat from over 75% of the hunters in the area. Changing food habits and rising demand for waterbirds in the market were strong incentives for hunters to hunt commercially rather than for their own consumption.

“The study is important as it helps to know that to conserve our natural resources what are the determinants of different livelihood options for local communities, because if that is not given a thought then it becomes big news,” says Goldin Quadros, a wetland ecologist at the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History.

Wetlands are among the most endangered ecosystems in the world. They are regularly dredged for buildings to be constructed over. Or they are converted to agricultural fields. Or are often treated as drains to discharge untreated pollutants into.

This is terrible news for waterbirds. But the NCBS study also shows how hunting can be an equally grave threat to their numbers. A majority of the waterbird population occurs in wetlands not conserved under law. The study makes a case for the prevention of illegal hunting in such areas.