The last flight

Steppe Eagle flying at sunset
A regular winter visitor to the Indian subcontinent, the Steppe Eagle was uplisted from ‘Least Concern’ to ‘Endangered’ in the Red List of Threatened Species released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2015.
Photo: Vinodh Venugopal / Sanctuary Photolibrary

Neglecting the significant role of raptors in the ecosystem doesn’t bode well for their conservation, writes Sanctuary’s Assistant Editor Anirudh Nair.

In a country where conservation concerns are more reactive than proactive, those that fly high, slip under the radar.

Most raptors are large-ranging avian predators that are on the top of their food chain species and maintain the population structure of their prey. Their position at the top of the food chain means that their numbers are fewer and makes them sensitive to the introduction of toxins and harmful chemicals into the environment. Considering the plethora of ecological roles played by raptors, it is imperative to study these vulnerable birds of prey.

It was studies done in the early 1970s that highlighted the harmful effects of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) on Bald Eagles and it was studies in the early 2000s that revealed precisely why vulture populations in India were declining — diclofenac. Raptors perform a sentinel role in the ecosystem by issuing warning signals about food chain toxification, habitat degradation, and waste generation. Research on raptors, rather avians, is still at a nascent stage in India on account of lack of awareness coupled with the disproportionate allocation of funds for large-mammal conservation — a trend that the Raptor Research Conservation Foundation, Mumbai, has been trying to reverse.

For scientific researchers, conservation status of the raptors they wish to study and other related factors come into play. Considered to be extinct for nearly 113 years, the rediscovery of the Forest Owlet in 1997, for instance, prompted researchers to study and subsequently understand many ecological and behavioural aspects vital to the survival of this critically-endangered species.

Urban areas may seem an easy place to study opportunistic raptors such as kites and kestrels, but researcher Nishant Kumar from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) faces a new hurdle each day in the field. Referred to as cheel wale (kite people) by his own species, he and his group of volunteers studying the nesting and breeding habits of Black Kites in the National Capital Region must negotiate their way through filth, hooligans and research permits. Though his study site harbours the densest breeding colonies of Black Kites anywhere in the world, he and many of his peers are of the view that much more research is required before anyone is able to arrive at population estimates pan-India. In his words: “Immigrants to Delhi from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Haryana tell us about the large-scale decline in kite numbers in their native states. I am from Bihar and the difference in the number of Black Kites seen now and during my childhood is stark, which is the likely consequence of urban foraging and felling large trees.”

Conducting a first-of-its-kind study in 2014, which seeks to explore the effect of habitat degradation on raptor communities of the Rajaji National Park, Monica Kaushik, a Fulbright Research Scholar working with the Wildlife Institute of India, highlighted the increasing rarity of the critically endangered White-rumped Vulture and Slender-billed Vulture. These birds are reported to be declining throughout their ranges, while other forest raptors such as Black Eagle, Shaheen Falcon and Short-toed Snake Eagle too were sighted very infrequently.

Kaushik writes: “Raptors are generally considered tolerant of habitat degradation due to their large home ranges. However, their response could vary during the breeding season. To investigate the effect of anthropogenic disturbance on occupancy of diurnal raptors, I studied their occupancy patterns in areas close to and distant from human habitation. Three raptor species — the Crested Serpent Eagle, Shikra and Common Kestrel — preferred areas away from human habitation indicating their sensitivity during the breeding season. Raptors generally use a single nest over the years and therefore are more susceptible to loss of nesting sites and disturbance around it. In one instance, during my study in Rajaji, lopping of a nesting tree for fodder collection led a Crested Serpent Eagle to abandon its nest. Similar disturbance in the form of bhabar grass collection by villagers and Gujjars is expected to influence nest site selection and nest abandoning by cliff-nesting diurnals such as the Shaheen Falcon, Bonelli’s Eagle, Mountain Hawk-eagle and Black Eagle.”

Male Amur Falcon snared in a fishing net. Photo: Shashank Dalvi / Conservation India
Male Amur Falcon snared in a fishing net.
Photo: Shashank Dalvi / Conservation India

In the past too, alert researchers have helped trigger concerted action to save entire species, a recent case in point being the successful campaign to stop the mass trapping of migrating Amur Falcons in Nagaland. Nevertheless, wildlifers would by and large concur that it is the decline of a species that draws the attention of researchers, funding agencies and policymakers. At this point, in some cases, the battle could already be lost. The need of the hour is effective policies that fund and support studies on changing land-use patterns and documentation of mounting pressures on habitat, both of which are responsible for a decline in virtually all raptor species in India. Conservation of raptors, dependent on larger landscapes, is further hampered by the fact that our Protected Areas are designed for the conservation of terrestrial mammals, largely ignoring the imperative of taking a landscape-level approach.
As this ominous narrative unfolds in a country whose environmental stewards are often accused of being just as reckless as their ‘pilots’, the next boarding call for raptors could well be their death knell.

This article was first published in the August 2016 issue of Sanctuary Asia magazine.

Anirudh Nair

Anirudh Nair

Anirudh Nair is an Assistant Editor with Sanctuary Asia magazine and has previously worked with two national newspapers.
Anirudh Nair

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Anirudh Nair

Anirudh Nair is an Assistant Editor with Sanctuary Asia magazine and has previously worked with two national newspapers.