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In the red: 5 reasons why India is the most dangerous place for birds

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 7:43 IST

This year, eight birds in India moved closer to extinction.

This was revealed in the 2015 edition of the Red List of endangered birds drawn up by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN.

From all the rest of the world, only 32 birds were added to the list.

India is home to nearly 10% of the world's 12,000-odd known species of birds. Sadly, though, it also has a similar share of threatened bird species. Of the 213 birds classified as "critically endangered" by the IUCN, 17 are in India.

The IUCN classifies the world's flora and fauna, in increasing magnitude of vulnerability, as: least concerned, near threatened, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, extinct in the wild, extinct.

The latest Red List declared the Steppe Eagle "endangered", classified five birds as "near threatened" and two as "vulnerable". Just last year, all these birds were classified as "least concerned", that is, they were relatively abundant in the wild.

The new additions to the Red List have take the total number of threatened birds in India to 180. These birds belong to a wide variety of habitats -- from coastal areas to grasslands and forests - indicating the crisis is pan-Indian.

Bird experts, however, are hardly surprised. They point out that this Red List is not the first alarm bell on the state of birds in India. In 2014, too, eight birds from the country were added to the list.

But why is India becoming so hostile to its feathered residents? For five main reasons:

Destruction of habitat

Birds thrive only in their native habitats and rarely adapt to changes in them. Bird habitats are disappearing due to deforestation and encroachment of grasslands or swamps for agriculture and urban development.

The Bombay Natural History Society says we are losing bird habitats at an "alarming rate" due to "unsustainable development activities". For example, encroachment of coastal areas has destroyed the home of the Red Knot, pushing it into the "near threatened" category.

[twittable]India is losing bird habitats at an alarming rate due to 'unsustainable development activities': BNHS[/twittable]

Excessive use of chemicals

Some of the chemicals used in agriculture and medicine are known to harm birds. For example, the drug Diclofenac is used as a medicine for cattle. It, however, poisons vultures that eat the carcass of such animals. As a result, the country's vulture population has been nearly wiped out.

The Steppe Eagle is also a scavenger affected by Diclofenac. The good news is that the government recently moved to check the use of the drug, banning its multi-dose vials. Whether this will help the species recover remains to be seen.

Poor policy planning

The government has been lax in addressing the concerns raised by the annual Red List assessment. Experts say for endangered and critically endangered birds, a species-specific intervention is necessary as the usual environmental programmes are often insufficient.

For example, the Great Indian Bustard lives only on grasslands. But our grasslands are shrinking in part due to reforestation. In effect, while a reforestation policy in itself is beneficial, it's damaging to the bustard.

To offset this, we need to devise programmes that are centred on the endangered species, says Pramod Patil, a bird conservationist who has worked to protect the bustard. Something like Project Tiger.

The UPA government had, in fact, put in place such a programme for the bustard and Lesser Floricans but, according to Patil, it has seen "nearly zero implementation".

Lack of protected areas

Nearly 466 areas in India are critical habitats for a large number of birds, according to the Indian Bird Conservation Network. These include resting areas for migratory birds. But the government has not taken any steps to regulate activities in these areas, according to Atul Sathe, assistant director at the Bombay Natural History Society.

While it is difficult to cordon off all these areas as national parks, the government can still initiate conservation action by bringing together local residents, NGOs and other actors. This is especially important because, unlike animals, it is difficult to relocate birds once their habitats are damaged. "There are many such measures that can be undertaken, but we don't see that happening," Sathe rues.

Climate change

Global warming has changed rainfall patterns and increased the frequency of extreme weather events. This has led to habitat degradation. One of the reasons the Curlew Sandpiper was classified as "near threatened" in the latest Red List is that lower rainfall is damaging its wetland habitat.

In the Red List, the threat perception for one bird -- the European Roller, a migratory bird -- was reduced from "vulnerable" to "least concerned". This has been touted as "good news" but it turns out that the downlisting wasn't because of recovery in the bird's population.

Its population is still falling but at a rate - 5-20% over two decades - that is not fast enough to warrant a "vulnerable" classification, according to BirdLife International, which was part of IUCN's survey for the Red List.

The bird though continues to face threats, which include its hunting in Gujarat.

First published: 4 November 2015, 11:24 IST
Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale

Nihar is a reporter with Catch, writing about the environment, water, and other public policy matters. He wrote about stock markets for a business daily before pursuing an interdisciplinary Master's degree in environmental and ecological economics. He likes listening to classical, folk and jazz music and dreams of learning to play the saxophone.