It was indeed a pleasure to read loads of articles in the media about biodiversity, conservation and sustainability, after all this is the “decade of biodiversity”. It is even more heartening to read such articles by readers rather than reporters, as I believe an increase in awareness among common people and not just researchers and ‘tree-huggers’ is required for protection of our ecosystem.
However, what prompted me to write this article is related to the ‘The Great Hornbill’. It is the State bird of Kerala and Arunachal Pradesh. It is baffling to find out that apart from people taking PSC examination and those participating in quiz competitions, very few people know this fact in Kerala. Even lesser percentage of people would have seen the majestic bird in the wild. Most Keralites would immediately recognise the malayalam word for the bird ‘Vezhambal (meaning one who desires water))’, thanks to frequent reference in movie song lyrics.’ The range of this beautiful bird is the Southern Western Ghats mainly Kerala alongside border regions of Tamil Nadu. The range for this species includes south of Himalayas that include most of Southeast Asia, Nepal, Bhutan and NE states. The population is declining everywhere owing to logging and clearing of forest space for agriculture. The species has been listed in “The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species” as near threatened. The population in Western Ghats is declining alarmingly and is considered endangered here, as the IUCN Red List considers mainly the global population of a species.
The Great Hornbill features prominently among the photographs displayed in the ecological tourist spots across Kerala but is rarely seen outside those billboards. The birds do exist in the rainforest canopy in Southern Western Ghats. However, these birds require old tall trees of mature forests for nesting and even for roosting while flying long distances.
The conservation efforts targeted on the great hornbill are almost minimal. To begin with the bird sanctuaries in Kerala totals only three, all of them wetlands which attract migratory birds during winter. To contrast this with the neighboring state of Tamilnadu, it has around 16 bird sanctuaries. Let us compare it with ‘Project Tiger’. In India, there are 46 approved tiger reserves, 3 of them in Kerala. There are no targeted conservation tactics for the Great Hornbill similar to that of tiger, though the Hornbills share habitat with that of tiger in Kerala. The conservation of Great Hornbills must begin with fruit bearing trees in the forest, as these species are heavily reliant on lipid rich fruits and other small preys residing in the trees. When you protect these trees, you are not just protecting Hornbills but also a variety of arboreal and frugivorous creatures; thereby protecting a fragile biosphere. Action must begin with ordinary people by means of bird-clubs etc. Currently, There is only one bird-club in Kerala, compared to neighboring states, it lags by miles. Apparently, legal/illegal pet bird shops are swelling in the state.
Most important works on the ecology of Great Hornbill are done by Ragupathi Kannan, an ornithologist from Univ of Arkansas Ft.Smith. Whereas local researchers are only beginning to take up such initiatives. In the paper “Correlates of hornbill distribution and abundance in rainforest fragments in the southern Western Ghats, India” authors T. R. Shankar Raman and Divya Mudappa underlines the vulnerability of this species and need for swift action by comparing it with a similar species Malabar Grey Hornbill which is more adaptive to habitat alteration.
The life, dating and mating of these beautiful creatures are very romantic. They form life-long monogamous pairs making it almost impossible for breeding under captivity. During the mating season, they perform really loud duets. Once the young hatches inside hollows of tree trunk, the female undergoes a complete moult and cares the young ones making it impossible for the female to venture outside. During this time, the female is completely reliant on the male for food. The Great Hornbills are called homrai and banrao in Nepal meaning the ‘King of the forest’. In my honest opinion, it is aptly so. Let us treat the kings, the way we are supposed to.
“I realized that If I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes.”
-Charles Lindbergh, Aviator and environmentalist.
-Santhosh K Ramachandran (A nature enthusiast)