A dispatch from the "Garden of Eden" of an endangered bird

At the end of 2019, I was ready for a total change of scenery. As a natural history photographer, I had spent the previous two years fo...


At the end of 2019, I was ready for a total change of scenery. As a natural history photographer, I had spent the previous two years following snow leopards in the Himalayas. Then, one snowy afternoon, I received a brief call from Dr Rohit Naniwadekar, a bird biologist with the Foundation for Nature Conservation. He asked me to get to a small volcanic island in the northern Andaman Sea as quickly as possible.

Within a week, I had traded the seemingly endless landlocked mountains for a little piece of land at the end of the world.

Narcondam Island, a designated wildlife sanctuary where Dr. Naniwadekar planned to conduct his research, gives new meaning to the word “remote.” Located about 80 miles east of the main spine of the Andaman Islands and totaling only about 2.6 square miles (twice the size of Central Park), Narcondam is a dense green volcanic mountain rising out of the deep blue water. To date, very few scientists and natural history photographers have trodden its uninhabited beaches.

Getting to Narcondam, which is part of the territory of the Indian union of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, was not easy. After getting the proper government permits, we took a flight from mainland India to the Andaman Islands – pretty straightforward. But this was followed by a long night in rough seas to reach Narcondam. Also, the island doesn’t have a docking or soft landing option, so we had to jump into tiny rubber boats and fight the waves before disembarking. We were soaked from head to toe.

Finally, the five of us – three scientists, a wildlife biologist turned artist and I – found ourselves thrown out with little more than our gear, a few dry rations, and a healthy dose of excitement.

The main objective of the team was to study and document the Narcondam’s hornbill (Rhyticeros narcondami), which is endangered and endemic to the island. Luckily we saw our first couple flying over the beach as soon as we made landfall.

Having seen the great hornbill of mainland India myself, I noticed that these hornbills were smaller than I expected. But they were no less breathtaking. The male is somewhat larger, with a reddish-colored head and black body, while the female is all black. The bird’s closest extant relative is the Blyth’s hornbill, found in Papua New Guinea.

Within hours of our arrival, we realized that Narcondam’s hornbills were in great abundance, even though they were limited to the small area of ​​the island. Determining how many of them exist and what factors encourage their abundance were two of the critical questions Dr Naniwadekar’s team sought to understand during the two-month visit.

Exploring Narcondam was a challenge. Its rugged terrain is made up of ridges and valleys formed of loose, crumbly rock, which are held together by seemingly impenetrable shrubs and woody vines called lianas.

However, each day we set off in a different direction from our base, allowing the beauty of the island to unfold before us. Some areas were dry and reminiscent of a deciduous jungle, while others were laden with mist and reminiscent of dense cloud forests.

We made our way through tangled undergrowth on our hands and knees and gazed at giant buttress trees, standing about 130 feet tall, filtering sunlight through layers of the canopy to a carpet of ferns below.

Over time, the team began to investigate the surprising abundance of the hornbill. They walked line transects at different elevations to estimate the bird’s population densities. Plots of vegetation have been developed to try to understand the floral diversity. Camera traps were set up near fruit trees to study rodent impacts on native plants.

The work was time consuming, physically demanding and monotonous, but the thrill of discovering and identifying different species of plants and animals in the field was enough to boost the morale of the whole group.

During the day, cries of Latin names of various plants and birds echoed through the forest. In the evening, we would relax with fresh coconut water in the comfort of a hammock. At night we would gaze at the ocean, gazing at the base of the island which lies below the surface of the water, dreaming of all the life we ​​couldn’t see.

Some days I would venture out on my own looking for nests, sitting in the trees for hours with a zoom, hoping to capture close-up images of the hornbill. I familiarized myself with the ruckus they created by playfully chasing each other or feeding on a ficus tree.

Narcondam hornbills have massive beaks that they use to pluck thick fruit, which they toss gently into the air before swallowing them or giving them to a mate.

It was courtship time, and we were treated to an explosion of behaviors that were difficult to disentangle. For weeks, we watched constant vocalization, courtship, and pair bonding between potential mates as they called each other. Pairs were hanging out around the nests, taking turns cleaning them, flying together, feeding together, preening each other very gently.

While I was busy photographing these birds, the team began to piece together the puzzle of the hornbill population. They estimated nearly 1,000 birds, corresponding to a density of about 390 birds per square mile, far exceeding any recorded densities for all other hornbill species on the planet.

In addition, the density of the island’s fruit trees – notably that of the figs consumed by the hornbills of Narcondam – was between two and 10 times higher as in comparable forests.

“Figs have a unique characteristic of staggered fruiting,” explained Dr. Navendu Page, a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India and a botanist on the team. “So at all times there are a few fruit trees on the island, which ensures a constant supply of food for the hornbills all year round.”

Besides figs, other native plants are also present in abundance. And since hornbills are the island’s largest fruit eater, Dr. Page hypothesizes that birds effectively alter the distribution of trees to favor the ones they feed on. In other words: by spreading the seeds in their droppings, hornbills gradually transform the island into their own Garden of Eden.

Yet the birds face challenges. In recent years, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been a essential asset for India in the country’s efforts to counter China’s expansion into the Indian Ocean. As such, the archipelago faces the risk of potential infrastructure development.

Climate change is also a potential threat, especially since it is known to disrupt the fruiting patterns of plants. “In such a tightly connected ecosystem,” explained Dr Naniwadekar, “a bad year or two of fruiting could have a huge impact on the hornbill population.”

Rats, not native to the island, also invaded Narcondam. Early studies of camera traps suggest that they feed heavily on certain seeds and could potentially alter the floral composition of the island.

At the end of our nearly two month stay, as some of us set off in rubber dinghies to our extraction ship, I saw a pair of hornbills flying in the open sky, glowing in the golden light. of dawn. I was struck by the fact that this might be the last time I laid eyes on these birds – true “evolutionary wonders”, as Dr Naniwadekar once described them.

“They should enjoy the same respect and protection that we offer to the man-made wonders of our world,” he added.

Prasenjeet Yadav is a natural history and science photographer based in Bangalore, India. You can follow his work on Instagram and Twitter.



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Newsrust - US Top News: A dispatch from the "Garden of Eden" of an endangered bird
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