Jul 31, 2008

India - Staying the courser

Indian conservationists strive to convince politicians of a small bird’s existence

WHEN in 2006 conservationists petitioned Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, chief minister of Andhra Pradesh (AP), to designate the Jerdon’s courser as the official bird of the southern Indian state, they had a strong case. Unlike the Indian roller, the incumbent state bird, the Jerdon’s courser is endemic to AP. Moreover, the “rediscovery” of the bird in 1986—almost a century after it had last been spotted, and decades after it was assumed to have gone extinct—was a special achievement for India’s ornithologists. But Mr Reddy had a problem. He worried that the courser did not, in fact, exist.
This was somewhat understandable. A small, brown inhabitant of undergrowth, the nocturnal courser—also known as the double-banded courser—is exceptionally rare and elusive. Since 1986, when a specimen of the bird was trapped, it has been seen only ten times, in a single patch of scrub forest in southern AP. Its call has been heard about 30 times, most recently in June. According to an unpublished study by researchers at Britain’s University of Reading—based on the habits of similar species—the courser’s protected forest could hold up to (but probably not more than) 32 pairs of the bird. It is one of 13 Indian bird species classified as “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a grouping of governments and NGOs.

But there was another reason why Mr Reddy might have been reluctant to confer his official blessing on the lowly ground-nester. It was proving to be a major obstacle to an important development project of his government: a 400-km channel, known as the Telugu-Ganga canal, to bring water through AP to Chennai, formerly Madras, and irrigate vast spaces along the way. Three decades after work began on the scheme, it is almost completed. But it has been stalled since 2006 in one scrubby area, on the order of India’s Supreme Court, after conservationists complained that the canal would bisect the last habitat of the Jerdon’s courser.
An impressive—and expensive—compromise is now almost in place. At the urging of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), an NGO, the state irrigation ministry has agreed to reroute the canal. (Though haggling continues over its exact course.) The government has also more or less agreed to add 3,000 acres of adjoining land to the courser’s sanctuary. It has already acquired much of this. The land’s erstwhile owners are said to be happy with the deal. They had few ties to this land, which is mostly unproductive and was given to them after their original holdings were flooded for a reservoir. The BNHS, meanwhile, is trying to catch and then radio-tag two specimens of the courser—and so prove to Mr Reddy its inconvenient existence.

With many troublesome conservationists—and righteous judges—India has guarded its magnificent wildlife perhaps surprisingly well. Though poor, densely populated and home to many threatened species, it has lost only a handful of animals in recent decades: for example, the Asiatic cheetah, Javanese rhinoceros and Sikkim stag. And it has lost only two species of bird: the pink-headed duck and Himalayan mountain quail. Like the Jerdon’s courser, the forest owlet was also ruled extinct before it was rediscovered. A fish, the Ladakh snow trout, may have similarly have re-emerged from the abyss.
This gives India a better record in conservation than many countries. Yet its wildlife is nonetheless in dreadful jeopardy: from a poor and fast-growing population, eating into India’s remaining forests and marshes; and also, increasingly, from infrastructure projects, fuelled by strong economic growth. The IUCN now groups India with China, Brazil and Indonesia, as countries with the highest number of species facing extinction. Many will no doubt slip more quietly into that long night than the Jerdon’s courser.

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