Military plans threaten two unique species

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If the Coast Guard and Navy have their way, the Narcondam Hornbill and Nicobar Megapode will become history. Cara Tejpal reports

Facing extinction Narcondam Hornbill (above) and Nicobar Megapode
Photos: Niranjan Sant, Pankaj Sheksaria/Sanctuary Photo Library

SPRINKLED ACROSS the Bay of Bengal, the paradisiacal Andaman and Nicobar islands are home to not only some of India’s oldest tribes but also an incredible spectrum of wildlife. The islands are, for the most part, undisturbed and have managed to maintain a delicate ecological balance, away from the mayhem of mainland India. Yet, two projects proposed by the Indian Coast Guard and Navy jeopardise the existence of the endangered and endemic Narcondam Hornbill and Nicobar Megapode — unique species that are already on the brink of extinction.

Covering an area of just about 17 sq km, Tillanchong Island is a diminutive part of the Nicobar group. Tillanchong is vital to the culture of the Nicobarese people and is under the customary ownership of three large, joint families from central Nicobar. For a few months each year, the Nicobarese visit Tillanchong and live on the island, following an ancient system of customs and taboos. The tribals prohibit the exploitation of any species other than wild pig, turtles and fish and thus maintain a healthy population of practically all the animal species found in the archipelago. Of these, it is the Nicobar Megapode that is of special mention. Found only in India and restricted to just 14 islands of the Nicobar group, this bird suffered a colossal population crash following the 2004 tsunami.

Unfortunately, the navy has proposed Tillanchong as a site to test dummy missiles from submarines. The proposal was put forth on the 23rd meeting of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife. The DFO of the Nicobar Division mentioned in his site inspection report a diversion of about 4 sq km. Though the actual testing period will be limited to only 7-10 days a year, the use of armament and impact of the resulting debris has not been accounted for.

Additionally, the trial firing parameters for safety demand that the entire island be isolated of all activity if it is to be used as a test site. What then will become of the ancient customs and rituals of the natives?

On another island, another project threatens another species. The Narcondam Island, barely 7 sq km in area, is home to the only known population of the Narcondam Hornbill. A striking but comparatively small sub-species, the males of this bird have rufous plumage on their heads, necks and upper breast, while the females are all black. It is estimated that there are no more than 90 breeding pairs in the world, and all of them are found in Narcondam.

A proposal from the Coast Guard to build a radar installation and a diesel power generation station on the island has cast a shadow on the hornbill’s future. Till date, there has been no human presence on Narcondam, save for a small police checkpost. The proposal includes new construction, a 2-km long road that will require some amount of tree felling and, of course, an increased human presence. Beyond that, Narcondam also represents one of the few examples of isolated coral reefs in the Andamans, reefs that are likely to suffer damage from the proposed development.

Despite the clear implications of this development and a strongly worded report from Bombay Natural History Society Director Dr Asad Rahmani to reject the project, the proposal is currently pending with the Minister for Environment and Forests Jayanthi Natarajan. Independent members of the Standing Committee seem to be unanimous in their criticism of these projects. Minutes from a Standing Committee meeting held as far back as October 2011 record the opposition of several members, including Dr Madhusudan, Dr Rahmani and Prerna Bindra.

Meanwhile, Conservation India (CI) has initiated a focussed campaign to draw attention to the possible demise of an exquisite species. “This is the only population of these hornbills in the world,” says Ramki Sreenivasan of CI. “Such a small population and its tiny range make it vulnerable to natural disaster and disease, leave alone manmade threats. To build a radar puts the hornbills at risk. In addition, the coral reefs around the island are also very unique and will be disturbed.”

Backing the cause and advocating for the protection of the Narcondam Island, a number of senior scientists and researchers from the Nature Conservation Foundation have written an open letter to Natarajan voicing their concerns.

The Nicobar Megapode and Narcondam Hornbill are just two of the countless species struggling for survival in India. The positive part is that we have not run out of options yet. We still have time to decide whether we want a country of breathtaking biodiversity or one where submarines sweep the ocean floors to launch missiles into tranquil forests.

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