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A photo of a Narcondum Hornbill.

There are just 350 to 400 Narcondam hornbills left, in a range of under 2.7 square miles (7 square kilometers).

Photograph by Dhritiman Mukherjee



Shruti Ravindran

for National Geographic

Published July 12, 2014

A little over a month after India's new government came to power, conservationists have begun worrying that the administration may be less than committed to protecting some of the country's environmental treasures.

Within days of the election, the government granted clearances to several defense projects that had been pending for years due to potential environmental impacts. The environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, also declared that projects relating to national security would be given expedited clearances.

Other early warning signs, say environmentalists, include a decision by the Ministry of Environment and Forests to facilitate industrial activity by relaxing the definition of forest areas. And the new government attempted to take control of the finances of environmental nonprofits like Greenpeace, which it declared to be a "threat to national economic security" for opposing mining, coal-fired power plants, and nuclear power projects.

But the first victim of the new government's focus on security could be the odd-looking Narcondam hornbill, an endangered bird found only on Narcondam Island, a tiny volcanic isle located 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) east of the Indian peninsula, near Myanmar (Burma).

India alleges that China has set up a "listening post" aimed at intercepting Indian communications on the Myanmar-owned Coco Island, about 76 miles (122 kilometers) away. In response, the Indian government has revived plans to build a radar station on Narcondam Island.

The station had been rejected by the previous government in 2012, largely over concerns about the hornbill. That may not be enough to stop the project this time.

"Whole Population Might Be Washed Off"

The Narcondam hornbill was first described in 1873 by A. O. Hume, an amateur ornithologist and British civil servant in India. Hume was struck by the sight of the strange, somewhat clumsy-looking birds. About the size of a little egret, the birds have velvet-black bodies and wings, with oversize yellow beaks and flouncy white tails.

Naturalists who visited the island later noticed the bird's curious breeding habits: After mating, female hornbills clamber into the hollows of old evergreen trees and imprison themselves with a wall of their own droppings for the duration of egg-laying and chick rearing. The males are expected to pass food through a slit in the wall during this time.

There are just 350 to 400 Narcondam hornbills left, though their numbers have been relatively stable in recent years. The bird has a tiny range of just under 2.7 square miles (7 square kilometers) and flies only short distances, explaining why their numbers are limited to Narcondam Island.

The land available to the birds shrunk in 1969, when Indian police set up an outpost on the island. They lopped down trees for firewood and to clear land for farming plots to feed themselves. And hundreds of goats, both feral and domestic, whittled down the undergrowth and prevented the forest from regenerating, leaving hornbills with fewer nesting sites.

With the goats now removed, the hornbills would seem to be doing well, based on numbers alone. "When I was there last [year], they were as common as crows," said Shirish Manchi, a field researcher with the Sálim Ali Center for Ornithology and Natural History in Coimbatore, India.

"However, their breeding population has shrunk dramatically," he said. In 1999, breeding birds made up half or more of the population. But as of last month, they constituted less than 10 percent of the birds.

That loss, which Manchi suspects might be related to a loss of habitat quality, may have further restricted the hornbills' genetic diversity. "So if one diseased chicken comes to the island, the whole population might be washed off," he said.

The loss of the hornbills could spark other extinctions, Manchi said. The fruit-loving birds are called "feathered foresters" because they consume, defecate, and spread seeds from at least nine species of evergreen trees and climbing plants on the island, some of which are found only on Narcondam and are little studied.

Researchers worry about the future of the plants—as well as butterflies, reptiles, birds, and other animals that depend on them—should the hornbills disappear.

A photo of Narcondum Hornbills sitting on a branch after a breeding display in the sky.
Breeding Narcondam hornbills, like this pair, have recently made up less than 10 percent of the species’ population.
Photograph by Dhritiman Mukherjee

Little Island, Big Plans

The Indian Coast Guard's development plans for the tiny island are ambitious, according to Asad Rahmani, director of the Bombay Natural History Society in Mumbai. Rahmani undertook a site inspection in 2012 as a member of the government-appointed National Board for Wildlife, whose approval is required for projects in areas home to protected species.

The radar equipment needs just 1.6 acres of land on top of a hill, which wouldn't do much harm to the bird, but the coast guard told Rahmani that it also needed to construct a road up the hill through the birds' breeding areas, along with residences for technicians and supervisors, a helipad, and a large generator to power it all.

The Indian Defense Ministry has argued that national security interests, such as the coast guard station, should prevail over environmental concerns. When contacted recently, the coast guard said it was not authorized to make any statements on this subject to the press.

However, the government has said that it fears that the Chinese "listening post"—the existence of which has not been confirmed—could monitor India's satellite and missile launch stations, as well as the movements of the Indian navy.

The government also contends that the coast guard's presence on Narcondam would help monitor the movement of vessels and curb illegal activities such as poaching, smuggling, and the dumping of toxic wastes.

"If you have a situation where China is sitting in front and we won't do anything, how can you run the country like this?" Javadekar asked in a public address in June.

Nature and Development

Narcondam Island isn't the only site where the Indian government's response to China may have environmental effects. The environment ministry has said it intends to expedite forest clearances for 3,700 miles (5,955 kilometers) of roads and a further 12,000 acres of land for the establishment of a new army base in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, the site of a border dispute with China—and a hotspot for biodiversity that is home to nine wildlife sanctuaries.

But a final decision on the army base and island radar has yet to be made. A 1972 wildlife protection law mandates that projects in reserved forests and sanctuaries be reviewed by the National Board for Wildlife, which the new government has yet to set up. And after pushback from environmental activists, Javadekar took to Twitter on June 11 to say that he was reviewing the case of the Narcondam hornbill.

T. R. Shankar Raman, a wildlife scientist with India's Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysore, said that India didn't have to choose between defense and the environment.

Raman was part of a committee that framed guidelines for Indian roads in protected areas in 2013. His committee concluded that roads in forested areas fragmented tree cover, interrupted migration paths, drove up roadkills, caused soil erosion and landslides, and paved the way for poaching, logging, and commercial development.

However, he noted, "if environmental concerns are integrated up-front, it should still be possible to serve development and defense needs." When building roads, for example, damage can be minimized during the planning, construction, and maintenance phases.

But defense projects may be just the beginning for the new government. Last week, Javadekar, the environment minister, declared that the course of border roads would henceforth be decided at the local level, no longer requiring approval from the environment ministry. And he extended the permissive treatment previously given to defense projects to public works projects such as highways, railways, and airports.

Before the arrival of the new government, "the environment ministry was perceived as a roadblock ministry ... a speed breaker to the growth," Javadekar recently said. "We care for nature. But we want development also. Decisions are in, delays are out."

Follow Shruti Ravindran on Twitter.

Dornadula C.
Dornadula C.

Dhritiman Mukherjee's photos of hornbills is superb. As a geologist I did camp in Narcondam island for several weeks and in the evenings I used to enjoy these birds after a hard-days field work. I want to know whether DM went to the top of the volcanic hill (summit of the volcano). I tried but it was too steep to climb.


Aritra Sur
Aritra Sur

How to stop this destruction :( 

Amberisch Gawaskar
Amberisch Gawaskar

Destroy all the forests in India.. The Chinese, the terrorists and the Naxalites might be hiding in there...
Hell with the government and the stupid people who justify such ignorance..

S Narayanan
S Narayanan

First of all, I think that India's government is not ignoring environmental needs. They are simply trying to improve India's National Defense. This is very understandable, considering we share borders with China and Pakistan. Plus, if these Hornbills are, "as common as crows," they will most certainly not go extinct in this habitat. If the environmental groups are so concerned, then I am sure they can figure out a way to introduce this hornbill into its former territories. India's defense understandably comes first, so lets not all try and make this seem like a case of neglect and lack of caring for animals on the part of India's new government. Pakistani terrorists are launching attacks on the border on almost an hourly basis. China has been spying on certain areas in India in the past-this has been confirmed in numerous articles. And also, I am not a fan of the way this article seems to portray the new government as 'anti-environment'. In a country with over a billion people, things like better roads, highways, and overall infrastructure are necessary for development into a first world country. India needs a better defense system in order to become a force to be reckoned with. Our power in the region needs to increase if other countries are to take us seriously. I am sure that Narendra Modi's government will not un-necessarily harm this beautiful bird, but at the same time, I do believe that national needs for growth and development come first.

Vinod Kuriyan
Vinod Kuriyan

Everybody wants growth, but we have lost the plot completely if we go about trying to achieve it by destroying our ecological heritage. Thanks for making us aware.

Atula Gupta
Atula Gupta

It is scary to think how much more damage will be done on the environment in the name of development. Species like the Great Indian Bustard are already facing a traumatic existence because of vanishing grasslands. Now the Narcondam Hornbill too gets ignored and pushed towards extinction. It was with hope that India chose a new government. But who thought that the need to make decisions would be so urgent that these would be made without once considering the repercussions. Tragic!

Paulo Torres
Paulo Torres

Truly Amazing Creature. Thank you for this post.

Ulhas Deshpande
Ulhas Deshpande

Its none of Natgeo's business to comment on Indias priorities.. Indian authorities are capable and fully aware of environmental and ecological protection..with its huge pool of scientists and animal protection activists.

Darshana Vel
Darshana Vel

@S Narayanan - National Security is of course important. But at what cost? Though India is supposed to have a rich diversity of species due to its geographical location, we do not realize the value of its natural heritage and  cut down trees relentlessly to make way for "human development". These hornbills are as common as crows ONLY in that island. If you had read further, the important catch is that it won't be so in the near future due to their meager breeding population, meaning they will be on the decline soon. Endemic populations should not be disturbed technically. They live in certain habitats because that is where they can survive and have a beneficial impact on the natural surroundings around them. Moving them to another location is not at all a wise solution since its not only the native habitat that would be badly affected but also the new habitat where they are introduced causing harm to other species or to themselves.  

Everyone needs to understand one thing: There are only a limited number of sanctuaries esp. in India, meaning there is only limited space for all creatures, both flora and fauna. If we still want towers, base camps and outposts in these areas, it shows off humans' selfish and unscrupulous nature. Moreover, if encroaching forests is the only solution the government can find, then please don't complain about animal migration and nuisance in human settlements because if you can't leave them alone in forests,  deal with them in your own place. Setting traps and killing them is a stupid solution, unless you want your own survival to be jeopardized in the long run.

Its shocking how the environmental ministry dares to give clearances of such kind due to some ridiculous rumor of China spying on us. Become creative, find new solutions to such problems. After all, aren't we humans? Why is it that though we have a conscience and  claim to be "civilized", we tend to stoop so low to bring about horrible changes on earth in the name of development and security??

It is time to stop indulging in ourselves (human society) and just look around and realize at what we have done to other lives. It is time people know about their family in this vast home called Earth and become aware of the fact that limited knowledge about biology and the Earth's sub-systems and processes can have drastic impacts on the survival of this planet.

Jason Philips
Jason Philips

@S Narayanan - Being born and brought up in India i can understand how important National Defence is, as it is to the governments of other countries however they don't do it at the cost of protecting and maintaining the Ecological balance. 

India and Pakistan have been at each others throats almost forever  and stepping up National Defence is not gonna change that. As far as China is concerned they are not too interested in India anymore and i really don't think there is any other country that would want to harm India's National security.

Considering the lack of protecting the Ecological Balance on the Governments part it WOULD NOW have to be upto Environmental Agencies to do the required needful and like you say since these beautiful birds are as common as crows i'm sure they will find a way to re-introduce them, something which should really also be part of the Government's agenda for improving the country.


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