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Conservation of cliff dwelling avifauna in Bundelkhand

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Conservation of cliff dwelling avifauna in Bundelkhand

So far approximately 45 species have been identified that prefer specifically the rocky surface of the cliffs i.e., the cliff face...

Conservation of cliff dwelling avifauna in Bundelkhand

Thinking Point

Sonika Kushwaha, Akhilesh Kumar and Aman Singh

Indian Biodiversity Conservation Society, Jhansi, UP

Bundelkhand, which was once known as Chedi Kingdom (Bundeli) and which got its name from Bundela is a geographic region of central India. The Bundelkhand region has an area of around 70,000 sq.km. Almost the entire region of Bundelkhand (UP and MP) is prominently of Vindhyan rocks in southern part and granites of different kinds at different depths with alluvium soils on top mixed with rocky and boulder outcrops here and there. The northern part of Bundelkhand, almost entirely in UP, is a flat plain. The Bundelkhand region is rocky and has a high percentage of barren and uncultivable land. North of the hilly region, the granite chains gradually turn into clusters of rocky cliffs.

A cliff is a high steep face of rock and is formed by the process of weathering and erosion with the effect of gravity. Cliffs have significant conservation value, as they habitually sustain high levels of biodiversity. The seasonality together with typical geological and geo-morphological features of Bundelkhand region has influenced the floral and faunal ecology. They are important because they serve as safe sites for the birds and other fauna as they cannot be approached by predators easily. However, little or no attention has been paid to the cliffs in this area and they have not been studied in detail. They have neither international recognition nor any protection, except some that come under Forest Department like national parks and Sanctuaries.

Bird diversity of rocky cliffs

So far approximately 45 species have been identified that prefer specifically the rocky surface of the cliffs i.e., the cliff face. The sites are rich in raptor species that includes the Indian Vulture (Critically Endangered), Egyptian vulture (Endangered), Himalayan griffon (Near threatened), Indian Peafowl i.e., the National bird of India and many other rare and lesser known species.

So far approximately 45 species have been identified that prefer specifically the rocky surface of the cliffs i.e., the cliff face. The sites are rich in raptor species that includes the Indian Vulture (Critically Endangered), Egyptian vulture (Endangered), Himalayan griffon (Near threatened), Indian Peafowl i.e., the National bird of India and many other rare and lesser known species. Bird species include Rock Pigeon (Columba livia), Brown Rock Chat (Cercomela fusca), Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis), Laughing dove (Streptopelia senegalensis), Jungle crow (Corvus macrorhynchos), House crow (Corvus splendens), crested bunting (Emberiza lathami) , Rufous treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda), Jungle Bush Quail (Perdicula asiatica), Painted Spurlfowl (Galloperdix lunulata), Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus), Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis), Common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), Barn owl (Tyto alba), Indian Scops Owl (Otus bakkamoena), Rock Eagle owl (Bubo bengalensis), Spotted owlet (Athene brama),  Brown Hawk Owl (Ninox scutulata), Indian nightjar (Caprimulgus asiaticus), Eurasian thick-knee (Burhinus oedicnemus), Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus), Eurasian Griffon (Gyps fulvus) and Himalayan Griffon Vulture (Gyps himalayensis), Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus), Bonelli’s Eagle (Hieraaetus fasciatus), Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), Laggar Falcon (Falco jugger), long-legged buzzard (Buteo rufinus), Asian paradise-flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi), Blue rock thrush (Monticola solitarius), Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros), Indian Roller (Coracias benghalensis), Isabelline Wheatear (Oenanthe isabellina), Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), Red-rumped Swallow (Hirundo daurica), Wire-tailed Swallow (Hirundo smithii), Dusky Crag Martin (Hirundo rupestris), House swift (Apus affinis), Indian Bushlark (Mirafra erythroptera), Rufous-tailed lark (Ammonomanes phoenicurus), Common Tailor bird (Orthotomus sutorius), grey francolin (Ortygornis pondicerianus), Rock bush quail (Perdicula argoondah)  and many other birds that are found in other habitats.

In addition to the avifauna, the cliffs are supporting the Rock Honey bee (Apis dorsata). A.dorsata colonies are declining under natural conditions due to various biological agents and unwanted man-made activities at the vicinity of nesting habitats. Honey bee are ranked as most efficient pollinators that are economically important for crops as well as source of honey and wax. They also yield valuable products like royal jelly, bee pollen, propolis and bee venom that have nutritional and medicinal values. The protection of Apis dorsata nesting on rock faces of cliffs is crucial for maintaining the viable populations of these keystone pollinators. Gray langurs, also called Hanuman langurs , monkeys, Indian jackal, wild boar, Monitor lizards and snake species were also commonly seen in the microhabitat of the rocky cliffs. Further exhaustive surveys may reveal may more species that are using the cliffs as their natural abodes. The cliffs are serving as important breeding, feeding and roosting sites for the birds. The nests are built on the ledges or in cavities and small caves on cliffs that well protected from predators. The barn owls and the spotted owlets find the cliffs ideal for nesting in the holes in the rocky surface. The dead cattle are often thrown outside the village at the base of the cliffs. Vultures feed on the carcass and use the cliffs to rest for long hours to digest the food and sometimes they also sun bask on the rocky cliffs before taking the flights again.

Major threats

As the majority of rocky faunal communities are adopted to live in the harsh environment and tolerance level reaches to the threshold limit, any introduction of anthropogenic mediated disturbances will further exacerbate the negative impact, which will certainly be catastrophic events of large-scale decimation of faunal communities. The mining activities (Stone and sand) are a major threat to the rocky cliffs and river beds in Bundelkhand. Mining destroys the apt rock formations (i.e., cavities, ledges) where birds like vultures, owls, eagles construct their nests. Rock and sand mining activities in close proximity to vulture colonies in Nepal (for example in Jyagdi and Khairini, Rampur) have distressed the vulture population.

Conservation through community management

The initiatives have been undertaken so as to involve the local people to monitor and conserve the cliffs that serve as natural breeding, roosting and feeding sites of diverse avifauna. This will help and promote in in-situ conservation. At present scenario, an essential aspect of conservation is the preservation of any remaining valuable habitat if at all possible.

Local community plays a key role in conservation of any species and without their involvement. Community-based conservation (CBC), as a means of achieving integrated conservation and development, has emerged as the central exemplar among national and international organizations as well as NGOs. The expected outcomes will lead to increased acceptance of conservation and participatory activities as a means of achieving the maintenance of biodiversity goals. There are various communities that are known for conservation of various species such as (Pathak, 2009):

1. Protection of sea turtle eggs, hatchlings and nesting sites by fisher folk communities is found at Kolavipaalam in Kerala, Galgibag and Morjim in Goa, and Rushikulya and Gokharkuda in Odisha.

2. Youth clubs from the villages around Loktak Lake (Manipur) have formed the Sangai Protection Forum to conserve the greatly endangered Brow-antlered deer, which is endemic to this wetland. They take part in the management of the Keibul Lamjao National Park, which forms the core of the Lake.

3. The Buddhist Morpa community in Sangti Valley in Arunachal has co-existed with the endangered black-necked cranes for generations, viewing them as a harbinger of better rice yields.

4. In Khichan village of Rajasthan, the local population provides refuge and food to a wintering population of up to ten thousand demoiselle cranes, ungrudgingly spending up to several hundred thousand rupees annually on food grains to feed them.

5. The Bishnoi community in Rajasthan, famous for its self-sacrificing defence of wildlife and trees, continues strong traditions of conservation. In neighbouring Punjab, lands belonging to the Bishnois have been declared as the Abohar Sanctuary in recognition to their respect for wildlife. At all the Bishnoi sites, blackbucks and chinkara are found in abundance.

6. Recently the Sahariya community in Bundelkhand region has started the conservation of vultures residing in the cliffs near their localities.

While these concepts are not new, their application has increased dramatically in the last decade. To achieve the targets interaction was started with people from different fields such as Herders, Farmers, Archaeological guards, Priests, forest officials, teachers and so on.

The teachers play an important role in moulding the minds of the students. The impact is long lasting and helps the students to know about various aspects of cliffs at a wider platform.

Workshops were structured to bring people together to increase knowledge and skills, resolve problems, and build consensus for action. The communication with people from all areas will help in the conservation of the cliff dwelling fauna. The herders often ignorant about the nesting behaviour of various bird species and unknowingly, their activities are a threat to the bird species. They climb the cliffs along with their herds leading to uncontrolled overgrazing on the floral diversity. The herders are also unaware of the consequences of cutting the tree branches for the livestock. The chopped branches are not suitable for the massive nests constructed by the raptors. While grazing, the herds of goats, sheep or cattle, the nests of ground dwelling birds get destroyed by the hoofs of the animals. Therefore, to avoid such situations in future, the herders were involved in the conservation initiatives.

The National Bird Peacock (Pavo cristatus) comes under Schedule 1 of Wildlife Protection Act 1972. There have been no scientific censuses for peacock in India as such the current status is not known. However there have been reports of decline from several places. The local people have taken the initiative to protect the birds as they are commonly known to be associated with Lord Krishna in Hindu culture. During morning hours, the peafowl come down on the house roofs from the roosting trees and then start moving to the foraging sites. The vibrant birds do not hesitate and move about freely in the agricultural land, outskirts of village and the rocky cliffs in search of food. They feed on insects and do not cause any harm to the crops. By evening they return back to the village and roosts on high trees of neem and chirol. The villagers keep water in earthen pots for them and also provide them grains to feed. The population of peacock has increased due to protection by local community. An injured peacock was rescued with the help of a volunteer in Babina, Jhansi. Since it is a bird included in Schedule I of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the Forest department was informed about the incidence. A rock eagle owl fledgling was also found injured when it was learning to take flight. It was taken to the Forest department for treatment. After keeping it for few days, it was released back in its natural habitat.

With due permission of the forest department, the vultures are taken care of according to their conditions i.e., injured or dehydrated. There is proper facility to keep the vultures near their natural habitats. The volunteers look after the vultures and are regularly assisted with the vulture experts. The veterinary doctors are consulted in case of injured birds, so as to avoid any mishap. The injured vultures are medicated. The dehydrated vultures are treated with ORS and provided with 200-250 gm of meat at a time. After keeping in observation for a time span of 5-7 days, they are released back in their natural abodes.

- The study is being supported by CARPE (Centre for Applied Research and People’s Engagement) and Funders including Grind Master, AITG, Mayuri Kerr, Kedar Shah and Caring Friends Foundation under the Prakriti Research Fellowship from January 2022.

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