Category Archives: blog

New Zealand seabirds dying due to plastic ingestion —

Birds ingest plastic that leads to damage to internal organs, causes gut blockage or chemical build-ups in tissues (Photograph - Dan Clark/USFWS/AP)

Birds ingest plastic that leads to damage to internal organs, causes gut blockage or chemical build-ups in tissues (Photograph – Dan Clark/USFWS/AP)

Plastic pollution has the potential to cause the worst damage to seabirds in the seas around Aotearoa New Zealand, where many of them come to feed and breed.

Aotearoa boasts the greatest diversity of seabirds in the world. Of the 360 global seabird species, 86 breed here and 37 are endemic, which means they breed nowhere else.

Some 90 percent of New Zealand’s seabirds are threatened with extinction. They (and many other marine species) are under pressure from pollution, climate change, and overexploitation of marine resources. Plastic pollution could be the final nail in the coffin for many seabirds that are already struggling for survival.

Plastic – not so fantastic

Every week, another grotesque story illustrates the impact of plastic in the environment. A whale was recently found with 80 plastic bags in its stomach – it died, of course. One-third of marine turtles have died or become ill due to plastic ingestion in Aotearoa New Zealand.

A 2015 study suggested that 99% of seabirds would be ingesting plastic by 2050. The authors also predicted that seabirds in our backyard, the Tasman Sea (Te Tai o Rēhua) would be the hardest hit, because of the high densities of seabirds foraging in the region, and the overlap with plastic. This not that surprising, given that the earliest observations of Aotearoa’s seabirds ingesting plastic go back to 1958.

Sentinels of ocean plastic pollution

Seabirds are particularly vulnerable to ingesting plastics because most species feed at or near the ocean surface. They forage along eddies and oceanic convergence zones – the same areas where marine plastics accumulate. The impacts of plastic on seabirds and other marine wildlife include death by entanglement. Ingested plastic can inhibit a bird’s feeding capacity, leading to starvation or internal ulcers, and eventually death.

Flesh-footed shearwater populations in Aotearoa may have declined up to 50 percent to around 12,000 pairs since the 1980s, and have gone extinct at some of their Hauraki Gulf breeding sites. These declines continue in spite of predator eradication and an end to harvesting on many of the islands where they breed.

Autopsies of birds caught in fisheries in Aotearoa’s waters show flesh-footed and sooty shearwaters are more likely to contain plastic fragments than other species. Plastic fragments found in New Zealand flesh-footed shearwater colonies showed a linear relationship between the number of nest burrows and plastic fragments, indicating that plastic ingestion may be a driver in their population decline.

Toxic plastic soup

In Australia, up to 100% of flesh-footed shearwater fledglings contained plastic, the highest reported for any marine vertebrate. Fledglings with high levels of ingested plastic exhibited reduced body condition and increased contaminant loads.

The chemical structure of plastics means that they act as toxin sponges, attracting harmful contaminants from the surrounding seawater, including persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals. When an animal ingests plastic, there is the potential for those toxic chemicals to leach into its tissues.

Chemicals such as PCBs and flame retardants that are added to plastics during manufacture have been found in seabird tissue around the Pacific. High concentrations of toxic chemicals can retard growth, reduce reproductive fitness and, ultimately, kill.

Sooty shearwater (tītī) chicks, which are harvested and consumed by Māori in Aotearoa, have a high potential for ingesting plastic, given evidence of plastic ingestion in shearwaters from Australia and anecdotal evidence from harvesters on Stewart Island (Rakiura). The closely related short-tailed shearwater, which breeds in Australia, has also been shown to consume plastic. In one study, 96% of chicks contained plastics in their stomachs and chemical loads in their tissue.

Ocean health and human health

Few, if any, studies have specifically looked at contaminant loads derived from plastics in any species of seabird in Aotearoa. However, Elizabeth Bell from Wildlife Management International is now collecting samples of preen glands, fat and liver tissue for analysis of toxic chemicals in bycatch birds found with plastic inside them. This research is crucial to understanding the implications of the transfer of toxins to people from harvested species that ingest plastic.

Seabirds are the sentinels of ocean health. They tell us what we can’t always see about the health of the oceans and its resources that we rely on.

Plastics are sold to us on the perceived benefits of strength, durability and inexpensive production. These qualities are now choking our oceans.

In a few decades, we have produced an estimated 8.3 billion tonnes. The expedited pace of production has not been met with adequate waste management and recycling capacity to deal with it all. As a result, an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic pollute the environment each year.

Global production of plastics is doubling every 11 years. It is predicted to be an order of magnitude greater than current production level by 2040. The time is ripe for the initiation of an international agreement to lessen plastic pollution in the world’s oceans and save our seabirds and marine wildlife. (The Conversation)

World’s biggest king penguin colony shrinks by 90 percent —

1982 picture shows a two-million-strong king penguin colony on Ile aux Cochon (Picture -  Henri WeimerskirchFrench National Centre for Scientific Research (Source AFP)

1982 picture shows a two-million-strong king penguin colony on Ile aux Cochon (Picture – Henri WeimerskirchFrench National Centre for Scientific Research (Source AFP)

The planet’s largest colony of king penguins has declined by nearly 90 percent in three decades, alarmed researchers said on Monday (30 July 2018).

The last time scientists set foot on France’s remote Ile aux Cochons – roughly half way between the tip of Africa and Antarctica – the island was blanketed by two million of the flightless birds, which stand about a metre (three feet) tall.

But recent satellite images and photos taken from helicopters, show the population has collapsed, with barely 200,000 remaining, according to a study published in Antarctic Science.

King penguins are home bodies. While adults will set to sea for days at a time foraging for food, the species does not migrate.

Why the colony on Ile aux Cochon has been so decimated remains a mystery.

“It is completely unexpected, and particularly significant since this colony represented nearly one third of the king penguins in the world,” said lead author Henri Weimerskirch, an ecologist at the Centre for Biological Studies in Chize, France, who first set eyes on the colony in 1982.

Climate change may play a role

In 1997, a particularly strong El Nino weather event warmed the southern Indian Ocean, temporarily pushing the fish and squid on which king penguins depend south, beyond their foraging range.

“This resulted in population decline and poor breeding success” for all king penguin colonies in the region, Weimerskirch said.

El Nino’s are cyclical events that occur every two to seven years. But they can be amplified by global warming, which itself produces many of the same results, albeit on a longer timescale.

Indeed, Weimerskirch and colleagues showed in an earlier study that climate change, on its current trajectory, will likely make the Iles Crozet – the archipelago that contains Ile aux Cochon – unviable for king penguins by mid-century.

Migration is not an option because there are no other suitable islands within striking range. Other factors may be contributing to the decline of the Ile aux Cochon colony, including overcrowding.

One egg at a time

“The larger the population, the fiercer the competition between individuals,” noted a statement from France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, which funded the study.

“The repercussions of lack of food are thus amplified and can trigger an unprecedented rapid and drastic drop in numbers.”

But this so-called “density-dependent effect” can also be made worse by climate change, the study notes.

Another possible culprit is avian cholera, which has affected seabirds on nearby Marion and Amsterdam Islands, including some king penguins.

But until Weimerskirch and other researchers return to Ile aux Cochons – hopefully, he said, in early 2019 – they won’t know for sure.

It is also possible that invasive species such as rats, mice or cats, have found their way onto the island.

The Red List of Threatened Species conservation status for king penguins is currently “least concern,” but the new data may prompt a re-evaluation.

King penguins are the second-largest penguin species after the Emperors. They do not make a nest, but rather lay one egg at a time and carry it around on their feet covered with a flap of abdominal skin, called a brood patch.

Parents take turns incubating the egg, switching every couple of weeks over a two-month period.

There are two sub-species of kings. Aptenodytes patagonica patagonicus inhabits the Falklands and South Georgia Island, while Aptenodytes patagonica halli resides in the southernmost reaches of Indian Ocean and South Pacific. (AFP News)

Crows ‘reverse engineer’ tools from memory: study —

New Caledonian Crow

New Caledonian Crow

New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) use mental pictures to twist twigs into hooks and make other tools, according to a provocative study that suggests the notoriously clever birds pass on successful designs to future generations, a hallmark of culture.

“We find evidence for a specific type of emulation we call mental template matching,” co-author Alex Taylor, director of the Language, Cognition and Culture Lab at the University of Aukland, told AFP.

“Put simply, crows can reverse engineer tool designs using only a mental image of that tool.”

A long-simmering debate among evolutionary biologists asks how much of the crow’s tool-making ability is genetically programmed, and how much is acquired and transmitted through learning and memory.

A famous experiment filmed in 2002 featuring “Betty the crow” showed the bird bending a straight piece of wire into a hook in order to retrieve a morsel of meat stuffed in a narrow plastic tube.

The feat was hailed as proof that the New Caledonian crow could invent new tools on the spot, a rare ability among non-human animals.

But a study published a dozen years later found that more than a dozen wild-caught crows also broke off small branches and fashioned them into tiny hooks with their beaks, leading some researchers to conclude this ability is at least partly hardwired.

To the extent it is learnt, there’s a further split: some experts think the birds are mimicking witnessed techniques, and others – including Taylor – say the crows have a more sophisticated approach.

The distinction is comparable to two methods for making a paper plane.

“You can follow a list of directions – fold in the middle, then the corners, etc.”, said Taylor.

Culturally transmitted

“Or you could have an image in your mind of what you want the airplane to look like at the end, and work to that goal.”

To remove lingering ambiguity, Taylor and colleagues captured eight wild crows and trained them to drop variously sized bits of paper into a vending machine in order to retrieve rewards.

In the second part of the experiment, the birds – when given large cards – tore them up to create pieces similar in size and shape to those that had earned them goodies.

“The crows were able to recreate tool designs without a reference point – there was no tool they could see when making a ‘tool’ from the card,” Taylor said.

The only way the birds could have reproduced the objects is by having a “mental template of the tool design in their mind.”

Indeed, New Caledonian crows do not appear to imitate, or play close attention to the tool building of other birds in the wild.

But that does not mean that the tools they design cannot be culturally transmitted, Taylor insisted.

“Cumulative cultural evolution is the natural selection of ideas – we copy the best ideas and then modify them,” he explained.

“Some of these modifications work, some don’t, and the best ones are then copied and passed on.” (AFP)

After much drama stork with a plastic ring around its beak rescued —

black-necked stork (pix SShukla) Representative image

black-necked stork (pix SShukla) Representative image

After a week-long rescue operation, the Black-necked Stork (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus) was rescued from the Najafgarh Jheel in the state of Haryana in India on 13 June 2018 morning. An eight-member team including rescuers from Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Nature Conservation Foundation and state’s wildlife department rescued the bird when it lost strength to fly. The ring entangled around the bird’s beak was made of rubber.

After the stork was caught it was kept in a recovering facility maintained by the Gurgaon forest officials for two days and finally released at Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary, about 15km from Gurugram City on 15 June.

The team of Times of India (TOI) visited the rescue spot and found that tremendous efforts were being put in by the rescue team which used drones; field scope and bamboo trap to locate and catch the bird. The members of the rescue team were Rakesh Ahlawat, Sonu Dalal, Anil Gandas, Qasim, Dr. Debasish (a veterinarian), Sunil Kumar, and Krishan Kumar. The team is accompanaid by a drone pilot Ajay.

Bird rescue operation became campaign

A birder Manoj Nair first spotted the hapless stork, a ‘near threatened’ species, with its beak caught in a plastic ring from a bottle. The wildlife department was alerted and the rescue operation was started.

“I was shocked to see a black-necked stork there, struggling to remove a plastic ring from its beak. I clicked a few pictures and alerted the authorities and other birders so that they could rescue it,” he said, adding that the situation was making it difficult for the bird to even drink water.

The bird in question is an adult male and nearly 4 to 5 feet tall. Earlier it was spotted at the Basai wetland, about 22 km from the spot it was rescued, on 8 June morning by a three-member team from the wildlife department. There is a heap of plastic waste near the Basai wetland. A plastic compressing and recycling unit set up by some private player has been operating in the area, which has now been removed by the authorities.

After the alert sounded several guards and birders visited Basai wetland as well as other nearby wetlands, including Najafgarh Lake and Sultanpur bird sanctuary, all situated around the national capital, Delhi, but the bird was not to be found. The problem was the plastic ring was not colourful hence not easily visible.

The authorities also requested birders to assist in the rescue operation. Vinod Kumar, additional principal chief conservator of forest, said, “We have already deployed a team to rescue the bird. We are exploring several methods that can help in the rescue. But we need the help of birders. I request all birders to be on alert and contact us whenever the bird is spotted.”

The animal’s plight and the rescue operations were widely reported by news media, ever since the bird was spotted. But the rescue mission was largely propagated and fuelled by social media. The picture of the bird with the ring around its beak was shared widely by birders and residents of Gurgaon on social media, triggering cries for a rescue operation. Vinod Kumar, Gurgaon’s additional principal chief conservator of forest, says, “Such incidents happen quite often in Basai because of the plastic waste in the area. Often, birds die too, but these incidents don’t come to light because nobody is able to spot these birds. This time, we – and this bird – were lucky that a birder spotted it and posted the picture on Facebook. It was our duty to save the bird. We wanted to send the message that each bird’s life is important.”

As word of rescue spread over social media, more birders and organisations volunteered to help. Authorities from the Delhi Zoo and organisations like Bombay Natural History Society and Nature Conservation Foundation came forward to help. Anil Gandass, a Gurgaon-based wildlife photographer, helped spot the bird. He used his powerful camera to click all the storks in the wetlands till he managed to find the one with the ring stuck on its beak. “It was a tiring task and wouldn’t have been possible without the zoom lenses and camera. Most of the time, it is impossible to locate these birds as the visitors aren’t allowed anywhere near them. That’s where the camera came in handy,” he says. Sonu Dalal, a birdwatcher working with Nature Conservation Foundation, says, “We had to constantly change our approach for the rescue. Initially, we tried to set a trap and catch the bird but it did not fall for it. Then, we thought of using a drone but that would have endangered other birds so we used that as a last resort. Eventually, on Tuesday, we had to chase and tire the bird, so that we could catch it by hand.”

Before the bird was finally rescued the district wildlife department approached the Delhi Zoo authorities and BNHS. Despite the efforts of various teams, individuals and organizations bird could not be caught as it was a healthy bird and would fly off on slightest danger. After doing all they could experts realized that it might take two-three days to rescue it. Rakesh Ahlawat, working with NGO Nature Conservation Foundation, said, “We spotted the bird at around 8.30am on Friday. It was a healthy adult bird and immediately flew away. I think we will be able to rescue the bird when it stops flying after it becomes a little weak as it cannot take any food or water.”

How the trapping attempts failed

1. A drone was flown over Najafgarh Lake to spot the bird. The pilot took it to a height of 100 m, as instructed by the wildlife inspector Sunil Kumar. Since the internet connectivity was poor, live video captured by the drone camera couldn’t be viewed.

2. A rescuer, Qasim from BNHS, with a hide and glue trap walked 500m into the marshes to catch the bird. He used a glue trap made of bamboo and a hide made of leaves to conceal himself. It took him 2 hours to get within 50 metres of the bird, but as he was about to use the trap, it got stuck in the marshy surface.

3. Next strategy deployed by wildlife enthusiast Anil Gandas, wildlife inspector Sunil Kumar and wildlife guard Krishan Kumar when the bird was spotted on a dry surface. The team gradually closed in on the bird, but failed because the red-wattled lapwing, which was close by alerted the stork and it flew away. (Times of India)

US’s new migratory bird policy undermines a century of conservation —

Common Tern in migration flight (pix SShukla)

Common Tern in migration flight (pix SShukla)

The Trump administration has announced a position on protecting migratory birds that is a drastic pullback from policies in force for the past 100 years.

In 1916, amid the chaos of World War I, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and King George V of Great Britain signed the Migratory Bird Treaty. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) wrote the treaty into U.S. law two years later. These measures protected more than 1,100 migratory bird species by making it illegal to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell live or dead birds, feathers, eggs and nests, except as allowed by permit or regulated hunting.

This bold move was prompted by the decimation of bird populations across North America. Some 5 million birds, especially waterbirds like egrets and herons, were dying yearly to provide feathers to adorn hats, and the passenger pigeon had just gone extinct. Fearing that other species would meet the same fate, national leaders took action.

Migration -- Bar-tailed_Godwit_migration route (public domain)Now the Interior Department has issued a legal opinion that reinterprets the act and excludes “incidental take” – activities that are not intended to harm birds, but do so directly in ways that could have been foreseen, such as filling in wetlands where migrating birds rest and feed. Why? For fear of “unlimited potential for criminal prosecution.” As the argument goes, cat owners whose pets attack migratory birds or drivers who accidentally strike birds with their cars might be charged with crimes.

But the MBTA has not been enforced this way. It is applied to cases of gross negligence where potential harm should have been anticipated and avoided, such as discharging water contaminated with toxic pesticides into a pond used by migratory birds. This new reading of the law means that companies will escape legal responsibility and liability for actions that kill millions of birds every year.

Pollution, development and habitat loss kill birds

Purposeful killing is only one of many threats to migratory birds. Habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and collisions with buildings take heavy tolls on many species. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, every year more than 40 million birds are killed by industrial activities or structures such as power lines, oil pits, communication towers and wind turbines. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico killed more than 1 million birds in a single event.

Seventeen former Interior Department officials representing every presidential administration from Nixon through Obama have written a memo expressing deep concern about the new policy. As they explain, the MBTA has given industries a strong and effective incentive to work with government agencies to anticipate, avoid and mitigate foreseeable death or injury to birds.

For example, it prompted energy companies to install nets above pits where they store waste fluids from oil drilling. Because these pits look like water sources, birds often land on them and can become trapped and die. Installing nets over the pits has cut annual bird deaths from roughly two million birds yearly to between 500,000 and one million. Not perfect, but a meaningful improvement.

Global citizens, global consequences

Magnolia Warbler (Breeding_ migration and winter abundance of the magnolia warbler based on computer models using eBird data)

Magnolia Warbler (Breeding_ migration and winter abundance of the magnolia warbler based on computer models using eBird data)

Because migratory birds don’t recognize international boundaries, the consequences of reinterpreting the MBTA may be felt across borders. In one year, an individual warbler may spend 80 days in Canada’s boreal forests, 30 days in the United States at resting and refueling sites during migration, and over 200 days in Central America.

At the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we have constructed maps and animations using data collected by volunteers for eBird, the world’s fastest-growing biodiversity database. These references illustrate how migratory birds connect countries. Many spend the year in locations that span the Western Hemisphere.

The eastern-breeding magnolia warbler, for example, spends winters in areas in the Yucatan Peninsula and Central America that are fractions of the size of its breeding range. Seeing how densely these birds are clustered in their winter habitat shows us that each acre of that territory is important to their survival.

Similarly, most populations of the western-breeding western tanager overwinter in Mexico. By identifying where bird populations winter in this way, we can better target conservation actions to protect species throughout their annual cycles.

Still at risk

Western Tanager (Year-round abundance map for the Western tanager based on computer models using eBird data)

Western Tanager (Year-round abundance map for the Western tanager based on computer models using eBird data)

Today we know much more than early conservationists did about the value of birds. Healthy bird populations pollinate crops and help plants grow by dispersing seeds and preying on insects. Migratory birds also contribute billions of dollars to economies through recreational activities like hunting and birdwatching. And they connect us with nature, especially through the dazzling spectacle of migration.

Conserving migratory birds requires effective protection both in the United States and through international agreements and partnerships. The most important threats are loss and degradation of habitat, which can be caused by land conversion – for example, clearing forests for farming – or by climate change.

In the 2016 State of North American Birds report, an international team of scientists assessed the conservation status of 1,154 birds across Canada, the United States and Mexico. They found that over one-third of all North American bird species are at risk of extinction without meaningful conservation action.

Birds associated with oceans and tropical and subtropical forests year-round are in the most dire straits. More than half of North American seabirds are declining due to pollution, unsustainable fishing, energy extraction, pressure from invasive species and climate change. Birds that rely on coasts, arid lands and grasslands also are in serious decline.

There are no easy solutions, but new science is supporting responses. Transformational citizen science projects like eBird are developing vast data sets to help pinpoint where conservation action should focus. Bird conservation groups and government agencies have formed international teams to eradicate invasive predators on islands that are critical to breeding seabirds and drafted multinational agreements to clean up large floating mats of garbage in our seas that can choke, trap or poison seabirds and other animals.

Birds are a shared resource among nations. Where governments have acted, they have successfully protected migratory birds and the habitat they depend on. In my view, the Trump administration’s shift would abdicate U.S. leadership on migratory bird conservation and undermine public good for private profit. (The Conversation)

IISER scientists sequence peacock genome —

Peacock (male) - 1In a major breakthrough, researchers at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh, India), have been successful in sequencing the complete genome of Indian peacock (Pavo cristatus), which according to the scientists will go a long way in protecting the population of the national bird. The work was published in the prestigious US-based bioRxiv preprint science server on May 5.

Associate professor Dr. Vineet Sharma, who led the research team, said: “Our group is first in the world to have done genome sequencing of peacock. Sequencing and analysis of the genome of any higher organism (eukaryote) is a difficult and challenging task but the advanced facilities at the institute helped us in achieving the breakthrough. The sequencing was completed in May 2016, and it took almost two years to complete the analysis. The sample of peacock was collected from Van Vihar National Park, Bhopal, with the help of Dr. Atul Gupta (veterinary officer) and the then director of Van Vihar.”

About the research work, he said, “Our study showed that peacock genome is closer to chicken and turkey in evolution. The most significant outcome was the revelation of signs of evolution in genes involved in the early stages of body development which makes it different from other birds.”

‘Peacocks live longer due to their robust immune system’ The research also found the candidate genes responsible for feather patterning which makes peacock as one of the most beautiful bird on the planet. “We also found that it has a robust immune system which perhaps helps it to fight infections and live longer,” said Dr Sharma.

Asked the reason of selecting peacock for genome sequencing, Dr Sharma said, “It is the national bird of India and has been given the highest degree of protection with the conservation status of ‘Schedule-I’ under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. It is also a biologically very significant bird which even intrigued famous scientist Charles Darwin. This work is extremely significant since it is the first major eukaryotic bird genome reported from India and gains additional importance because peacock is the national bird of India. The genomic clues from this study will serve as leads for further studies to decipher the unique ornamental phenotypes of peacock.”

Other members of the research team are Shubham Jaiswal, Ankit Gupta, Rituja Saxena, Ashok Sharma, Parul Mittal, Ankita Roy, Dr Nagarjun Vijay, Dr. Aaron Shafer and Vishnu Prasoodannan. In addition, this study will also help in devising better strategies for management and conservation of peacock population, which is vulnerable to habitat deterioration, poaching for train-feathers, use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, Dr Sharma said. (Times of India)

12 peacocks dead in 10 days near Delhi, authorities baffled —

Representative image

Representative image

One more peacock died on Sunday (20 May 2018) morning in Bhondsi. More than a dozen peacocks in different parts of Gurugram and Faridabad districts of Haryana (India) had died in the last 10 days, leaving the authorties clueless about the cause of deaths.

Locals said Anil Gandas, a wildlife activist, rescued eight peacocks on Sunday morning from Bhondsi. One died after a few hours, but others are being treated at his medical facility.

The peacocks reportedly fell from trees all of a sudden after they lost their balance as their legs got twisted.

“It was strange to see peacocks falling off trees like that. Some peacocks, which were injured after the sudden fall, were attacked by stray dogs. As we have never seen peacocks behaving like this, we immediately called up Anil Gandas, who has rescued many peacocks and wild animals from the area. It was very disheartening to see peacocks in such condition,” said a resident of Bhondsi, requesting anonymity. On May 9, the district wildlife department had confirmed the deaths of five peacocks and also stated that about 15 peacocks were found unconscious at different places in Negpur and Hathin villages.

According to wildlife department officials, the peacocks in Bhondsi fell from trees due to heat stroke and the dust storm that hit the city on Saturday, while a viral disease could be responsible for the peacocks that were found dead or unconscious on May 9. Blood samples of sick peacocks were sent to an authorised laboratory in Hisar some 10 days ago, but the results haven’t come yet.

Shyam Sunder, district forest officer (wildlife), told TOI, “We have conducted postmortem of the peacock that died in Bhondsi. It seems that the cause of the death is heat stroke. Also, the dust storm on Saturday evening was responsible for its injuries. We are, however, awaiting reports of the blood samples to ascertain the cause of the death of peacocks that were found ill or dead in Negpur and Hathin.”

As a precautionary measure, the department has been spraying anti-viral medicine on trees and water bodies to protect the national bird. The department, however, can’t start the right treatment unless they receive the blood sample reports, officials said.

Animal activists have already written to the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change over the delay in treatment of the rescued peacocks. (Times of India)

Less than 1% of India’s mangrove cover deforested in 15 years: Global study —

Mangrove cover over the Mumbai region (WOODS HOLE RESEARCH CENTER, EUROPEAN SPACE AGENCY)

Mangrove cover over the Mumbai region (WOODS HOLE RESEARCH CENTER, EUROPEAN SPACE AGENCY)

India has the 10th largest mangrove cover in the world and according to a recent study, less than one percent of it was deforested between 2000 and 2015.

“We found that less than 1% of the Indian mangrove forests were deforested between 2000 and 2015 (4,000 ha). This rate of loss is only half the global average, meaning India has done an excellent job since 2000 of protecting its remaining mangrove forests,” said Jon Sanderman, lead author of a study of the state of mangroves all around the world.

Published earlier this month (May 2018) by USA-based think tank Woods Hole Research Centre (WHRC), the study analysed satellite maps and found that of the 4,52,676 hectares of mangrove forests in India, only 0.87% or 3,957 hectares were lost over 15 years. Globally, 1.67% of the world’s mangrove cover was lost.

Although India is in the ninth place globally for maximum mangrove area lost between 2000 and 2015, it has been able to conserve its mangrove forests better than other countries on the list. Indonesia is in the top spot, with a loss of 1.15 lakh hectares, followed by Malaysia, Myanmar, Brazil, and Thailand.

Sanderman said there is usually pressure to develop mangroves for urban or agricultural uses because mangroves tend to occur in locations with high human population density. “Mangroves surrounding large cities such as Mumbai have been lost primarily due to urban growth. Natural disasters such as tsunami led to mangrove loss in southern regions such as Tamil Nadu, Odisha and Puducherry. In other regions, conversion of mangrove areas into aquaculture farms or for fuel wood harvesting are the primary drivers of forest loss,” said Sanderman.

Mangrove swamp, partly underwater image showing the root system

Mangrove swamp, partly underwater image showing the root system

According to the central government, the current mangrove cover in India amounts to 4,92,100 hectares.

Sanderman emphasised the need to conserve mangroves because they help mitigate climate change and are critical nursery habitats for fish, birds and marine mammals. Mangroves also act as buffers from storms for coastal communities and even benefit them economically. “It is estimated that the mangrove ecosystem service benefits are at an average of $4,200 US per hectare per year in Southeast Asia,” said Sanderman.

Carbon stock loss in mangrove forests: India ranks 8th

Mangrove forest destruction caused as much as 122 million tonnes of carbon to be released to the atmosphere globally between 2000 and 2015. As a result of 3,957 hectares of mangroves being deforested between 2000 and 2015, India ranked eighth worldwide for the amount of carbon stock loss.

However, since India has been effective in its efforts to curtail mangrove deforestation, it is also among the top 20 for the amount of soil carbon storage in mangrove forests globally.

Carbon stock refers to the amount of carbon stored in the forest ecosystem. It helps mitigate the impact of greenhouse gases, which lead to global warming and climate change. Soil carbon – the amount of carbon stored in soil – is the basis of fertility.

WHRC used satellite (30-meter resolution) remote sensing data to estimate soil carbon emissions.

“Our analysis revealed that soil carbon stored in mangrove forests across the world holds more than 6.4 billion tonnes of carbon globally, which is about 4.5 times the amount of carbon emitted by the US economy in one year,” said Jon Sanderman, lead author of the study and associate scientist at WHRC.

Sattelite image of Sundarbans located in the delta region of Padma, Meghna and Brahmaputra river basins in Bay of Bengal on the borders of India and Bangladesh

According to the India State of Forest Report 2017 compiled by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), mangrove cover in India was calculated at 4,92,100 hectares, which 0.15% of the country’s geographical area. FSI estimated soil carbon stock for mangrove forests in India to be 3,979 million tonnes. Overall, carbon stock from all forests in India is 7,082 million tonnes.

Loss of soil carbon depends on how the land is used. Sanderman said, “Deforestation due to wood harvesting or conversion to rice will results in much lower losses of the soil carbon than conversion to shrimp aquaculture or draining, filling for urban development.”

In India, the study found that soil carbon storage in mangrove forests varied dramatically depending upon location.

“The Sundarbans in West Bengal have very low soil carbon stocks primarily due to the fact that there is high sediment input from the Ganges River system. A similar system is observed along the west coast of India. Whereas, mangroves down the coast in Tamil Nadu, such as the Pichavaram mangroves, contain almost four times as much carbon in a given hectare of forest due to low sediment deposition,” said Sanderman. (Hindustan Times)

Mumbai’s favourite flamingo watching site to be closed for 7 years —

Flamingos migrate to Mumbai’s wetlands in winters (HT Photo)

Flamingos migrate to Mumbai’s wetlands in winters (HT Photo)

Bird lovers who flocked to the Sewri seashore to watch migratory flamingos feeding in the mudflats of the Thane Creek are disappointed to know that the area will be out of bounds for visitors as work begins at the Sewri-end of the 22-kilometre long Mumbai-Trans-Harbour Link (MTHL) which will connect Mumbai to Jawaharlal Nehru Port (Navi Mumbai).

The location where flamingo watchers used to gather to watch thousands of birds has been barricaded for construction. Large tracts of mangrove trees near the Sewri jetty had been hacked and a gate was being constructed in the area where the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) conducts the flamingo festival every year. “Since there will be large machines at work on this site, we will have to cordon off the area, and citizens will not be allowed to enter for their own safety. For this, a gate is being setup. Flamingos have already begun moving a few 100 metres away from this site, and for at least the next seven years, people cannot visit this spot to see them,” said a technical officer at the construction site, on the condition of anonymity.

For the last six years, the BNHS has been organising the flamingo festival at Sewri between November and May when the birds arrive in Mumbai.

“Sewri has been an excellent spot where large number of people, almost 15,000 at any given time, could get a view of the vast open wetland area and could see these birds from one location. Other places cannot offer such an experience and this is surely a loss,” said Deepak Apte, director, BNHS. “However, we have been promised by the government that once the bridge construction is completed, a flamingo festival area will come up at Sewri itself, and we are currently working on a blueprint for this with the state.”

Environmentalists and birders called the construct a tragedy. “The loss of the Sewri flamingo habitat is a clear indicator of how the government views biodiversity conservation today. The state government is bulldozing all wildlife habitats in the eyes of development,” said Stalin D, director of environment group Vanashakti.

Greater flamingo   (pix SShukla)

Greater flamingo (pix SShukla)

Debi Goenka, executive trustee of the environment group Conservation Action Trust, said that the project will cater to vehicles owners. “If they really cared about the public at large, they would build a railway line along the existing Navi Mumbai road route, and then there would have been no need for such a project.”

Sudhir Gaikwad Inamdar, wildlife photographer and city-based birder, said, “As the construction activity takes pace, noise pollution from the project will ensure these birds move to another habitat. It is a really big loss for bird enthusiasts as the arrival of flamingos has already declined this year, and with such projects, it is expected to be worse in the years to come.”

The Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) is building the MTHL, which is expected to be the country’s longest sea link.

The state mangrove cell said a 1,000 mangrove trees had been destroyed (across patches amounting to 1 ha) with all clearances from the central government. “The project proponents got all clearances from the government of India. For such linear projects, an environmental nod from the central government is enough to commence construction. MMRDA has completed all legal formalities, including submitting funds to the Mangrove Foundation under the state government for safeguarding flamingo habitat in other parts of the eastern suburbs, compensatory afforestation for the loss of mangrove cover and boosting resources for the mangrove and marine biodiversity centre in Airoli,” said N Vasudevan, additional principal chief conservator of forest, state mangrove cell.

After MTHL is completed flamingo watching area at Sewri docks may be allowed

BNHS officials said this year around 40,000-45,000 fewer flamingos came to wetlands, including at Sewri where 15,000-20,000 birds were spotted. However, their arrival was delayed by almost six months.

“There were a lot of reports in February this year that said flamingos had not arrived at Sewri because of the MTHL construction. However, this was incorrect as there was a delayed arrival due to better presence of food and nesting sites in Gujarat this year. While the Sewri area will be closed to the public now and flamingo festival will be shifted to Navi Mumbai or Thane creek, the government is concerned about the issue and we are already working on a blueprint with them to develop the Sewri port as a flamingo watching area where the festival will happen post construction of this project,” said Deepak Apte, director, BNHS.

The 10km-long and 3km-wide Mahul-Sewri mudflats is a protected area and was demarcated as an Important Biodiversity Area (IBA) since 2004. According to BNHS, the area is home to 149 species of migratory birds, 10 species of fish (of which only four remain, as per the study), 23 species of mangroves and mangrove-associated species and 53 other plants species.

With regard to the loss of 1,000 mangrove trees, the state mangrove cell said they were yet to decide the location for compensatory afforestation. “One hectare spread across different patches with a total of 1000 mangrove trees has been lost for the project. Now, the Thane creek flamingo sanctuary stands as the best alternative for citizens from Sewri to spot flamingos, that too in large numbers,” said Makarand Ghodke, assistant conservator of forest, state mangrove cell.

The Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) that is constructing MTHL said the flamingo population would not be affected by the project and mangroves would rejuvenate soon.

American flamingo (Author - Charlesjsharp) (CC BY-SA 4.0)

American flamingo (Author – Charlesjsharp) (CC BY-SA 4.0)

“Post soil-testing and geo technical survey, basic construction has begun at the site. During construction, these birds (flamingos and other wetland birds) keep a safe distance from the project site. However, the project construction will not stop citizens from viewing these birds, only they will be further into the wetland. As far as mangroves are concerned, after getting all permissions in place there is only a temporary loss. Once construction is over, we will ensure these mangroves regrow at the site,” said Sanjay Khandare, additional metropolitan commissioner, MMRDA.

Shifting alignment by 400 metres recommended

In September 2015, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) had submitted a list of recommendations to Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) to protect the half a million migratory birds that visit the area. One of the recommendations was to shift the starting point of the MTHL by around 300-400 metres south of its current position at Sewri jetty. “Our recommendation had indicated that the link should curve southwards to join the existing span away from the habitats of flamingos and other waterbirds. However, apart from this recommendation all the others have been accepted by MMRDA,” said Deepak Apte, director, BNHS adding that if realignment was done the population would not have been squeezed when construction began.

Flamingos’ arrival offers new hope against golf course project

Residents of Navi Mumbai were pleasantly surprised when a group of flamingos made their landing at the Talawe wetlands opposite the NRI complex in Nerul, over the weekend.

Residents estimated that close to 100 flamingos were spotted at one of the wetland patches, identified as pocket A, which is one of the five plots (A to D) acquired by City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) to construct residential buildings and a golf course.

“This wetland patch is threatened by debris dumping, which has led to the delay for not only flamingos but all wetland birds to arrive here,” said Pavan Sahu, Nerul resident and bird photographer, who first spotted the birds on Friday. “Earlier, large flocks had made this their home from November onward till June, but a lot has changed since construction began — locals dumping alcohol bottles and the fishing community encroaching in these areas. Now, they have arrived after a delay of almost six months.”

He added that other birds such as terns, waders, herons, and seagulls, have all been spotted at the site. “However, their numbers are falling drastically,” said Sahu.

Mumbai-based birders also confirmed the development after they spotted the birds on Sunday. “I spotted over 100 flamingos around 9.40am at the Talawe wetlands. Previously, there were isolated birds that would fly by but not settle at this wetland. It is absolutely wrong to construct at this site because it is clearly a wetland and has similar features of the Bhandup pumping station,” said Mrinal Ghosh, birder and Chembur resident.

Albeit delayed, the arrival holds significance in the wake of an affidavit submitted by Mistry Constructions Pvt Ltd. to the Bombay HC in response to another petition by the Navi Mumbai Environmental Preservation Society regarding the proposed airport at Navi Mumbai. The private company claims that the site is not a wetland and said that an earlier report submitted by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) had inaccuracies and contradictions regarding proposed declaration of the site as an important bird area (IBA). “I say that the project has been seemingly singled out for such observations, which runs contrary to previous reports by BNHS. In any event, the site for the said project (golf course proposed by CIDCO) is not a wetland..,” reads the affidavit.

The petitioners now plan to submit the arrival of flamingos as evidence in court during the next hearing on June 13. “Spotting the near-threatened flamingos clarifies and confirms BNHS’ report and makes it a strong case for us to oppose this construction. The area needs to be declared a wetland bird sanctuary before it is too late,” said Agarwal.

Officials from CIDCO and Ministry Constructions refused to comment, stating that it was a sub judice matter. (Hindustan Times)

Birds don’t like to fight for food —

Bar-tailed_Godwit_migration route

Why have some birds opted for a taxing life of constant migration — seeking out temperate climates to feed as winter arrives, only to return months later to breed?

Seemingly paradoxically, the behavior is driven by a quest for energy efficiency, a study said. Migrating birds, researchers found, gain more energy from whatever is on the destination menu than they expend getting there and back, or could find without making the trek. Why don’t they just stay in the warm place? Because there is too much competition for food with other species, said the study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Instead, they return to their cold, northern hemisphere home where they don’t have to fight others for the food.

The work “provides strong support for the hypothesis that birds distribute themselves in an optional way in terms of energy,” study co-author Marius Somveille of University of Oxford’s zoology department said.

The uneven distribution of biodiversity on Earth is one of the most general and puzzling patterns in ecology. Many hypotheses have been proposed to explain it, based on evolutionary processes or on constraints related to geography and energy. However, previous studies investigating these hypotheses have been largely descriptive due to the logistical difficulties of conducting controlled experiments on such large geographical scales.

In this case scientists have used bird migration—the seasonal redistribution of approximately 15% of bird species across the world—as a natural experiment for testing the species–energy relationship, the hypothesis that animal diversity is driven by energetic constraints.

Scientists developed a mechanistic model of bird distributions across the world, and across seasons, based on simple ecological and energetic principles. Using this model, they showed that bird species distributions optimize the balance between energy acquisition and energy expenditure while taking into account competition with other species. These findings support, and provide a mechanistic explanation for, the species–energy relationship. The findings also provide a general explanation of migration as a mechanism that allows birds to optimize their energy budget in the face of seasonality and competition. Scientists claim their mechanistic model provides a tool for predicting how ecosystems will respond to global anthropogenic change. (Times of India; Nature Ecology & Evolution)