Ecosystem damage caused by surveys

Controversy characterises the recent survey for census of birds at the Biligiri Rangaswamy Tiger (BRT) Reserve at Chamarajnagar on two counts which pertain to spotting rare birds as also on the nature and frequency of conducting such surveys.

The survey claims to have spotted several rare birds like the Rusty tailed fly catcher, white bellied minivets, Hair Crested Drongo, black headed Oriole and black winged Kite, among others.

It is procedurally incorrect to trumpet the sighting of rare birds so prematurely considering the data collected from the field needs to be processed and finalised by cross checking with earlier survey findings. This process is yet to be completed and is bound to take a while longer.

The Karnataka Forest Department (KFD) conducts such  surveys in conjunction with bird watcher enthusiasts who are the foot soldiers actually doing the job and report data on the species, richness and diversity in a  habitat.

The problem is that some of them are amateurs interested in mere photography and therefore tend to confuse species that may not actually be rare going by the bible of Indian ornithology The Book of Indian Birds, by the late Dr Salim Ali. 

According to the book, birds are classified into three categories namely- rare, common and endemic. The book states that common birds are found in country side, woods, plantations, gardens, open grasslands etc.

The survey erroneously highlights the Brahminy Kite and the Great Indian Coucal as rare birds, which are often visible in even urban centres like Bangalore.  The black winged Kite which is claimed to be spotted after a gap of 20 years in the BRT hills is seen patchily throughout the Indian Union in well wooded country and cultivations. In fact, the black winged Kite was spotted at Neralur near Chandapura in Bangalore only last month .

Negative impact

How frequently should the forest department conduct such surveys?  Should the department compartmentalise surveys for birds and wild animals separately or conduct it jointly? Each time a survey is conducted in the forests, it negatively impacts the flora and fauna and to that extent goes against the very principle of wild life conservation. 
To conduct a survey it is necessary to first send in forest personnel who are required to clear the undergrowth to facilitate movement of the census volunteers in the forests. This process is called “transect laying” which extends to two kilometres or more. The Karnataka Forest Department laid 21 transects in the BRT for the recently concluded census.

This fragments the pristine forest habitat because it disturbs the ecosystem and makes animals uncomfortable. Forests are not only made up of large trees, they are usually divided into three segments: the lower section or ‘undergrowth’ (0.3-3 metres), the middle layer and the top layer or ‘canopy’. All three segments have their own characteristics and properties. The ‘undergrowth’ is where the seeds of plants and trees fall and begin to germinate. 

The primary role of vegetation structure is to provide a set of opportunities for wild animals to obtain their food. Distortions in the architecture of the forest cover would definitely affect the movement of wild animals. Similarly national high ways, dams, jungle resorts, safaris, cattle grazing, power lines and all such intrusive structures have already created severe pressure on our savaged flora and fauna. 

Even after grant of legal protection to forests and animals, vested interests like timber mafia, unorganised tourism and poachers have downgraded the environment. In this context, it is worthwhile to note a recent report in the British journal New Scientist which states that wild animals now manifest signs of extreme stress when they come into contact with humans.

Even birds are reported to develop stress in the forests due to human presence. They lose weight, and some of them die as a result. These birds and animals experience an increase in heart rate, reproduction decreases, and hormones go awry with human contact. 

Misplaced conservation efforts occur even in the management of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, often to the detriment of wildlife.  Invariably infrastructure development even within forests like ‘beat’ roads, fire lines, water holes, hides and forest administration practices tend to yield negative results.

While surveys are conducted to ascertain the census figures and other details about various species, their frequency needs to be reduced from three years to ten years.  
To that extent, such surveys should be discouraged because they serve no useful purpose to, animal or man but only damage the ecosystem owing to avoidable human presence.

(The writer specialises in ornithology)  

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