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India: Hurrah For Hornbills – Defence Project Stalled in Narcondam

A proposal from the Indian Coast Guards to install coastal surveillance radar and power supply in the Narcondamm Island, a tiny, volcanic island in the Andaman Sea, has been stalled by India's Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). This news, coming after months of concerted, intensive campaigning against the proposal, has been welcomed by birders, ornithologists, ecologists, conservation activists and wildlife enthusiasts.

The remote, tiny Narcondam Island is home to the endemic Narcondam Hornbill, a highly endangered species, of which only about 350 are left today.The species is protected under Schedule 1 of India's Wildlife Protection Act. The bird is also listed as endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Narcondam Island - Google Locator Map

Narcondam Island, India. Google Locator Map by EVS-Islands on flickr CC BY-2.0

The Coast Guards’ proposal, which was duly recommended by the Andaman and Nicobar administration and their State Board for Wildlife, called for diverting 0.637 hectares of land from within the Narcondam Island Sanctuary for installation of the surveillance radar and its accompanying power source.

The installation was claimed to be necessary for remote surveillance of the strategically located Andaman and Nicobar islands as well activities on the coastal seas. However, that would also mean clearing a part of the forest to make a new road as well as increased human presence on that island.

Environmentalists argued that all of this would endanger the fragile ecosystem of the island and pose severe threat to the hornbill population and could even lead to their extinction.

The Narcondam Hornbill. Image by Kalyan Varma CC BY-NC-SA 2.5

The campaign(s) to save the Narcondam Hornbill has been commendable. For example, Conservation India had been running an active campaign urging citizens to take up the cause and petition members of the MOEF and the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL). They had also launched a video campaign to generate awareness about the issue and to mobilize public opinion in favour of preserving the island's ecosystem.

Here is the YouTube video, used with permission.

 

Other efforts included letters sent to the Ministry by various individuals as well as petitions by organizations such as Nature Conservation Foundation, Bombay Natural History Society etc. The views were finally corroborated by the Ministry's Standing Committee of National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) after deliberation on the numerous petitions they received and a site inspection.

The committee finally recommended that the radar project be moved to an alternative site or alternative methods of surveillance be explored that would not have negative impact on the region's ecology. The Environment Ministry's memorandum [pdf] stated:

(The) Ministry is of the view that the other options for the purpose, like installation of off-shore structures and several other viable options are available, which can spare the unique habitat of Narcondam lsland from disturbance. However, there is no such option available for the Hornbill, whose survival may get seriously threatened if the establishment of proposed RADAR is allowed on the Narcondam Island. In view of the aforesaid, the proposal of diversion of 0.637 ha of forest land for installation of Coastal Surveillance RADAR and power supply source at Narcondam Sanctuary Island cannot be recommended.

At India's Endangered, Atula Gupta elaborates the reasons why, despite the country's security being an important matter, Narcondam is not the right place for the radar project. She writes:

It is never an easy decision to make when the question is about the country’s security. The coastal guards are planning on installing a series of such radars across the coastline of India for enhanced security surveillance. This is an important move, especially after the 26/11 terrorist attack.

But the roadblock here was the island that is the only place in the world, where one can witness the glorious hornbills. According to experts, these birds nest on tall trees about 250 m above the ground. During nesting period, the female shed their flight feathers and are locked inside their treehouses  as they tend to the young chicks.

The radar installation would have surely disturbed the habitat and the additional human presence, roads etc. would have completely destroyed the conditions necessary for the hornbills’ survival.

However, blogger Arhopala Bazaloides at Karela Fry points out that this step by the MOEF will not be enough to protect and save Narcondam as rampant tourism related anchorage as well as other factors are also creating threat to it's fragile ecology.

There is a police outpost and a lighthouse on the island. Goats were introduced in recent times, causing changes to the ecology. The current step is probably in the right direction, but the short attention span of conservation bodies probably dooms the island ecology anyway. As increasing numbers of cruises and tour groups pull into anchorage, this single act will not suffice to save the island.

Currently, the Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Ms. Jayanthi Natarajan has stalled clearance for the Coast Guard proposal which the Defence Ministry had stated to be a critical one.  She has asked the Defence Ministry to “constitute a committee of experts” to study and work out other viable solutions that can ensure the defence and economic security of the country without compromising the endemic hornbills of Narcondam.

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