'Heron guardians' to save endangered species - Global coalition collaborates for rare bird survival on Indo-Bhutan border

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  • Published 6.12.12

Guwahati, Dec. 5: After the tiger, the white-bellied heron is the next species to benefit from Indo-Bhutan transboundary co-operation.

The project, supported by SOS - Save our Species, a global coalition initiated by the three founding partners - International Union for Conservaton of Nature, Global Environment Facility and World Bank, has chosen three sites in Manas tiger reserve in Assam all along the Indo-Bhutan border for conservation of white-bellied heron. The habitat is undisturbed and the contiguous area with Bhutan still protected.

Also known as the imperial heron, the white-bellied heron (Ardea Insignis) is the second largest species of heron in the world, exceeded in size only by the Goliath heron (Ardea Goliath). According to BirdLife International, the white-bellied heron is critically endangered because it has an extremely small and rapidly declining population. This decline is projected to increase as a result of the loss and degradation of lowland forests and wetlands, and through direct exploitation and disturbance.

“It is a species for which a complete population census has not been conducted globally. The current population globally is estimated to be 50-249 mature individuals,” said a spokesperson for BirdLife. The project is being implemented by Bangalore-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, which operates in the Northeast.

“The northern border of the project sites is along the foothills of the India-Bhutan border and this area is pristine and protected because of the presence of the Royal Manas National Park,” the project document states.

The project sites where activities will be implemented are Koilamoila in Manas reserve forest near Bhutan foothills; forests around Pagladiya river under Subankhata reserve forest; and Phibsu river under Kachugaon reserve forest. Field director of Manas tiger reserve A. Swargiary said the sighting of the bird is very difficult and population census has still not been conducted. An official of the Ashoka Trust said the three-year project will strive to protect sites of occurrence and habitats critical to species survival, establish and initiate community based participatory monitoring, and undertake an extensive awareness and sensitisation programme aimed at local stakeholders. The project hopes to achieve these objectives through a set of activities that include creating a cadre of local “heron guardians”, facilitating community sanctioned “no go” areas around identified nesting sites, developing and implementing a monitoring protocol, initiating transboundary interactions to share data, lessons and experiences and organising campaigns and awareness raising events.

The trust had commissioned a rapid survey which was carried out by Bongaigaon-based NGO, Nature’s Foster, in 2009-10. It recorded only three individuals of this species in two different locations of western Assam. “The expected outcomes are community-led habitat protection, a consistent and updated information base and an overall reduction of threats. The project will be implemented in partnership, collaboration and coordination with the various civil society organisations and government agencies in the area,” the official said.