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Radar Station on Tiny Indian Island Could Harm Rare Hornbill Population

Conservationists fear India’s new government is ignoring environmental concerns in rush to clear projects

When the new Indian government came to power in May, its focus on speeding up approvals for defense and infrastructure development projects had environmentalists concerned that the administration would ride roughshod over environmental clearances for these projects. Those fears were reinforced last month when the country’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar approved a proposal to set up a radar station on Narcondam Island, a tiny volcanic island in the Bay of Bengal that’s home to the Narcondam hornbill — an endangered bird endemic to the island.

Narcondam hornbill on a tree trunkPhoto by Dr Asad RahmaniNarcondam hornbills are endemic to Narcondam Island. Only about 340 birds are thought to be left on the 2.6 square mile island. No other bird species in India has such a small range.

The proposal by the Indian Coast Guard, aimed at monitoring supposed Chinese presence in the nearby Coco Islands, had been rejected by India’s previous government in 2012, because of concerns about the Narcondam Hornbills (Rhyticeros narcondami). Only about 340 birds are thought to be left on the 2.6 square mile island. In India, no other bird species has such a small range.

Narcondam Island  is part of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, which lies east of the Indian peninsula. The island is listed as a wildlife sanctuary and is also on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s ‘tentative’ list of places considered worth designating as a World Heritage Site. Apart from the hornbill, there are several other plant and animal species that are endemic to the island.

The Coast Guard project on the island involves installation of static radar equipment, a power supply station, housing facilities for the staff, and a road through the hornbills’ breeding areas. The National Board of Wildlife — whose approval is required for projects in areas inhabited by protected species — had concluded in 2012 that the hornbill habitat was too vulnerable for such a project. The board’s report stated that the small island was already under pressure from human presence (there is a police outpost in the island) and any additional deployment of personnel would prove detrimental to the threatened hornbill population.

Javadekar has also cleared another controversial defense proposal to build a naval base in the ecologically fragile Western Ghats in the west coast state of Karnataka.

Ever since the Narcondam decision, online birding forums have been abuzz — voicing outrage and providing alternate suggestions in equal measure. Birders expressed concern that the already tiny island would bear the brunt of increased navy activity and the unique flora of the location would be cleared off, leaving no habitat for the hornbills.

“An all-weather ship can be positioned off the island with equipment and men. After all, submarines are at sea most days in a year,” birder Anand Arya suggested on the online forum “bngbirds.” That, however, might prove expensive in operational costs, he added.

Narcondam Island Photo by by Kalyanvarma/Wikimedia CommonsNarcondam Island is listed as a wildlife sanctuary and is also on the United Nations Educational,
Scientific and Cultural Organization’s ‘tentative’ list of places considered worth designating as a
World Heritage Site.

So how grave would be the impact of a radar station on Narcondam Island?

“The radar will not wipe out the population of Narcondam hornbill but it will destroy some part of their habitat,” Dr Asad R Rahmani, director of the Bombay Natural History Society and author of Threatened Birds of India, said in an email interview. Rahmani, who had visited the island in 2012 as a member of the National Board of Wildlife, expressed concern that once the radar installation is allowed it would open the door for further construction on the island. There could be more development in the name of providing facilities for the naval forces, he said. Why tinker with such a small and fragile habitat? he asked.

The threat to the hornbills is not limited to human intervention, however. Rahmani states that random events such as natural disasters are also responsible for the extremely vulnerable nature of their population.

For the Indian government, however, the project is significant because its intelligence agencies suspects that China has set up a post in the neighboring Myanmar-owned Coco Island (about 76 miles away) to monitor India’s communications and military activity. "If China is sitting in front and is doing something and we can't even monitor, the country cannot run like that,” Javadekar told reporters in June.

Could there be an alternative — a plan that ensures that the hornbill habitat is not ruined in the event of a navy outpost coming up in the island eventually? Rahmani thinks so. “Soon modern technology will take over and ground-based radar may become redundant as snooping will be done (as it is already is being done) from the sky,” he pointed out. “Let us leave this tiny island to hornbills and the policemen who are doing good job in protecting it and the surrounding seas,” he said.

Rahmani has written to the environment minister requesting him to refer the case back to the National Board for Wildlife for consideration before moving on with the proposal.

Prathap Nair
Prathap Nair is a Bangalore, India-based independent writer keen on writing about wildlife conservation, sustainable livelihoods and offbeat destinations. His travel blog can be accessed at thesunlitwindow.wordpress.com

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