November 08, 2013
Villagers vow to protect and conservationists gather to watch thousands of Amur falcons in north-eastern India as they pause in the longest annual migration by a bird of prey
Little known Borbori in northeastern Assam is suddenly abuzz with visitors, who are congregating in the village, not for its picture perfect views of paddy fields, sal plantations and misty hills but to track the Amur falcons who have returned in their thousands this year.
In 2001, volunteers of the Green Guard group had recorded an unprecedented 18,000 Amur falcons in the district. The numbers plummeted in the years that followed with only a handful being spotted. Until this year that is, when several thousands have arrived after a 12-year gap for roosting in the hilly forested areas of Morigaon and Karbi Anglong too.
The Amur falcon (Falco Amurensis), formerly known as the eastern red-footed falcon, is a small raptor of the falcon family.
Mass slaughter of migratory falcons
In a remarkable milestone for conservation, three villages in neighbouring Nagaland’s Wokha district have also pledged to save the migratory raptor in the Doyang Reservoir – the Amur’s largest roosting site in the country. But every year thousands of birds are killed for their meat. With the mass annual hunt posing a potential threat to the species, Pangti, Asshaa and Sungro villages have passed a resolution to protect the bird and penalise offenders from this year on. Village Council Members (VCM) signed an agreement with the NGO Natural Naga to assist the Nagaland Forest Department to stop the wide-scale hunt that came to light last year.
In mid-October, Green Guard, a voluntary organisation, reported the first flock of about 500 birds. A few days later on October 25, members of Wildflowers, a bird watchers’ group of the Centre for Conservation, Education and Research, had counted more than 2,000 falcons in Borbori and neighbouring areas. The birds could be seen perching on the high transmission wires in the area and their numbers increased each day.
According to Chandan Kumar Duarah of Wildflower, the arrival of the Amur falcons in their thousands is is unprecedented and a sign that that the region offers a safe passage on their journey to southern Africa. The rampant killing of the falcons in Nagaland over the years presumably led to the birds taking a diversion and landing in Assam for safe shelter.
It’s quite a sight, say conservationists.
“The birds are seen perching on the wires, on the towers and a flock or two fly overhead with clanking sounds. In a few minutes, the flying flocks just vanish into the bamboo grooves as if to make adjustments for another group to perch on the wires. They are coming in batches. The older batches leave as new ones flock in; the bamboo grooves here offer them their roosting site on transit,” said a Wildflower volunteer, estimating that the numbers had crossed 6,000 by the end of October.
They can be seen shooing away other birds like magpie robins, drongos, swallows and swifts.
Longest and most arduous migration route for birds
Amur falcons breed in southeastern Siberia, northern China, Manchuria, Mongolia and North Korea and spend their winters in southern Africa, taking the most arduous annual migrations ever known to be taken by any bird of prey. They essentially feed on insects like termites and occasionally very small birds.
Male birds are usually a dark sooty brown. Females of the species can, however, be a little more confusing as they sport a typical falcon head pattern.
The exact migration path of this medium size slender bird species is still unknown but it has one of the longest migration routes of all birds, doing up to 22,000 km in a year. This includes an amazing 3,000 km flight across the Indian Ocean during their outbound journey from Asia to Africa. The return journey from Africa to Asia during February and March is even less understood and is thought to take place over land.
The birds are unusual in that they migrate a large distance over the sea and also continue their journey at night. They stop over in India and Bangladesh for a few weeks to fatten up. Every October, huge numbers of Amur falcons arrive in northeast India from Siberia en route their final destination in Africa.
On their way, tens of thousands of these raptors were reportedly hunted annually for their meat in Nagaland. Hunters would turn their fishing nets upward near the reservoir at Doyang to trap the birds when they came to roost.
But with the village councils resolving to protect the bird, man’s hunt for the bird should hopefully be a closed chapter.
As a signatory to the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), India is duty bound to provide safe passage to this bird and prevent this massacre as well as draw up appropriate action plans for the long-term conservation of this bird. In the last Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which India chaired for two years, the importance of CMS in conserving species, and especially in stopping bush meat hunting, was repeatedly stressed.
The return of the Amur falcon to India’s northeast is a hopeful augur that the efforts towards conservation are bearing fruit.