WILDLIFE Cry from the Ghats TEXT: G. SHAHEED PHOTOGRAPHS: N.A. NASEER There has been a drastic fall in the number of great Indian hornbills in their Western Ghats home. The great Indian hornbill. VISUALLY striking and blade sharp, the horn-shaped bill is a powerful protective device for this enormous bird, the great Indian hornbill. Found in the dense emerald patches of the Western Ghats, the bird is also known as the bird of the heavy rainforest. The nesting period, when the chicks and their mother are confined to their nest in a cavity in a giant tree trunk, is literally a time of trial by fire for the male bird. Nature has thrust upon it the mantle of a guardian angel protecting the nest. During this period it is extremely alert. Even when it goes far in search of food, its heart throbs resound in the nest. Honey collectors and people living in the hills look out for the nests, for the flesh of hornbill chicks as well as that of the bird is considered a delicacy. Any chirping in the nest can be fatal for the family. The men looking out for chicks climb up to the nests, carrying crude weapons and also torches even in broad daylight. The hornbill is scared of torches because they can damage its plumage. The great Indian hornbill is a great fruit-eater. When the nest is in danger, the male bird, risking its own life, stands up to the intruders, attacking them with its sharp bills. It sometimes leaves the men badly injured, but then the bird, too, can get killed by the men. In the latter case, the men carry home the dead bird’s casque (bill surrounded by a cumbersome-looking structure) and use it to decorate homes. Dr N.C. Induchoodan, former Divisional Forest Officer, Vazhachal, one of the habitats of the great Indian hornbill, recalls: “When I saw the telling scars on the bodies of some tribal persons, I asked what caused them. They said the marks were left by encounters with the great Indian hornbill when they tried to snatch the chicks.” Vazhachal is around 80 kilometres from Kochi. It was here that a massive campaign was started by the Forest Department in 2003, for the first time in Kerala, with the participation of the tribal people there, for the protection of all varieties of hornbills. Induchoodan, along with his colleagues, played a key role. Twelve nests were identified in the Vazhachal area and tribal people were deployed to watch them. These people, who had been hornbill-hunters, thus turned into hornbill-watchers. The campaign worked and the conservation project succeeded. Dr K.P. Ouseph, Kerala’s Chief Wildlife Warden, says that efforts to protect the hornbill are under way. Tall trees in its habitat are not felled and the nests are constantly monitored. In this sequence (from top), the male bird gathers figs, takes them home and drops them one by one into the nest for the chicks and their mother to eat. Indeed, there has been a huge change of attitude. There was a time when tribal men seeking brides would be asked by prospective fathers-in-law how many casques they had at home. On festive occasions, tribal dancers would sport casques on their heads. Now, the same people are engaged in ensuring that the hornbill is protected. Though hornbills are numerically weak, there are 45 types of the bird in Africa, India, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia. There are seven types in India, of which the great Indian hornbill is the largest. Four species are found in the Western Ghats. They are the great Indian hornbill (great pied hornbill – Buceros bicornis), the Malabar pied hornbill, the Malabar grey hornbill and the common grey hornbill. Their status is endangered, according to Dr R. Kannan, who holds a PhD in Ecology and Conservation of Hornbills in the Western Ghats. “Large-scale habitat destruction, forest fragmentation and poaching of adults and squabs caused their endangered status,” he said about the birds. Hornbills are seen in the forests of Wayanad, Parambikulam, Silent Valley, Periyar, Nelliyampathy, Neyyar and up to Ashambu hills. Ornithologists say that though hornbills are not really beautiful, they are attractive, intriguing and fascinating. The legendary ornithologist Salim Ali observed the great Indian hornbill in 1933 in Kerala. Captivated by the bird, he remarked, “I certainly think that one of the most thrilling and grotesque character in Kerala is the great Indian hornbill. It is seen in the evergreen forest patches in other parts of Asia also. Few people even in India have any but the haziest notion of the area which for natural variety and charm can vie with the most celebrated beauty spots of our land.” THE NESTING SEASON stretches from February to April. Once the chicks are hatched the female stays confined to the nest with the young, while the male, the protector, steps outside. Just one year before his death in 1987, Salim Ali visited the Thattekkad bird sanctuary. His purpose was to revive old memories. (He said, “I had seen in 1933 large groups of great Indian hornbills in Thattekkad and Periyar.”) He was 92 and walked with the help of a walking stick. Travelling in a jeep, with binoculars in hand, he anxiously searched for the great Indian hornbill but could see not even one. Sadly, he said, “The tall trees have disappeared. So naturally the hornbills are not seen. In Periyar I saw a group numbering from 90 to 110. A most unforgettable experience.” Great Indian hornbills have a noisy wing beat, which is audible from a distance. One ornithologist has described it thus: “If you hear a loud woosh that sounds in the distance exactly like the chuffing of an old steam locomotive, it could unmistakably be the great Indian hornbill.” Salim Ali’s description in his book Birds of Kerala is: “Their deep grunts, roars or barks and loud resonance call reverberate in the forest-clad valleys and are responsible for the Malayalam name Malamuzhakki, meaning mountain shaking. It is a large pied bird. Its face is black, neck and tail white, wings black, two white bands on the wings are conspicuous in flight.” continued..