A Dispatch From an Endangered Bird’s ‘Garden of Eden’

By the top of 2019, I used to be prepared for a change of surroundings. Working as a pure historical past photographer, I’d spent the earlier two years monitoring snow leopards within the Himalayas. Then, one snowy afternoon, I acquired a short name from Dr. Rohit Naniwadekar, a chook biologist with the Nature Conservation Basis. He requested me to get to a small volcanic island within the northern Andaman Sea as shortly as I presumably might.

Inside every week, I had swapped the seemingly infinite landlocked mountains for a tiny speck of land on the edge of the world.

Narcondam Island, a delegated wildlife sanctuary the place Dr. Naniwadekar deliberate to conduct his analysis, provides new which means to the phrase “distant.” Located about 80 miles to the east of the principle backbone of the Andaman Islands and totaling solely about 2.6 sq. miles (twice the dimensions of Central Park), Narcondam is a dense inexperienced volcanic mountain peeking out of the deep blue water. Thus far, exceedingly few scientists and pure historical past photographers have set foot on its uninhabited seashores.

Attending to Narcondam, which is an element of the Indian union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, wasn’t simple. After gaining the correct authorities permits, we caught a flight from mainland India to the Andaman Islands — easy sufficient. However that was adopted by a protracted evening in tough seas to succeed in Narcondam. Furthermore, the island doesn’t have a docking or delicate touchdown possibility, so we needed to bounce into tiny rubber boats and combat the waves earlier than disembarking. We have been drenched from head to toe.

Lastly, the 5 of us — three scientists, a wildlife biologist turned artist and I — discovered ourselves solid away with not far more than our gear, some dry rations and a wholesome dose of pleasure.

The workforce’s primary purpose was to check and doc the Narcondam hornbill (Rhyticeros narcondami), which is endangered and endemic to the island. As luck would have it, we noticed our first pair flying above the seaside as quickly as we hit land.

Having seen the Nice Hornbill of mainland India myself, I observed that these hornbills have been smaller than I had anticipated. However they have been nonetheless gorgeous. The male is a little bit bigger in dimension, with a rufous-colored head and black physique, whereas the feminine is solely black. The chook’s closest extant relative is the Blyth’s hornbill, present in Papua New Guinea.

Inside a number of hours of our arrival, we realized that Narcondam hornbills have been in excessive abundance, even when restricted to the island’s tiny space. Figuring out what number of of them exist and what elements encourage their abundance have been two of the essential questions that Dr. Naniwadekar’s workforce aimed to know in the course of the two-month go to.

Exploring Narcondam was a problem. Its steep terrain consists of ridges and valleys fashioned out of free, crumbly rock, which is held collectively by seemingly impenetrable shrubbery and woody climbing vegetation often known as lianas.

Nonetheless, every day we set out in a unique course from our base, permitting the island’s magnificence to unfold earlier than us. Some patches have been dry and reminiscent of a deciduous jungle, whereas others have been mist-laden and referred to as to thoughts dense cloud forests.

We made our means throughout tangled underbrush on our palms and knees, and gazed up at big buttress bushes, some 130 toes tall, filtering daylight by way of layers of the cover all the way down to a carpet of ferns under.

In time, the workforce started investigating the hornbill’s stunning abundance. They walked line transects at totally different elevations to estimate the chook’s inhabitants densities. Vegetation plots have been specified by an try to know floral variety. Digicam traps have been put in close to fruiting bushes to check the impacts of rodents on native vegetation.

The work was time-consuming, bodily demanding and monotonous, however the thrill of discovering and figuring out totally different species of vegetation and animals whereas out within the subject was sufficient to buoy the spirits of all the social gathering.

In the course of the day, shouts of Latin names of numerous vegetation and birds echoed by way of the forest. Come night, we’d chill with contemporary coconut water within the consolation of a hammock. At evening, we’d stare out into the ocean, considering the bottom of the island that lies beneath the water’s floor, dreaming of all of the life we couldn’t see.

Some days, I’d enterprise out by myself to search for nests, sitting in bushes for hours on finish with a zoom lens, hoping to seize close-up photographs of the hornbill. I turned fondly acquainted with the ruckus they’d create whereas playfully chasing one another or feeding on a ficus tree.

Narcondam hornbills have huge beaks that they use to pluck thick fruit, which they proceed to toss delicately into the air earlier than swallowing it or giving it to a mate.

It was courtship time, and we have been handled to an explosion of habits that was tough to unravel. For weeks, we noticed fixed vocalization, courtship feeding and pair-bonding between potential mates as they referred to as out to one another. The pairs would grasp round nests, cleansing them in flip, flying collectively, feeding collectively, preening each other ever so gently.

Whereas I used to be busy photographing these birds, the workforce began to piece collectively the puzzle of the hornbills’ inhabitants. They estimated almost 1,000 birds, akin to a density of about 390 birds per sq. mile — far exceeding all of the recorded densities for some other hornbill species on the planet.

Moreover, the density of the island’s fruit bushes — particularly that of the figs consumed by Narcondam hornbills — was between two and 10 instances as excessive as in comparable forests.

“Figs have a novel characteristic of staggered fruiting,” defined Dr. Navendu Web page, a scientist on the Wildlife Institute of India and the workforce’s botanist. “So at any given time there are a number of bushes in fruit on the island, which ensures a relentless provide of meals for the hornbills year-round.”

Moreover figs, different native vegetation additionally happen in profusion. And since hornbills are the most important frugivore on the island, Dr. Web page theorizes that the birds successfully tweak the distribution of bushes to favor those they feed on. In different phrases: By spreading the seeds by way of their droppings, the hornbills are steadily remodeling the island into their very own Backyard of Eden.

Nonetheless, the birds face challenges. Lately, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been a essential asset to India within the nation’s effort to counter China’s growth into the Indian Ocean. As such, the archipelago faces threat from potential infrastructural improvement.

Local weather change can also be a possible menace, notably because it’s recognized to disrupt the fruiting patterns of vegetation. “In such a tightly related ecosystem,” Dr. Naniwadekar defined, “only one or two unhealthy fruiting years would possibly considerably impression the hornbill inhabitants.”

Rats, not native to the island, have additionally invaded Narcondam. Preliminary digicam entice research recommend that they’re feeding extensively on sure seeds and would possibly ultimately alter the island’s floral composition.

On the finish of our almost two-month sojourn, as some of us departed on rubber boats towards our extraction ship, I noticed a pair of hornbills flying into the open sky, glowing within the golden mild of daybreak. It struck me that this could be the final time I set eyes on these birds — true “evolutionary wonders,” as Dr. Naniwadekar had as soon as described them.

“They need to be given the identical respect and safety that we provide to the man-made wonders of our world,” he added.

Prasenjeet Yadav is a pure historical past and science photographer primarily based in Bangalore, India. You possibly can observe his work on Instagram and Twitter.

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