A citizen science project to monitor hornbill population in India is gaining momentum among the bird enthusiasts and researchers in the country.

With the aim of assessing the distribution of hornbills in India and banking on the fact that they are a conspicuous and easily recognisable species, conservationists launched Hornbill Watch in June 2014. In less than three years, by February 2017, when the platform did their first data analysis, they had received 938 records from 430 contributors across India. Interestingly and importantly, the records cover all the nine species of hornbills which are found in India, including those that are endangered, vulnerable and near-threatened like Narcondam Hornbill, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Austen’s Brown Hornbill and the Great Hornbill. The information collected has helped in identifying sites were conservation efforts need to be concentrated.

Hornbill Watch was launched to assess the distribution of hornbills in India and identify sites where conservation efforts are needed. Photo credit: Vikas Patil/Wikimedia Commons.
Hornbill Watch was launched to assess the distribution of hornbills in India and identify sites where conservation efforts are needed. Photo credit: Vikas Patil/Wikimedia Commons.

The platform was the brainchild of Aparajita Datta and Rohit Naniwadekar from Nature Conservation Foundation and Ramki Sreenivasan and Vikram Hiresavi from Conservation India. Anyone in India can report a hornbill call, a live sighting or a report of a dead, hunted or captive bird and therefore help spread awareness about conservation efforts for the hornbill.

“We felt that there was a need to document extant distributions of nine hornbill species found in India and detect changes in the distribution of hornbills over space and time,” said Naniwadekar. But collecting such information meant periodic large-scale surveys over space and time which are not always feasible to be carried out by researchers. “Hornbills are large and often loud birds and therefore can be easily identified by most people. We thought that this was an opportunity to connect with citizens from across the country who notice and observe these birds and encourage them to share this information” he said. And in this way, country-wide information can be systematically collated on a single platform which can enable information analyses in the longterm.

Hornbills at risk

Hornbills are peculiar birds found largely in the tropics of sub-Saharan Africa and south and Southeast Asia. They naturally occur in low densities considering their delicately slow breeding patterns. The birds are monogamous and the breeding season includes intensive parental care wherein the female seals herself into a tree cavity to lay eggs and during this time and in the 2-3 months after the chicks hatch, the male routinely supplies food. Their breeding pattern and their biology in general, makes them vulnerable to threats from logging and hunting, especially in Asia.

“Hornbills are an endangered group of birds,” Naniwadekar of Nature Conservation Foundation told Mongabay-India. “Many species, including several species in India, face significant threats from hunting, logging and habitat loss.”

He noted that studies conducted in Northeast India have shown that hornbills have been going locally extinct across several sites due to hunting. “Local extinction has been documented even from some sites inside Protected Areas,” he said.

Hornbills naturally occur in low densities considering their delicately slow breeding patterns. They are vulnerable to threats from logging and hunting, especially in Asia. Photo credit: Ajay Gadikar.
Hornbills naturally occur in low densities considering their delicately slow breeding patterns. They are vulnerable to threats from logging and hunting, especially in Asia. Photo credit: Ajay Gadikar.

Elaborating on the threats the birds face across the country, Naniwadekar noted the news about the hunting of the Indian grey hornbills in West Bengal and added that the monoculture plantations across the country deplete the feeding and nesting resources of hornbills and development projects like dams can threaten riverine forests which are preferred by the Malabar pied hornbills in the Western Ghats.

Crowdsourced data to inform conservation needs

The Hornbill Watch website hosts information about the species categorised into themes of evolution, distribution, breeding, threats, etc. and collated resource information for further reading. Detailing the records which could aide documentation of how species cope with habitat modification and loss, he said “people reported Indian Grey Hornbills and Oriental Pied Hornbills from green spaces within cities, so loss of green spaces can be expected to impact hornbills.”

The other notable observation is that species were reported from outside protected areas too and this information is vital, Naniwadekar said because “these sites are often vulnerable to irresponsible development projects” and the documented presence of hornbill species in such areas could make the case for environmental lawyers who go up against development projects which threaten habitats.

The records also brought forth information on breeding and roosting patterns which are often difficult to collect. To illustrate, he said “Indian Grey Hornbill was reported to breed in a cavity in a concrete wall and feeding on bread and biscuits pointing towards its adaptability to modified habitats.” And such information is currently enabling the documentation of the natural history of different hornbill species.

Hornbill Watch was launched in 2014. By February 2017 the platform had received 938 records from 430 contributors across India covering all nine species of hornbills found in India. Photo from Hornbill Watch.
Hornbill Watch was launched in 2014. By February 2017 the platform had received 938 records from 430 contributors across India covering all nine species of hornbills found in India. Photo from Hornbill Watch.

An important factor in projects like this lies in clearly articulating aims and objectives, said Ramki Sreenivasan, co-founder of Conservation India which worked on the technology and outreach-related activities for HW. “The creators of HW ensured transparency of project goals and its potential role in conservation. They also sent frequent reports to contributors and shared it on social media. This made the study open and credible and popular over time.”

By urging the public to contribute sighting data, HW effectively ensured that the entire Indian landscape could be mapped for hornbill studies. Considering how such data has immense conservation value, the platform also functions like the bedrock for scientific studies. HW has sparked an interest in conservation activities from quarters beyond scientists and conservationists and is a testament to the willingness of citizens, who are usually far removed from biodiversity, to participate in larger conservation activities.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.