This is a summary of the paper originally published in INDIAN BIRDS Vol. 14 No. 3 (Publ. 25 July 2018).
Hornbills are called the ‘farmers of the forest’ as they play a very important role in dispersal of seeds that grow into trees. These long-lived birds are slow breeders, with larger hornbills usually raising a single chick every year. Hornbills face significant threats from hunting in parts of India and from habitat loss across their range in India. The information on hornbill distribution from India is patchy and we have a very poor understanding of the change in hornbill distribution over time. Given that these birds are relatively rare and widely distributed, it is a difficult task to design systematic studies to understand changes in their distribution.
A Citizen Science platform is a useful means to collate the observations of hundreds and thousands of citizens spread across the country. It can serve as a centralized database that will allow us to determine changes in animal distributions over time. Hornbills are relatively large birds that are easily recognizable because of their large size, beaks and distinctive calls, and even untrained eyes can identify them with relative ease.
Hornbill Watch platform was set up by Nature Conservation Foundation and Conservation India in June 2014 with the idea that citizens could participate in this initiative to document hornbill presence and to provide an information source on the nine hornbill species found in India. It was set up with a goal to eventually synthesize distribution information to determine 1) extant distribution of different hornbill species in India, 2) determine changes in hornbill distributions over time and 3) potentially identify key areas for hornbill conservation across the country. The idea is to make this synthesized information available to a larger audience, including concerned authorities for effective management, and interested citizens. Hornbill Watch encourages citizens to share sight records and/or images from anywhere across India. It also encourages citizens to share other relevant information associated with their sighting, which would include age/sex of the bird, flock size, diet, breeding status and other ecological information that the observer might have noted.
We recently summarized data shared by 430 participants between June 2014 to February 2017 from across the country. This information has allowed us to determine presence of different hornbill species 1) from across the country, 2) from outside Protected Areas and 3) from across different habitat types, including urban gardens, agricultural fields and forests. Information was obtained for all nine Indian hornbill species including the Narcondam Hornbill that is found only on the 6 sq km Narcondam Island in the larger Andaman & Nicobar chain of islands. Hornbill distribution records were collated from 25 of the 29 Indian states, justifying the need for the platform to document hornbill presence from across the country. While Karnataka topped the charts for the number of sighting records, significant numbers of sighting records were obtained from north-east Indian states like Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Similarly, information was obtained from states like Sikkim and Chattisgarh from where there was no earlier information on hornbills. A significant proportion of reporting for most hornbill species was from outside Protected Areas. Information on presence of endangered hornbill species, especially outside Protected Areas, can come in handy particularly at sites where large-scale development projects are planned. Hornbills, like the Oriental Pied Hornbill and the Indian Grey Hornbill, were reported from green spaces within cities like New Delhi and Chandigarh, highlighting the important role of tree cover in urban areas for relatively specialized birds like hornbills. People reported information on breeding of all 9 hornbill species from both inside and outside Protected Areas. Over time, we are hopeful that this information will enable identification of breeding populations of these birds across the country. Through this effort, hornbills have been reported from 70 Protected Areas in the country highlighting the potential for the Hornbill Watch platform to contribute to filling knowledge gaps and conservation. More importantly, hornbills have been reported from outside Protected Areas highlighting the importance of some of the sites (for e.g. Kaigal and Dandeli town in Karnataka and Ultapani Reserved Forest in Assam) for hornbill conservation. Information on roost sites, especially from outside Protected Areas is useful for identifying key micro-habitats of importance for hornbills outside Protected Areas. This data is useful to identify and ensure protection of important habitats outside Protected Areas from potentially damaging development projects.
Going ahead, we plan to continue our efforts to popularize this platform among citizens so that we have a larger volunteer base spread across the country that contributes information systematically. We plan to do periodic summaries of the data collected and make it available to the general audience and relevant management officials. One of our main concerns is that this data should not be accessible to poachers or illegal wildlife traders. Therefore, the data is only available on request and will only be shared after verifying the bona fides of such requests. Additionally, precise locations of birds are also not provided on the website. While there are existing mechanisms to safeguard the data from hackers, we are working towards making the website more robust to external attacks.