2021-10-04 11:00:32 A Dispatch From an Endangered Bird’s ‘Garden of Eden’

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

I was ready for a change of scenery by the end of 2019. I’d spent the previous two years as a natural history photographer tracking snow leopards in the Himalayas. Then, on a snowy afternoon, I got a quick call from Dr. Rohit Naniwadekar, a bird biologist with the Nature Conservation Foundation. He instructed me to get to a small volcanic island in the northern Andaman Sea as soon as possible.

Within a week, I’d swapped the seemingly endless landlocked mountains for a tiny speck of land at the world’s edge.

Narcondam Island, a designated wildlife sanctuary where Dr. Naniwadekar intended to conduct his research, redefines the term “remote.” Narcondam is a dense green volcanic mountain peeking out of the deep blue water, located about 80 miles east of the main spine of the Andaman Islands and covering only about 2.6 square miles (twice the size of Central Park). Only a few scientists and natural history photographers have set foot on its uninhabited beaches to date.

It wasn’t easy to get to Narcondam, which is part of the Indian union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. We took a flight from mainland India to the Andaman Islands after obtaining the necessary government permits. However, this was followed by a long night at sea to reach Narcondam. Furthermore, because the island lacks a docking or soft landing option, we had to jump into tiny rubber boats and fight the waves before disembarking. We were completely soaked from head to toe.

Finally, the five of us — three scientists, a wildlife biologist turned artist, and myself — were cast away with nothing but our equipment, some dry rations, and a healthy dose of excitement.

The team’s main goal was to study and document the endangered Narcondam hornbill (Rhyticeros narcondami), which is only found on the island. As luck would have it, as soon as we touched down, we saw our first pair flying above the beach.

Having seen the Great Hornbill on the Indian subcontinent, I noticed that these hornbills were smaller than I had anticipated. Nonetheless, they were breathtaking. The male is slightly larger, with a rufous-colored head and a black body, whereas the female is completely black. The bird’s closest living relative is the Blyth’s hornbill, which can be found in Papua New Guinea.

We discovered Narcondam hornbills were abundant within a few hours of our arrival, despite the island’s small size. During the two-month visit, Dr. Naniwadekar’s team sought to answer two critical questions: how many of them exist and what factors promote their abundance.

Exploring Narcondam was difficult. Its steep terrain is made up of ridges and valleys made of loose, crumbly rock that is held together by seemingly impenetrable shrubbery and woody climbing plants called lianas.

Nonetheless, each day we set out from our base in a different direction, allowing the island’s beauty to unfold before us. Some patches were dry and resembled a deciduous jungle, while others were misty and reminded me of dense cloud forests.

We crawled across tangled underbrush on our hands and knees, gazing up at 130-foot-tall buttress trees that filtered sunlight through layers of the canopy down to a carpet of ferns below.

With time, the team began to look into the hornbill’s unusual abundance. They walked line transects at various elevations to estimate the population densities of the bird. In order to better understand floral diversity, vegetation plots were laid out. To study the effects of rodents on native plants, camera traps were placed near fruiting trees.

The work was time-consuming, physically demanding, and monotonous, but the thrill of discovering and identifying new plant and animal species while out in the field was enough to lift everyone’s spirits.

Throughout the day, shouts of the Latin names of various plants and birds could be heard echoing through the forest. In the evenings, we’d relax in a hammock with fresh coconut water. At night, we’d gaze out into the sea, contemplating the island’s base beneath the water’s surface, daydreaming of all the life we couldn’t see.

I’d go out on my own some days to look for nests, sitting in trees for hours on end with a zoom lens, hoping to get close-up shots of the hornbill. I became fondly acquainted with the commotion they’d make while chasing each other or feeding on a ficus tree.

Narcondam hornbills have massive beaks for plucking thick fruit, which they then delicately toss into the air before swallowing or giving to a mate.

It was courtship season, and we were treated to a flurry of behavior that was difficult to decipher. We saw constant vocalization, courtship feeding, and pair-bonding between potential mates for weeks as they called out to each other. The pairs would congregate around nests, cleaning them in turn, flying together, feeding together, and gently preening one another.

While I was photographing these birds, the team began to piece together the population of hornbills. They estimated nearly 1,000 birds, corresponding to a density of about 390 birds per square mile — far exceeding any other hornbill species’ recorded densities on the planet.

Furthermore, the density of the island’s fruit trees — particularly the figs consumed by Narcondam hornbills — was two to ten times higher than in comparable forests.

“Figs have a unique feature of staggered fruiting,” said Dr. Navendu Page, the team’s botanist and a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India. “At any given time, there are a few trees in fruit on the island, ensuring a year-round supply of food for the hornbills.”

Other native plants, besides figs, are abundant. Dr. Page hypothesizes that because hornbills are the largest frugivores on the island, the birds effectively tweak the distribution of trees to favor the ones they feed on. In other words, the hornbills are gradually transforming the island into their own Garden of Eden by spreading seeds through their droppings.

Nonetheless, the birds face difficulties. In recent years, India’s efforts to counter China’s expansion into the Indian Ocean have relied heavily on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. As a result, the archipelago is vulnerable to potential infrastructure development.

Climate change is also a potential threat, particularly because it has been shown to disrupt plant fruiting patterns. “In such a closely knit ecosystem,” Dr. Naniwadekar explained, “just one or two bad fruiting years could have a significant impact on the hornbill population.”

Rats, which are not indigenous to the island, have also infiltrated Narcondam. Initial camera trap studies indicate that they are heavily feeding on specific seeds and may eventually change the floral composition of the island.

I saw a pair of hornbills flying into the open sky, glowing in the golden light of dawn, at the end of our nearly two-month journey, as some of us departed on rubber boats toward our extraction ship. It occurred to me that this might be the last time I saw these birds, which Dr. Naniwadekar had described as “evolutionary wonders.”

“They should be treated with the same respect and protection that we give to our world’s man-made wonders,” he added.

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