Expect one, all species of vultures extinct in Kerala

Thiruvananthapuram: All species of vultures in Kerala, except the small breeding white-backed ones in Wayanad, have become extinct due to a degradation of their avifauna habitat, an official study has pointed out.

Factors like reduction of habitat along with changes in livestock management practices, including disposal of dead animals and increase in beef consumption, have contributed to the decline of these scavengers, the study by the Kerala Forest department titled `Along the trail of Salim Ali`, said.

The survey conducted in 2009 on 19 places on the same dates as renowned ornithologist Salim Ali did in 1933, counted 77,547 individual birds of 338 species. In Ali`s study, 290 species, including four of vultures were recorded.

Though the number of species had increased, the number of birds coming under specialists category have decreased, indicating a slight degradation of bird habitat in Kerala, study team principal investigator C Sasikumar said.

Fifteen species endemic to Western Ghats, 21 categorized by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as globally threatened and 38 belonging to Schedule 1 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 were recorded in the survey in 12 terrestrial habitats and direct counts in 33 locations covering 281.35 km.

Sasikumar said though there was a slight degradation of the bird habitat, it has not affected their population to a large extent.

Another striking finding was the presence of Indian peafowl (crow), an indicator of human settlements, whereas Ali`s survey found crows only in five places, Sasikumar said.

Population patterns of the Black Kite also seemed to have undergone some change, he said, adding about 1500 individual birds were recorded at Thiruvananthapuram city alone during the survey.

The Southern Hill Myna had the highest population density of 50.3 birds per km, followed by migrant Greenish Leaf-Warbler (44.8 birds per/km) and blue-winged Parakeet (31.5 birds per/km). White-bellied Treepie had the lowest at just 8.2 birds per/km.

Sasikumar said the results pointed to the fact that among the 16 endemic birds, the blue-winged parakeet, small sunbird, Indian rufous babbler and white-bellied treepie have a seemingly healthy population.

However, the high altitude habitat of Grey-breasted laughing thrush, Black-and-Orange Flycatcher, White-bellied Shortwing and Nilgir Flycatcher face threat of habitat degradation and fragmentation, he said.

Large-scale decline of Nilgiri-Wood Pigeon, an endemic and IUCN Redlist category bird, was of serious concern from the conservation point of view, he said. "It is very important to conduct a study on the current status, distribution and threats on all endemic species", he said.

As conservation measures, the report said tourism in high-latitude areas has become a threat to endemic species.

It said large number of `pilgrimage tourists` to Sabarimala have also contributed to factors threatening the species with degradable and non-degradable garbage polluting the forest.

Stating that controlling fires was extremely important to survival of birds like Nilgiri Pipt, broad-tailed grass-warbler and brown rock pipi in grassland habitat, the report noted that annual fires were a regular feature in most high altitude grasslands where the survey was conducted.

Data gained using the state-of-the-art methods and equipment will serve as a benchmark and could be compared with any such studies in future, Sasikumar added.