Protecting Dandeli’s Pride
It often takes the smallest of actions to spark a world of change. Thanks to grass-root targeted conservation strategies, the forests of Dandeli are resounding with the cries of hornbills once again.
In June 2006, I arrived at Dandeli as Deputy Conservator of Forests, Dandeli Wildlife Division. Initially, I was accommodated at the forest guest house on the banks of the river Kali. On my very first morning, I woke up to several bird calling cries. I rushed out of the room to see an entire flock of Malabar Pied Hornbills on a nearby tree. It was a classic case of love at first sight, and I started reading up about the bird and observing its behavior intently. As my interest and knowledge increased, I also learned about it being hunted by the local communities, which believed that the meat of the bird had medicinal value and cured stomach ailments. I started thinking about how to sensitize the locals regarding the significance of hornbills for the conservation of forests.
The forests of Dandeli are home to four species of hornbills – Indian Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros birostris), Malabar Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros griseus), Malabar Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros coronatus) and Great Hornbill (Buceros bicornis). Of the four species, the Malabar Pied Hornbill is the most common. Previous studies have indicated that if the habitat is not maintained, this population can quickly dwindle. Food availability, especially during the breeding season, has a profound impact on hornbill populations, and during inadequate food supply, females have been known to come out of nests without laying any eggs. Planting of tree species supporting Malabar Pied Hornbills is not a priority for the forest department, and together with the hunting, it is believed that the region may lose the species eventually. Thus, there was a dire need to give greater emphasis to the protection of the habitat and also create awareness among both locals and tourists.
One morning, a group of around 50 primary school children from Tangal School of Jamkhandi taluka, Bijapur district, came to Kulgi Nature Camp of Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve for a weeklong camp. I was asked to address them on an inaugural day and I took this opportunity to narrate the life history of hornbills – how hornbills nest in a hole in a tree and that the female, once inside, is sealed by the male, leaving a small slit to pass on food. I explained how the male searches far and wide for food, and how difficult it is once the dry summer season starts. I even mentioned that in case the male is killed at this time, it means death for the entire family of hornbills, as the female and the chicks inside the nest won’t get any food.
After three days, I was called to see a play on hornbills enacted by the children. One of the teachers explained that my story had had such a deep impact on the kids that they had come up with a very touching story for a play. They showed how a local tribesman while collecting wood in the forest kills a hornbill and brings it back as food for the family. An elephant, witnessing the hunt, takes the villager to the hornbill’s nest, where a female hornbill is waiting for her partner to bring food. After learning that the partner has been killed, she explains how the villager has spelled death for her entire family.
I shared the story with a group of volunteers working in the reserve and asked them to convert it into a street play in the local dialects. Today, the troupe has enacted the play more than a hundred times in various locations across the reserve. On some occasions, I have even witnessed some of the villagers shed a tear while watching the play. Several pledged never to kill a hornbill again and to stop anyone else from doing so, too.
Today, people from across the country visit Dandeli to see hornbills. On hearing the story, one of the editors of a leading Kannada daily carried the story in the newspaper. Later, he even helped me to convince the Chief Minister of the state to get an area adjoining Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve declared as Hornbill Conservation Reserve, under section 36A of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. This region comprises areas adjoining the Kali river. The forest department has developed a Hornbill Trail and the naturalists and guides here are well-trained on this subject. In December 2011, almost five years after I left Dandeli, while on a bus going from Hubli to Hyderabad, I overheard two men discussing the Hornbill Trail. One of them mentioned that although he had seen hornbills, he was not able to photograph them well and was advised to visit in February when the Ficus mysorensis is fruiting. Today, all of Dandeli talks about hornbills with immense pride. In 2014, a hornbill festival was celebrated as well, in which people from all walks of life participated. I have been receiving calls from several local people and volunteers that hornbill sightings have increased in recent years. These events only add to the tremendous satisfaction and sense of achievement received from the work that we began more than a decade ago.
This article was first published in the 2015 April edition of Saevus magazine.