Hills waking up to birds' role in economics of biodiversity
Source: Hueiyen News Service / Sobhapati Samom

Imphal, December 17 2013: For Kanrei Horam, banning of bird hunting in and around his native Kharasom village in Ukhrul district of Manipur is simply good news.

Because it will help in regenerating Yongchak trees and other agro-resources besides reviving loss habitat of the rare birds in his hill village which is located about 160 kg to the north of state capital, Imphal.

Large scale hunting, use of pesticides, loss of habitat due to deforestation to meet the growing demands of an ever expanding population coupled with changing climatic condition has threatened the rich biodiversity of Manipur hills and rendered certain bird species vanished from existence in the region.

The ban on bird hunting was in force following the village's yearly public sitting in January this year.

"The reason behind the ban is related with attack on our village crops mostly Yongchak (Perkia Timoriana) trees by unknown insects", says 58-year old Kanrei, a key functionary of Kharasom village authority.

"The incident (insect invasion) has severely affected Yongchak business last year," he recalled.

Kaichui, a farmer from Phellong, showing his oranges
Kaichui, a farmer from Phellong, showing his oranges

The insects which attacked Yongchak include Asian long horn beetle, according to Entomologist Kh Ibohal of Central Agriculture University in Imphal.

Yongchak or tree bean is a favourite delicacy of the Manipuris and one of the most delicious and sought dishes during winter.

It is sold at Rs 20 a piece in Imphal market in December.

Every year, the villagers used to earn a very good income from the Yongchak business as most of the Yongchak trees are booked in advance by traders at the rate of Rs 10,000 to 30,000 per tree, in accordance to the number of Yongchak on the trees.

The decline in Yongchak production has directly affected the economy of the villages which have around 400 households and most of them entirely depend their livelihood on the agro resources.

Like Kharasom, the production of Mandarin Orange (Citrus Reticulata), grown in Manipur's orange belt Tamenglong, another hill district, has been declined due to insect invasion and poor management of orange trees this year too.

"Half of our (orange) trees die this year, If it continues we may look for an alternative," says 22-year old cultivator Kaichung of Phellong upper village in Tamenglong, who annually earns around Rs 50,000 to 70,000 from his orange orchard.

Now Kaichung expects only about Rs 10,000 from the remaining 40-50 orange trees in his orchard.

Manipur produced 28,739 metric tones of oranges cultivated in an area of 4,658 hectares in 2011-12 against 31,968 metric tones of oranges (in an area of 4,138 hectares) in 2008-09, as per the State Horticulture Department records.

Of this, Tamenglong district alone produced 17,293 metric tones in 2011-12 against 17,311 metric tones in 2008-09."In view of the killing of Amur falcons and many other endangered bird species such as hornbill, pheasants etc(in Tamenglong), the number of Amur falcons visiting the district has drastically reduced this winter," says environment activist Dr Chambo of Tamenglong district.

The decline of orange production in Tamenglong may also have a direct or indirect connection with birds' biodiversity in the district.

On the other hand, Kharasom villagers used to kill 20 to 30 birds belonging to different species including the migratory ones on daily basis.

In view of the development, the ecological cycle of the village environment has been disturbed and subsequently helps in increasing the number of insects and affects the forest and other agricultural crops.

"Suspecting that the disappearance of birds from the village could be one of the reasons for the sudden increase of insect population and subsequent attack on Yongchak, the village authority takes up steps to ban hunting of birds," Kanrei Horam explained, adding, "Because birds are insect eaters" .

Owing to extensive deforestation in Kharasom area (for cutting timbers) five years ago and subsequent indiscriminate killing, some of the colourful birds which were seen in the past have vanished from the village, according to a 45 year old housewife of new Kharasom village, who doesn't want to be named.

"We don't have the English names of those birds," she said.

Ornithologist RK Birjit of Center for Conservation of Nature and Cultivation of Science of Manipur University when contacted said that hill ranges under Ukhrul district bordering Myanmar are the habitat of Pheasant species including state bird Nongngin or Hume's bar-tailed pheasant (Syrmaticus humiae) .

A British civil officer Allan Octavian Hume named the bird after his wife Mary Ann Grindall Hume during their stay in Manipur in 1883.Though the Nongngin was declared as State bird of Manipur in 1989, the bird itself has not been sighted in most parts of the state not to speak of Kharasom village.

The little known pheasant is classified as Near Threatened by International Union for Conservation of Nature, according to a report by state coordinator Dr RK Ranjan of Indian bird conservation network.

There are two sub-species of Hume's pheasant, one of which namly Syrmaticus humiae is found in north east India in eastern parts of Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram through western Myanmar south of the Irrawady river while the other Syrmaticus burmanicus, occurs in southern China, northern and eastern Myanmar and extreme northern Thailand.

Besides the Pheasant species, the villagers of Kharasom have also not noticed some of the smaller birds such as Swallow known as Sembang in local tongue in their courtyards since the last 5-6 years.

"The loss of their habitat could be the reason for not sighting the bird in the village," says Mungchan Zimik, a resident of Ukhrul town.

"Earlier most of the houses in the villages have thatch roofs wherein the bird built their nests", he pointed out, and added that now there are not many thatch-roofed houses as brick and mortar buildings have substituted.

The decease of the crow population in Manipur has led to the sudden decline of Heikreng commonly known as Stinkwood(Celtis timorensis), an important tree which is used as lighter during the funeral rites of the majority Meitei community since the time immemorial, according to environmentalist Dr Kh Shamungou.

Heikreng seeds germinate very fast after they are softened inside the stomach of the crows.

This indicates that birds play an important role in maintaining the economics of the ecosystems and biodiversity of the respective areas.

But widespread deforestation has been reported due to lack of awareness in Manipur which has a forest covering area of 17,219 sq km which is 77.12 per cent of the total geographical area of the state (22,327 sq km) as per the state forest report 2003 .

A small Siberian migratory bird locally known as shiri (grey sided thrush) have stopped visiting Shirui hills in Ukhrul district following large scale felling of fruit- bearing trees including leihao leishang (michelia doltsopa) and poaching, researchers said.

"Manipur is the favourite habitat of more than 500 rare birds.

But so far we have recorded only half of them", researcher RK Birjit said.

Around 57 species including 27 migratory and 30 resident birds and two nearly threatened species Ferrigunous Pocchard (Aytha nyroca), Darter (Ahimsa melonogaster) visited the Loktak, the largest fresh water lake in eastern India last year, he added.

Interestingly, in a recent study on the IBA of Manipur on December 11 this year, Dr Raju Kasambe of the Bombay Natural History Society's Important Bird Area (IBA) programme and Birjit led team of ornithologists, researchers and environmentalist sighted 'Sana Manbi Nganu' or Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata) with concrete scientific evidence in Loktak.

The rare duck was once found in marsh area of Mayangkhang in Manipur's Senapati, another hill district as per India's birdman Salim Moizuddin Abdul Ali's 1939 report.

But now it was sighted in a lake in the Manipur valley.

If the urgent step for the birds' location and conservation is not taken up, some species are certain to vanish from Manipur.

The state's hill districts are no exception to the loss and drifting pattern of biodiversity.

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