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Op-Ed

The Story of Amur Falcon: it’s Conservation and Safe Passage

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By EMN Updated: Sep 24, 2013 10:36 pm
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M Lokeswara Rao, IFS

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]MUR Falcon (Falco amurensis) is a small raptor belonging to falcon family (Falconidae). Its diet consists mainly of insects, such as beetles, grasshoppers and termites. Every October, a large numbers of Amur falcons arrive in northeast India especially Nagaland, from Siberia en route to their final destination — Somalia, Kenya and South Africa. Though Amur Falcon is not an endangered species of bird, there has been a huge interest for the majestic bird species because of its migratory behaviour. During summer the raptor breeds in parts of South-eastern Siberia & Northern China. It undertakes a migration journey from this region all the way to Southern Africa where they spend the winter and then returns to Siberia. Amur falcons travel up to 22,000 km in a year, this being one of the longest migration routes of all birds
The Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis) is a complete, long distance, trans-equatorial migrant. Migrating birds leave their Asian breeding range and travel to north eastern India and Bangladesh, where they fatten up while staging for overland flights over peninsular India. This species is believed to then undertake the longest regular overwater passage of any raptor as it crosses the Indian Ocean between southwestern India and tropical East Africa, a journey of more than 4,000 km, which also includes nocturnal flight. Birds arrive in their southern African winter range in November-December and depart by early May. This species is an “elliptical migrant”, and its return route back to its breeding range is probably largely overland and to the north and west of its southbound route. It is finely attuned to the strong monsoon tailwinds, which results in its late arrival in eastern Africa in autumn after its long flight from the Far East. The congregation of millions of falcons at their communal roosting sites in southern Africa is said to be one of the most spectacular bird of prey phenomena in the world.
The Great migration of the Amur Falcon from Mangolia (spend the summer) to South Africa (spend the winter) and back home (Mangolia) One of the most mysterious passage migrants of India is the beautiful Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis). This falcon breeds in Northern China and South eastern Siberia and spends all summer there. It undertakes a migration journey from this region all the way to Southern Africa where they spend the winter and then undertake the journey back home.

Some interesting aspects of the Amur Falcon migration are that:
1. It has one of the of longest migration routes of all birds, from eastern Asia all the way to southern Africa.
2. No one is sure of its migration route, but current thinking ( through satellite tracking ) is that it migrates large distance across the sea between India and the east African coast. Migrating over the sea is unusual for raptors.
3. It has been recorded to migrate during the night. Very little is know about night migration in birds of prey.
Finally the migration of back journey from South Africa to magnolia is tracked through satellite. It starts its back journey after spending winter and passes through Mozambique, Tanzania, Southern Somalia, flies over Indian Ocean, over Arabian coast, South West Karachi, Eastern India, Eastern Burma and after several other stops, she arrives at her destination the breeding grounds of the Amur Falcon in Mongolia
She’s an Amur Falcon, a small bird of prey not much bigger than a pigeon. 95773 (the number of amur Falcon which was fitted with solar power transmitter with antennae) is built for long-haul flight. Her sleek tapered wings power her to speeds of more than 50km/h and allow her to glide on thermals for long distances The small shark-toothed markings onthe feathers of her breast reveal she is an adult. What makes this Amur Falcon specialist that sitting on her back is a matchbox sized GPS transmitter that will beam data to several satellites orbiting 850kmabove the earth. she flies 14 560km, including a 5-daynon-stop journey of 5 912km at 50km/h Satellites track Flight 95773 an Amur Falcon, as she flies to Mongolia from Newcastle (South Africa) with a tiny transmitter on her back. She gives her trackers a showstopper they could never have imagined: a non-stop leg 5 912km over 5 days.
She probably fills her crop( belly) with insects She needs the high protein found in the locusts, flying ants and dragonflies to give her the energy for the hardest and most dangerous part of her journey. Back in South Africa the scientists wait, too – for the first time they will “witness” the transoceanic crossing of an Amur Falcon. The transmitter will tell us exactly where she is when she strikes out across the featureless blue ocean.
But this still leaves two of the great mysteries unsolved. The first of these is: how does she navigate? What is the guiding hand that takes these long-distance travellers over thousands of kilometres to their exact destination? Somewhere deep inside the Amurs is an invisible compass that scientists have yet to find and understand. One theory is that they might take their bearings from the sun. But how then do they fly so accurately through the night? Dr Craig Symes of Wits University speculates: “They possibly relyon celestial cues, or magnetic fields, or a combination of both.“It’s also possible that different birds use different methods of navigation.”And then there’s the second mystery that the transmitter cannot answer: do birds sleep while they fly ? Some biologists believe that migratory birds forgo sleep during these long flights. Others suspect these birds have an auto-pilot switch that controls their flight and takes over navigation while the rest of the brain sleeps.
The bird of prey visits Nagaland for a from October to November every year, probably before taking giant leap across Indian Ocean. The raptor spends its day in search of food and settles on the trees for roosting during the night. This particular behavioural pattern of Amur Falcon is being exploited by the hunter.

Conservation measure taken up:
• This trapping of Amur Falcon was first reported by Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust (NWBCT), an NGO based in Dimapur, Nagaland, and Conservation India (CI) Conservationist and media across the world have taken a serious note of the issue. it has set off campaign to conserve and protect the safe passage of Amur Falcon to the end of this massacre. Friends of the Amur Falcon: campaign launched

• In a start, NWBCT has launched a new campaign in Wokha district of Nagaland to help provide the falcons a safe route through Northeast India. The campaign enjoys the support of the Government of Nagaland, and several conservation institutions like Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Birdlife International, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Raptor Research and Conservation Foundation (RRCF) and Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT).
• The campaign aims to protect the falcons through improved patrolling and enforcement, involvement of the local community, as well as a comprehensive conservation education program. In an attempt to educate the teachers and children of the villages where these falcons visit, the team conducted a 4-day “Under the Canopy ‘training the trainer’ program” 20 teachers were recruited

One of the training sessions. Photo by Ramki Sreenivasan.

• The teachers are now creating EcoClubs with 20 to 25 children in each of the three of the most affected villages—Doyang, Sungro and Pangti—to teach the children about various aspects of the falcons. The team intends to take up a scientific study of the falcons to better understand critical aspects of their ecology such as their migratory routes and harvesting pressures.
• Marking a significant milestone for conservation of Amur Falcons in Nagaland, three villages in Wokha district have pledged to save the migratory raptor in Doyang Reservoir – its largest roosting site in the country. With mass annual hunt potentially threatening the species, a resolution has been passed by the villages to penalise offenders, this year onwards. Village Council Members (VCM) of Pangti, Asshaa and Sungro signed a tri-party Memorandum of Understanding with the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and the Wokha-based NGO Natural Nagas, to assist the Nagaland Forest Department to stop the wide-scale hunt which was brought to light last year. Many NGO are helping Forest Department in awareness campaign for protection and safe passage of Amur Falcons
• The local youth from the three villages plan to create watch squads to prevent hunting of the birds and protect their roosting and foraging habitats. Construction of watch towers to promote bird watching and awareness generation campaigns are also in the pipeline, according to the MoU.
• To provide an alternative to the meat for which the birds are hunted, Natural Nagas and Wildlife Trust of India have helped about 30 families in setting up poultry farms, a project they call “Bird for Bird.”
• Many NGOs and organisations helping Forest Department directly and indirectly in in spreading awareness among the local communities for safe passage of the Amur Falcon
• The wild life wing of the Forest Department with the help of forest staff in divisions are involving the local communities, Village Councils, NGOs, students in awareness campaign in a big way in a participatory approach.
• The Forest Department plan to step up vigilance during the winter to prevent any hunting, and the Deputy Commissioner, issue a ban on hunting of falcons, as was done last year. The extensive media coverage has brought about a positive change in the attitude. Forest department has requested all Deputy Commissioner and Superindent of Police to keep round the clock vigil and patrolling along with forest staff
• The Rural Development department has instructed the Grants-in-Aid funds released to all the recognized villages in the State be utilized for protection of environment, as a check and control measure. It is proposed that all the villages will now be mandatorily responsible for conservation of ecological environment, wild life preservation within their respective village jurisdiction. The villages that is reported to be in the habit of destroying the local environment and wild life will be penalized by stopping their Grants-in-Aid allocated to the villages and this fund will be utilized for environmental protection activities with the coordination of the Forest Department in the State. The forest department has written to all Wildlife warden of the district to coordinate with the Rural development Department
• The Forest Department needs people cooperation and participation in conservation of rich biodiversity as Nagaland falls in Indo Myanmar hotspot and people’s participation is necessary for safe passage to Amur Falcon. It is also to mention that as the Doyang catchment area is recognised internationally for Amur Falcon migration during October and November.
• Government can promote ecotourism during the Amur Falcon migration period and it will attract foreigners to see the roosting of the lakhs of beautiful tiny Amur Falcons and the livelihoods of the local people will improve with ecotourism. This approach might bring in resources necessary for overall development of the community and at the same time preserve the species in question.
India being signatory to the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), is duty bound to protect and give safe passage. Many acts and legislations prohibit hunting of birds and animals and indulging in its trade. But, we should be guided by our own consciousness. We are well known for our hospitality.
Let us pledge to save “our dear guest” Amur Falcon during its migration October- November and everyone’s must help her to give safe passage to migrate from Nagaland to South Africa.

If you are thinking a year ahead
Sow a seed
If you are thinking ten years ahead
Plant a tree
If you are thinking hundred years ahead
Educate the people

Kua Tzu (circa 500 B.C.)

Note: This article is prepared based on information from various sources and scientific papers for which citation are given.

The writer is the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Head of Forest Force Kohima: Nagaland

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By EMN Updated: Sep 24, 2013 10:36:10 pm