Plight of the Amur falcon


By Dr. Rohan H. Wickramasinghe

Institute for Tropical Environmental Studies

International concern has developed following the very recent report by the NGO, Conservation India, of the slaughter of huge numbers of Amur falcons (‘hawks’ about half the size of a pigeon) during their annual migration through the Wokha district in remote Nagaland, India.

The Amur falcon is known to breed in May and June in south-eastern Siberia, northern China, North Korea and southern Japan. It winters principally in Somalia, Kenya, South Africa, Botswana and Malawi. Sightings of small numbers have been reported from several other countries, as well. The annual migration of a bird is estimated to extend some 22,000 km with the journey from India and Bangladesh to eastern Africa possibly including 3000 km over the sea at night. The return flight north may take a different route. The birds are primarily insectivorous (e.g. termites, locusts, grasshoppers, beetles and dragon flies) although they have been reported to consume small rodents, amphibians and swallows on occasion. The worldwide population has been estimated to be currently in excess of one million birds.

The present widespread concern has arisen due to the report by an intrepid team from Conservation India following a visit to an area where slaughter of the birds was said to be occurring. It was reported that its inquiries established that some 12-14,000 of the birds were being trapped at that location each day, which added up to 120-140,000 during the 10 days of peak migration as they passed through this district. The birds were caught for meat and for sale in the markets. They were trapped in nets laid around the places where they roosted for the night. Following removal from the nets in the morning, the birds are often not killed immediately in order that the meat would remain fresh but the wings may be broken so that they cannot fly away. A video taken by the team from Conservation India records the piteous cries of the birds during this process and as they were being taken away in gunny bags or hung by their legs on poles. The NGO is taking up this matter with the authorities and monitoring the situation. Other agencies, including those concerned with tourists participating in bird watching, have also expressed their concern.

This account brings to mind events leading to the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon of North America. At one time the Passenger Pigeon was the most abundant bird species in the world while the fossil record shows its presence in the Pleistocene epoch (between 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago). A single flock of Passenger Pigeons in southern Ontario, Canada was recorded in 1866 as having been one mile wide and three hundred miles long and having over 3.5 billion birds. The flight of this flock of birds darkened the sky for 14 hours. The ornithologist, Audubon, described watching on another occasion a close succession of flocks whose flight, which obscured the sunlight, continued for three days. However, commercial interests took over in the early 19th century and the birds were slaughtered en masse by settlers in order to provide a cheap source of protein for slaves and servants and hogs. Some carcasses were used for agricultural fertiliser. The gradual decline in numbers from 1800 to 1870 accelerated from 1870 to 1890. The last known Passenger Pigeon, which had been named Martha, died in Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.

The fate of the Passenger Pigeon is an excellent example of the observation that it is not necessary to kill an entire population in order to drive a species into extinction. It is sufficient to drive the population numbers down to levels which are not sustainable

Another consideration worth bearing in mind is the likely influence of populations of Amur falcons in keeping a check on insect populations; not only in Nagaland but, also, in Southern Africa, south-eastern Siberia, Northern China and other localities both where they breed and along their migratory route. If the numbers of Amur falcons are depressed sufficiently, it is possible that population explosions of unwelcome insects, such as locusts, will occur. This, in turn, will lead to greater dependence on inputs of pesticides for the protection of food crops, cotton etc.

The recently publicised plight of the Amur falcons holds ecological and environmental lessons with possible implications for several countries which we would do well to take serious note of.

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