How The Amur Falcon Was Saved

Amur Falcon resting on a power line (Image: DrewHeath/ Creative Commons)
In 2012, up to 140,000 Amur falcons were killed while migrating through India. The killings have since declined.

A little awareness can go a long way. The pigeon-sized Amur Falcon flies one of the longest migratory routes in the world, kicking off from Southern Siberia, passing along East and South-East Asia, cutting through India and culminating in South Africa.

During October and November, in Nagaland, thousands of these raptors fill the sky. Over the years, they’ve made India the largest pit-stop for Amur Falcons in the world. Nagaland is an important pit stop. It’s where they tank up for the journey across peninsular India, following which they take the non-stop 3,000-kilometre flight across the Arabian Sea to the Southern tip of Africa.

The Falcons first appeared in large numbers in Nagaland during the late 1980s, when they roosted in Changtongya and its neighbouring villages. The birds begin their journey in September when they gather in Southern Siberia in large numbers.

By 2012, a shocking development had taken place near the banks of the Doyang Reservoir in Nagaland. After initial reports that Amur Falcons were being sold in the marketplace, it came to light that up to 140,000 were being killed every year, for the last seven years.

Graphic videos, like the one above, emerged showing how local hunters trapped the Falcons using nets. Several birds are tied to a single wooden pole and carried on the shoulders of the hunter to the nearest market. Skinned, they are sold for their flesh, for Rs.16-25 apiece.

How does one catch a Falcon that can fly up to a kilometre away from the earth? During the days, the birds rest in thousands on power transmission lines. It’s when they travel to forested areas to roost that they are vulnerable. This is the moment hunters use to trap them with nets. In 2013, each net captured about 18 birds, and a single hunting group would set up to 10 nets. A team of conservationists estimated there to have been at least 70 hunting groups operating each day – which meant that between 12,000-14,000 Amur Falcons were captured daily.

For the Falcon, it was a pitstop in India that turned into a nightmare. Though not endangered – the Falcon numbers up to one million across the world – they play a vital role in the ecosystem, courtesy their diet. Though fearsome-looking birds of prey (hence the term raptor), they are mostly insectivorous, eating grasshoppers, sun spiders, crickets and beetles in large numbers – as well as healthy servings of termite when they can.

Nesting pair of falcons with chicks (Image: Joseph Wolf 1820–1899/ Public Domain)

A study found that a single roost of Falcons can kill up to 1.4 million termites. In the Falcon’s winter retreat in Africa, they can kill up to 2.5 billion termites or alates. To farmers, this is an invaluable support. As its authors write:

Termites are landscape engineers. Effects on their numbers might effectively alter ecosystem functioning at the landscape level. Each breeding pair of alates could establish one nest, producing thousands of termites that consume much vegetation biomass (fresh or dead) over many years. A reduction in avian predation on termites would presumably increase the number of termite colonies and therefore increase pressure on agriculture, rangelands, and wooden constructions.

In fact, wherever, the Amur Falcon stops along its 22,000 km journey, it plays an ecological role. As a signatory to the Convention on Migratory Species, India is obligated to protect the birds that pass through the subcontinent. And so, the stories of its looming destruction were taken seriously. Surprisingly, the tides turned swiftly in favour of the Falcon.

In 2013, 2014 and 2015, there were no reported killings of Amur Falcons in Nagaland. Community-level programs such as the Amur Falcon Roosting Areas Union (AFRAU) encouraged community vigilance and patrols during roosting seasons. Awareness campaigns began as early as 2009, when television journalist Bano Haralu quit her job to work towards saving the Falcon fulltime, later joined by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), along with local partner NGOs. Scientists worked to tag the Falcons so they could be tracked via satellite and learn their routes (they found one bird who had flown over 60,000 km in three years).

Above all, the local communities and tribes felt a part of the programme, taking ownership over the bird – and pledging never to hunt it again. The villagers even set up their own penalty for anyone caught hunting the Falcon – a Rs.5,000 fine. In some schools, schoolbags were distributed with the Falcon as a logo. Pangti village now calls itself the “Amur Falcon Capital of India”.

Promoting the region as an eco-tourism site has helped compensate for the livelihood losses incurred by the cessation of hunting. Moreover, locals have turned bird lovers thanks to the efforts of conservationists within government, bureaucracy the civil society alike. Farmers have grown to rely on the Falcon to eat their pests. Altogether, the conservation of the Amur Falcon took place rapidly and effectively.

November is the best time to catch a sight of this natural phenomenon – as the largest congregation of Amul Falcons in the world gather along India’s North-Eastern states, making their way across the peninsula.

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