Hail of death

A BNHS report shows mass mortality of wildlife in a series of hailstorms in Maharashtra on a scale not recorded before in India.

Published : Jul 09, 2014 12:30 IST

Carcasses of house sparrows lying under trees at Satana in Nashik district.

Carcasses of house sparrows lying under trees at Satana in Nashik district.

FLATTENED fields, denuded trees, bark-stripped trunks and a pale ghostly light shining on an Arctic-like landscape. This is what regions of Maharashtra resembled after the hailstorms early this year. While there were many reports of the damage caused by the unseasonal and geographically uncharacteristic hail, it took a report from the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) to bring to light the destruction and loss of life of wild animals and birds. More alarmingly, though there are some documented instances of death to wildlife in hailstorms, there seems to be no previous record of mass mortality on the scale that has been documented this time.

Heart-rending photographs and statistics fill the BNHS’ report “Mass mortality of wildlife due to recent series of hailstorms occurred in Maharashtra”. The report says 26 species of birds and nine species of mammals were killed by the series of hailstorms that occurred from February to May in Marathwada, Vidarbha and western sections of the Deccan plateau. More than 65,000 birds and hundreds of mammals were reported dead and countless others injured by hailstones that measured about one to two inches in diameter. The hailstorms lasted for 20 to 30 minutes on an average. The report by Sujit Narwade, Project Scientist, BNHS, and Vikas Pisal, driver-cum-field assistant, BNHS, was written along with contributions from many scientists and amateur birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts who, even as the report was being compiled, were calling in with more cases that they had documented.

Immediately after the hailstorms, a series of field surveys were conducted by birdwatchers in Pune, Solapur, Osmanabad and Washim districts. Following this, the BNHS team carried out an intensive ground search for carcasses. The sites were chosen on the basis of information from local people and the size of the hailstorms, determined by the damage to trees. Thus 27 sites, each approximately 25 sq km, were chosen. In many of them, it was found that “a three kilometre radius in the core of the area” was affected severely. Interestingly, it was noticed that the size of the hailstones decreased from the core towards the periphery.

People who shared their experiences of the hailstorms said they survived by hiding under haystacks. Birds and animals were not so fortunate. The birds that were hit the hardest were the rosy starlings ( Sturnus roseus ). More than 30,000 rosy starlings died at various roosting sites across the study areas. Their deaths amounted to about 50 per cent of the total bird mortality documented in this report.

Carcasses of more than 1,500 rose-ringed parakeets were found at Mandava village of Risod tehsil in Washim district. The parakeets were roosting on a series of teak trees, near a farmland. Their carcasses were spread over one hectare. Mortality was particularly high among roosting birds such as the rosy starling , the house sparrow ( Passer domesticus ), and the rose-ringed parakeet ( Psittacula krameri ). Mammals residing in open areas, such as the Indian blackbuck ( Antilope cervicapra ) , were also killed by hailstones. More common birds like mynahs, owls, parakeets, kites, coucals, bulbuls, drongos, quails, larks, egrets and bee-eaters were also found dead in large numbers across the study area.

The deaths were attributed to the size of the hailstones and the duration and frequency of the hailstorms, which were usually followed by heavy wind and rainfall. Scientists and volunteers observed that many birds had been killed by “hailstone injuries to the head, neck and the back”. Citing references from as far back as 1881, the report says that others have also observed that “prolonged heavy rains may increase wing loading and the loss of body heat, causing disorientation, collision with heavy structures, drowning or chilling”, and these were causes of death in hailstorms.

The report says: “Among waterbirds, egrets, cormorants, storks and ibises were the most affected species.” A visit to one of the large heronries in Badalvadi village of Indapur tehsil, Pune district, brought to light the pitiable sight of an “understory [heronries are typically among many species of trees. The overstory usually being larger trees and the understory smaller ones] full of broken eggs, dead chicks and juveniles and adults of the grey heron Ardea cinerea , and the little cormorant Microcarbo niger ”. Attempts were made to rescue the survivors and to put the chicks back into their nests. Though the survival rate from this attempt is not mentioned, it is a known fact that wild birds are extremely delicate and do not survive traumas. This was seen in the case of an injured greater flamingo ( Phoenicopterus roseus ) that was rescued by some birdwatchers from Baramati; they had found it in Bhigwan. The bird was treated and kept at Baramati for a week and was later shifted to the Katraj Zoo in Pune, but it died soon after.

Bats also fell victim to the hail. The reports says: “Based on the mortality of known bat roosts, we assume that 50 per cent of the population of tree-dwelling bats including flying fox Pteropus gingantius and short-nosed fruit bat Cynopterus sphinx ) was killed due to this hailstorm.”

Ungulates such as the chinkara ( Gazella benne ), the Indian blackbuck ( Antilope cervicapra ) and the nilgai ( Boselaphus tragocamelus ) were found dead in some areas. On the basis of where the carcasses were found, the volunteers who helped in the study believe that some of these animals “jumped in the nearby waterbodies or into the thick bushes to take shelter from the hailstones”. Corpses of smaller mammals such as the black-naped hare ( Lepus nigricollis ), the jungle cat ( Felis chaus ) and squirrels were littered all over the study areas.

While the deaths among these species were tragic enough, an added worry for environmentalists was the mortality among species that are migratory and threatened. There was severe damage to the nests of the painted stork ( Mycteria leucocephala ), and the black-headed ibis ( Threskiornismelanocephalus )—both near threatened species listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Carcasses of chicks and juveniles were also found. A few deaths and injuries among migratory ducks such as the ruddy shelduck ( Tadorna ferruginea ), the northern shoveller ( Anas clypeata ) and the common teal ( Anas crecca ) were reported from the Ujani Dam’s backwaters.

Apart from one report, there seems to be little previous documentation in India of wildlife mortality in hailstorms. In February 1986, about 2,000 waterbirds died at the Diyala Jheel area of the Karera Bustard Sanctuary in Shivpuri district of Madhya Pradesh because of a hailstorm that lasted for about 25 minutes. Other victims were a sarus crane ( Grus antigone ), a demoiselle crane ( Anthropoides virgo ) and three white-rumped vultures ( Gyps bengalensis ) and two blackbucks ( Antilope cervicapra ). A survey of literature from abroad shows more evidence of mass deaths in hailstorms. A hailstorm in 1977 in South Dakota, United States, killed 226 birds. A 2003 storm in Argentina took the lives of 158 birds.

With ever-widening human habitation and a cutting back of jungles and scrubland, birds and animals are already under severe pressure and threat. The hailstorm was a further jolt to wildlife, and though the report says that existing literature is “inconclusive about the population-level impact”, it does say that “such events may result in temporary reduction in the population”.

Birdlife International has pointed out that the IUCN classifies hailstorms as direct threats “arising from long-term climatic changes, which may be linked to global warming and other severe climatic/weather events that are outside of the natural range of variation, or potentially can wipe out a vulnerable species or a habitat”.

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