A mascot in peril: How a massive development project threatens the Nicobar Megapode

The iconic megapode, chosen as the election mascot for its island home, faces an uncertain future as the project puts its nesting grounds at risk.

Published : May 07, 2024 19:57 IST - 5 MINS READ

Nicobar megapode

Nicobar megapode | Photo Credit: Pankaj Sekhsaria

A shy, big-footed, terrestrial bird endemic to the Nicobar group of islands, known to incubate its eggs in a mound of soil and leaf litter, was declared the election mascot for the Nicobar district last month in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections: the Nicobar megapode.

The Deputy Commissioner of the Nicobar district, Jyoti Kumari, even said the bird will increase voting to 100 per cent. But the Great Nicobar development project, announced in 2020, could destroy a large swath of the megapode’s nesting and foraging grounds: the construction work, which is soon to begin, threatens 80 per cent of the famed mascot’s mounds.

At 921 sq.km., the largest of the Nicobar Islands, Great Nicobar, supports the largest number of megapodes. A 20-year-old survey found that 97 per cent of all megapode mounds in Great Nicobar were located within 100m of the seashore. This makes the species highly vulnerable to changes on the shoreline. The tsunami of 2004 led to a decrease in their population in the island by 71 per cent.

Also Read | How controversial development chokes India’s archipelagos

The Great Nicobar development project spanning over 166.10 sq.km., has four major components: a transshipment port on the eastern side of Galathea Bay, a power plant on its western side, and an international airport that will be constructed after relocating two villages of Gandhinagar and Shastrinagar, and a township of 150 sq.km. (of which 12.6 sq.km. is for the defence sector and 137.27 sq.km. is for ‘other land uses’. These ‘other land uses’ include residences catering to a population of about 3,83,000, shopping areas, hospitals, academic institutions, entertainment hubs, and food and beverage centres, according to information gathered by the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) during the process of environment clearance.

Permanently destroyed

The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report says of the land reclamation for the port: ‘no development will be planned on the Megapode nesting sites’. It also states that during the construction and operation, there is a ‘possibility’ that megapode mounds may reduce, and if the long-term study initiated by the Zoological Survey of India, Port Blair, concludes that the birds are getting affected, translocation of the birds could be considered. The EAC committee meeting in 2022 concluded that there are about 51 active megapode nests in project area, out of which approximately 30 will be permanently destroyed.

Meanwhile, there are two conservation and monitoring plans, spanning 10 years, to conserve the bird.

WII’s proposal includes population monitoring, studying the role of habitat features in determining population, understanding the breeding and nesting ecology, rainfall pattern, dispersal, and meta-population dynamics, vulnerability to natural and anthropogenic threats, and stakeholder engagement in establishing community conservation reserves. SACON’s proposal includes all of these objectives along with the proposal to prepare and implement a relocation and a captive management plan for the Nicobar Megapode within the proposed project site.

Also Read | Great Nicobar: Whose land is it?

Wildlife Institute of India (WII) had quoted over Rs.13 crores in addition to establishing two research stations. The Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) asked for over Rs.11 crores, a jeep, a speedboat, and a separate budget to the Andaman and Nicobar Forest Department to establishing research stations. The two institutes merged last year based as part of the Ministry of Finance’s drive to ‘rationalise’ autonomous institutions under the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MoEFCC).

In order to compensate for the loss of habitat of the bird in Great Nicobar, a new wildlife sanctuary was declared in 2022 in Menchal Island. The 1.29 sq.km. island holds special significance to the indigenous Great Nicobarese people. The community was not consulted before the sanctuary was proposed, nor was the Tribal Council notified when the proclamation notice was made public. Indeed, the declaration of the new wildlife sanctuary for the megapode appears to be a box-ticking exercise to receive an environmental clearance of the project.

In order to make room for the construction, an area of 130.65 sq.km. of the Cenozoic era (some 65 million years ago) forest along the eastern and south-western coast of the island has been diverted; 9.64 lakh trees are projected to be chopped. This loss of habitat will directly affect the population of megapodes in Great Nicobar.

Raining cats and dogs

The spread of diseases from introduced birds is already a grave concern. An outbreak of avian cholera in domestic fowl in 1997 had been transmitted to the Nicobar megapode. Ship-assisted accidental introductions of house crows and common mynahs on the island have resulted in competition of food and habitat for the megapode and other native birds. The predation on eggs or megapode chicks by feral cats and dogs that have been introduced on these islands have not been studied till date.

Once the construction begins, the birds will without a doubt leave their nesting and foraging grounds leading to a complete wipe-out of the species from the east and southern-west coast of Great Nicobar. The ones that remain are likely to become victims of poaching, disease, territorial fights and predation from cats and dogs.

With the bids for the first phase of the Great Nicobar development project to be floated soon, one can only hope that the Nicobar megapode can become a mascot for the protection of its island.

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