Great Indian hornbill and its habitat

The great Indian air show in the Western Ghats

Print edition : August 28, 2020

The male Great Indian hornbill in glide mode. Photo: Shefiq Basheer Ahammed

The hornbill at dusk. Photo: Shefiq Basheer Ahammed

The hornbill, captivating in flight. Photo: Shefiq Basheer Ahammed

In this spur-of-the-moment shot, the hornbill looks like a martial arts maestro warding off an attacker. Photo: Shefiq BasheerAhammed

The hornbill’s wingbeats are loud and can be heard from a distance. Photo: Shefiq Basheer Ahammed

Its yellow horn-shaped bill, with a yellow casque on top of it, are distinctive. Photo: Shefiq Basheer Ahammed

The Nelliyampathy forest. The photographer has encountered a few male great Indian hornbills in the lush green hilly tracts of Valparai (Tamil Nadu) and Nelliampathy (Kerala), which are both hornbill habitats in the Western Ghats. Photo: Shefiq Basheer Ahammed

Valparai. The photographer has encountered a few male great Indian hornbills in the lush green hilly tracts of Valparai (Tamil Nadu) and Nelliampathy (Kerala), which are both hornbill habitats in the Western Ghats. Photo: Shefiq BasheerAhammed

A lion-tailed macque. Photo: Shefiq Basheer Ahammed ??

In Valparai, a haven for lion-tailed macques. Photo: Shefiq Basheer Ahammed

Lion-tailed macques in Valparai, Tamil Nadu. Photo: Shefiq Basheer Ahammed ??

Hornbills need tall trees for nesting. Photo: Shefiq Basheer Ahammed

The great Indian hornbill in flight is a spectacle to behold. Unfortunately, this massive and elusive denizen of the forests of India, including in the Western Ghats, is under constant threat from poaching and human interference in its habitats.

THE great Indian hornbill, the enormous, bizarre bird of the rainforest with its striking wing pattern and imposing wingspan, is visually overwhelming and gorgeous in flight. Its neck and tail are white, while its face and wings are black. Each wing has two white bars, which are conspicuous when it flies. The horn-shaped, powerful, sharp bill has a cumbersome casque on top of it; both are yellow, and this distinguishes the bird from the other heavy-winged beauties of the jungles. The loud whoosh of its wings can be heard from a distance like a steam engine of old chuffing away.

Capturing this massive bird on camera when it deviates from its usual “gait” resulted in some rare and much sought-after photographs, said Shefiq Basheer Ahammed, a globetrotting wildlife photographer, passionate about wild tuskers, big cats and birds. He has encountered a few male great Indian hornbills in the lush green hilly tracts of Valparai (Tamil Nadu) and Nelliampathy (Kerala), which are both hornbill habitats in the Western Ghats.

Last year, when he was trekking in the mist-clad Nelliampathy jungles adjoining the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve in Kerala, he was able to take an incredible photograph in which the bird, with its wings raised, looked like a martial arts maestro warding off an attacker. It was a shot on the spur of the moment when he sighted the bird on a tall tree. “It was such an awesome sight. After my click, the bird flew away with heavy wingbeats,” he said.

In another shot, Shefiq captured the bird in the midst of the thick leaves of a fig tree with its yellow beak and casque shining in the sun. Another shot was just of the curved beak jutting out from the leaves. In one shot, it looked as if the bird was hiding from those who wanted to watch it. Its curved beak quickly grabbed the figs, which it sometimes ate right away or stored in its beak to deliver to the nest. During the peak fruiting season, flocks of hornbills attired the trees, providing a feast for the eyes, said Shefiq.

Sometimes, when a great Indian hornbill swoops down, its wings look like the leaves of a fan. Shefiq said he had seen such shots of the bird taken in Thailand by the globally acclaimed wildlife photographer Tim Laman of the United States. It takes years of patient waiting to take such shots, and they leave indelible imprints in one’s mind. Shefiq said that the more one watched the hornbill, the more irresistible was the temptation to follow the bird in jungles, which one had to do silently and patiently. The great Indian hornbill is sensitive to even the slightest disturbance. He recalled that in Valparai, which is a haven for the lion-tailed macaque, he once watched a great Indian hornbill suddenly slanting, then twisting or curving its wings, to impart an aerobatic vision in the air. In Nelliampathy, the bird stopped like a fighter aircraft, then looked wobbly but, amazingly, straightened and started gliding. It then perched on a tall tree. “Such incredible shows stirred me. I was fortunate to take such shots,”Shefiq said.

“In both places, I had to be patient. Often I thought the bird would come gliding or booming into view at any moment and put on one of its magnificent ‘air shows’, but that did not happen,” he said. Two days later, while Shefiq was trekking in Valparai, a bird suddenly appeared, with its audible heavy wingbeats and deep grunts. Shefiq, who was hiding behind a tree, swung his camera into action. Through his binoculars, he could see that the bird looked agitated.

There was a nest with a female and chicks inside nearby. After walking a little distance, Shefiq could see three honey collectors, members of a tribe who lived in the forest. They were looking at the high nest and talking. The male bird was alert and could hear them. It gets agitated at any sign of danger because its role is that of guardian angel, a scrupulous protector of the nest. It also feeds the female and the chicks. Hunters used to steal the chicks as they were delicacies, and if they got a chance they would kill the male bird for its casque as it was used as an ornament in dances on festive occasions. If poachers try to snatch the chicks, the male bird will attack them with its sharp beak and seriously injure them. Some tribal people still carry the deep scars of hornbill attacks on their bodies. But now the protection measures in the forest are effective. Poachers are caught red-handed and booked for forest offences. The Forest Department employs honey collectors to monitor and keep a watch over the hornbill nests.

Salim Ali

The late Salim Ali, the legendary birdman of India, meticulously observed the great Indian hornbill and other birds during his bird surveys in 1933. Birds of Kerala, his mammoth work, has inspired generations of naturalists in Kerala. This is his most romantic description of the hornbill: “Their deep harsh grunts, roars or barks, and loud resonant call tok-tok, etc., reverberate in the forest-clad valleys and are responsible for their Malayalam name [Malamuzhakki, meaning reverberations in the mountains].The flight, slow and heavy, is accomplished by deliberate beats of the broad wings, the tips of the primaries are upturned, and is punctuated by occasional short glides. The loud rasping sound produced on each downstroke is audible at considerable distance. The bird’s habit of smearing the white wing bands and foreneck feathers with the yellow oily exudation from its preen gland is remarkable.... I certainly think that one of the most thrilling and grotesque characters in Kerala is the great Indian hornbill.”

There are four species of hornbills in the Western Ghats. The prominent among them is the great Indian hornbill and the others are the Malabar pied hornbill, the common grey hornbill and the Malabar grey hornbill. The hornbill is present in India from the Himalayas to Kumaon to Assam and in Myanmar, the Malay peninsula, Thailand, Sumatra, and so on. Totally, there are 57 species in Africa and Asia with 10 in the Indian subcontinent. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has evaluated the great Indian hornbill as vulnerable on its Red List of Threatened Species. Habitat loss, deforestation, human interference, poaching and development activities in the forests are responsible for its decline. In Thailand, the helmeted hornbill is poached for its casque, which is, in fact, responsible for the decline in its numbers. Even poachers from China intrude into Thailand.

The globally renowned authorities on hornbills Pilai Poonswad (Thailand) and Alan Kemp (South Africa) and the photographer Morten Strange (Denmark) came out with Hornbills of the World: A Photographic Guide, an important and authentic work that covers all the 57 hornbill species in Asia and Africa. Tim Laman took most of the photographs on the two continents. Some hornbill names are quite interesting, for example,the brown-cheeked hornbill, the white-thighed hornbill; the silvery-cheeked hornbill and the black dwarf hornbill, all from Africa, and the white-crowned hornbill, the helmeted hornbill, the rhinoceros hornbill and the rufous-necked hornbill, all from Asia. The Narcondam hornbill is confined to Narcondam Island of the Andamans.

Hydroelectric project

Last month, the Kerala government gave nature lovers a rude shock by deciding to go ahead with a proposed 163 MW hydroelectric project that would involve building a dam on the Chalakudy river in Thrissur district. When the project was first mooted, environmentalists had warned that it would be disastrous for riparian forests, aquatic biodiversity and flora and fauna, including the hornbill population, and that the elephant corridor from Chalakudy to the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve would be seriously affected The proposal was put aside becauseof the public outcry, but suddenly the government has revived it again.

Prof. Amita Bachan, who has carried out detailed studies of the riparian forests in the area, observed that the unique ecosystem would be ruined if the dam was built. Low-level hornbill nests are found only in this region of the Western Ghats, which will bear the brunt of the project. However, environmentalists and nature lovers in Kerala are getting ready to confront the government on the issue.

Chalakudy-Vazhachal forest area

All those who read Salim Ali’sautobiography, Fall of a Sparrow, will be moved by his fond remembrances of the Chalakudy-Vazhachal forest area and the adjoining Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, now a tiger reserve. He visited these rich and dense bird habitats in 1933 during his Travancore-Cochin bird surveys at the behest of the Maharaja of Travancore. The Cochin Forest Administration had built a tramway from Chalakudy to Parambikulam to move timber from the forests to Chalakudy, from where it was taken in lorries to Cochin harbour for export. Salim Ali had on occasion travelled on the tramway, which was dismantled in 1946, and watched birds, including hornbills. He called it a romantic tramway.

Whenever he visited Kerala, he recalled those days. He visited Kuriarkutty, a rich bird habitat, in 1986 in the company of his protege R. Sugathan,who is at present an ornithologist with the bird sanctuary in Thattekad, 60 km from Kochi city. On seeing Salim Ali, an old tribal man who had accompanied him on his bird surveys in the 1930s exclaimed: “Oh, you have come again Bombaywalla? You want to shoot and kill birds?”(At the time of those surveys, birds were shot down with tiny bullets for observation and study.) Salim Ali burst out laughing. He hugged the old man and exchanged pleasantries with him. Salim Ali was deeply moved at the sight of flocks of great Indian hornbills in Parambikulam.

He visited the Thattekad sanctuary in 1986 and was heartbroken when he found that all the tall trees had vanished. Hornbills need tall trees for nesting, and he wondered how they could survive without the trees. Salim Ali observed that successive governments and crooked politicians had carried out mindless vandalism on virgin forests to clear land for settlements or for so-called development projects such as dams and to extract raw materials for wood-based industries. Sugathan felt that his guru was weeping silently.

Ground-breaking research

In the past two decades, ground-breaking research has taken place in India on the behaviour and ecology of hornbills, and valuable information has been gathered. Scientists have undertaken excellent fieldwork, which has benefited from the advent of digital photography.

The scientists Divya Muddappa and T.R. Shankar Raman of the National Conservation Foundation, Mysuru, visited 45 locations in Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu to carry out a detailed survey of the hornbills of the Western Ghats. They prepared a report titled “A conservation status of hornbills (Bucerotidae) in the Western Ghats, India”. It said that the Malabar grey hornbill was the most frequently sighted and widely distributed of the hornbill species followed by the great Indian hornbill and the Malabar pied hornbill. The scientists identified the following as the important hornbill conservation landscapes in the Western Ghats: Amboli-Goa-Dandeli, Anamalai-Parambikulam, Nilgiris, Wayanad, Someshwara-Mookambika, Neyyar-Peppara-Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, Periyar Tiger Reserve and Nelliampathy.

The survey report recommended setting up a committee with local participation and a forest officer as a facilitator. It wanted an action plan to monitor and protect hornbills. The survey made the startling finding that there was very low awareness of the hornbill species even among the forest staff of protected areas. So, the scientists recommended that education and awareness programmes should go hand in hand with protection and conservation efforts.

Plantations have become common in many forest areas, for example,the coffee plantations in the Anamalai hills. Scientists from different scientific institutions have observed that the great Indian hornbill may adapt to modified habitats as long as the key attributes relating to foraging and nests are present. They have also carried out detailed studies on the tree species hornbills select for nesting and on tree density; plant density; food availability; nest cavities; and availability of insects, lizards, small snakes, and so on.

As Pilai Poonswad says: “Many details still need to be explored and documented about hornbills from the world’s most fascinating wild environments of Africa and Asia.”

G. Shaheed is Chief of Legal and Environment News Bureau of Mathrubhumi, Kochi.

Shefiq Basheer Ahammed, who has travelled widely in India and abroad, is a motor vehicles inspector in Kochi.


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