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Canal decision brings hope for India's rarest bird

Jerdon?s Courser Site to be Saved

The future for one of Asia’s most threatened and enigmatic birds today looks brighter, thanks to a decision by the Andhra Pradesh State Government’s Irrigation Department that should safeguard the future of the species’s last known site. Jerdon’s Courser Rhinoptilus bitorquatus is a small, nocturnal ground-dwelling wading bird that was discovered in central India around 1848 by Dr Thomas Claverhill Jerdon, a British Army Medical Officer. A few sporadic sightings followed until the turn of the 20th century, but then the species was seemingly lost. Eighty-six years passed before its remarkable rediscovery in the State of Andhra Pradesh by Bharat Bhushan from the Bombay Natural History Society (BirdLife in India). Today only between 25-200 birds remain and the species is classified by BirdLife International as Critically Endangered, meaning it faces the very real prospect of extinction within the next few years. At the time of its exciting rediscovery in 1986, the courser’s scrub-jungle habitat was threatened by the construction of the Telugu-Ganga canal, an agricultural irrigation project. However, prompt action by the authorities led to the creation of the Sri Lankamalleswara Wildlife Sanctuary to protect the species.

In October 2005, unauthorised work on the canal commenced once again, around the border of the wildlife sanctuary. This led to the destruction of a newly discovered site for the species, as forest was cleared and channels excavated. Once forest officials became aware of this construction, work was stopped and today the Irrigation Department announced they will re-route the canal to avoid the birds’ habitat. "The Irrigation Department are to be warmly congratulated for taking this decisive action in re-routing the canal,” said Dr Asad Rahmani, Director of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). “Thanks to them, the future for India’s rarest bird looks brighter." On 14 February, the Central Empowerment Committee will rule on the route the canal can take, so as to avoid the courser’s habitat entirely. "We are very pleased about the implications this decision has for the future of one of the world’s most threatened birds. Jerdon’s Courser is a fascinating, little known species, and through dedicated research work over the past decade, we are beginning to learn much more about it. It seemed a tragedy that all this hard work and research could have been lost due to this development," added Dr Rahmani.As well as wiping out the birds’ scrub jungle habitat, it is likely that the canal would also have led to increased human activity in and near the sanctuary, which would have caused further disturbance to the birds and their remaining habitat. Other unauthorised uses of the sanctuary, including bird trapping (which is likely to have led to direct killing of Jerdon's Coursers), could also have become more common. Now scientists can continue their efforts to learn more about species and how to maximise its conservation.

"The international conservation community applauds the decision to safeguard the future of one of India’s most precious birds—already far rarer than India’s wildlife emblem, the tiger. It would indeed have been tragic if the Jerdon’s Courser were to be driven to extinction only 20 years after its world famous rediscovery," commented Dr Stuart Butchart, BirdLife’s Global Species Programme Co-ordinator.

4th July 2014