Canal diverted to save Jerdon's Courser
The 270-mile Teluga Ganga Canal, from Srisailam in central Andhra Pradesh to Chennai (Madras), is to be diverted around the only remaining habitat of the Critically Endangered Jerdon's Courser Rhinoptilus bitorquatus.
Because of its specialised habitat requirements, Jerdon's Courser is endemic to the Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh and extreme southern Madhya Pradesh, India. Believed to number no more than 50 individuals, the bird was thought to be extinct until its rediscovery in Andhra Pradesh 22 years ago. The rediscovery led the Andhra Pradesh government to establish the Sri Lankamalleswara Wildlife Sanctuary, to protect the courser's habitat of scrub forest interspersed with bare ground in the gently rolling, rocky foothills of the Eastern Ghats.
When the proposed route of the canal threatened the sanctuary, conservationists including Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS, BirdLife in India) and RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) urged the Supreme Court of India to intervene. The Supreme Court halted the construction work, and now, three years later, a new route has been approved which avoids most of the protected sites.
The Andhra Pradesh Irrigation Department has agreed, in principle, to buy 3,000 acres of scrub forest between the new canal route and the sanctuary. The state's Forest Department will manage that land to protect and enlarge the bird's habitat.
"This bird is more threatened than the tiger, and very few people have ever seen it" —Dr Panchapakesan Jeganathan, BNHS
Dr Panchapakesan Jeganathan, a scientist at BNHS, said: "This bird is more threatened than the tiger, and very few people have ever seen it. People thought Jerdon's Courser was a block to progress, but are now benefitting from the canal's realignment because they will receive generous compensation, and the only land they are losing is difficult to farm."
Fuelwood collection and overgrazing, and more recently disturbance from the construction of the canal, may have contributed to the bird's decline, But some livestock grazing and forest management will continue in the sanctuary to maintain the open scrub.
"There is every chance that Jerdon's Courser will survive this development and, with the right management, eventually increase its numbers", Dr Jeganathan continued. "The decision is an example of how governments, communities and conservationists can work together for mutual gain, without putting in jeopardy the future of a threatened species."
Scientists believe other nearby scrub forests could be harbouring Jerdon's coursers, and have been given permission to attach radio transmitters to two birds. They will also use cameras and footprint tracking strips to find out more about the species.
Ian Barber, the RSPB's Asia Officer, said: "It is crucial we find other sites hosting Jerdon's coursers and encourage both politicians and the people living nearby to support that work."
He added: "We are hoping the courser will become the State Bird of Andhra Pradesh to create a sense of pride and stewardship among all of those on whom its future depends."
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