17 Dec 2019

Meet the river guardians watching over Indian Skimmers’ besieged nests

In India, an innovative community conservation experiment is helping to safeguard the globally threatened Indian Skimmer’s nesting colonies from free-ranging dogs and trampling cattle.

Indian Skimmers © Dhairya Jhaveri
Indian Skimmers © Dhairya Jhaveri
By Parveen Shaikh, Bombay Natural History Society

With some bird species, it’s not immediately obvious how they got their name. Then there’s the Indian Skimmer Rynchops albicollis (Vulnerable), which clearly draws its name from its feeding habits: when it gets hungry, the bird flies low over water, bill wide open. Its specialised lower mandible, much longer than its upper counterpart, skims the surface of the water. This way, this tern-like bird is able to forage for fish, crustaceans and insect larvae.

The ‘Indian’ half of its name is less straightforward. Presently, the species is distributed across northern South Asia, principally in India and Bangladesh, with additional populations in Myanmar, Pakistan and even as far south as Thailand. At the moment, we only have breeding records from India – but this data is still extremely useful, as it is the degradation of their nesting habitats that is driving their ongoing rapid population decline.

The National Chambal Sanctuary in India is one of few places where a significant Indian Skimmer population breeds. Elsewhere, it is limited to a handful of nesting colonies on the rivers Mahanadi, Ganga and Son. This species breeds on sand bars and islands that are exposed during low water levels in summer – a habitat that is not without risk.

An Indian Skimmer in action © Koshy Koshy / Flickr

A study conducted by the Bombay National History Society (BNHS, BirdLife in India) found that predation of eggs and chicks by free-ranging dogs was of major concern within the sanctuary, along with nests being trampled by cattle. Decreasing water levels in the River Chambal means that most of the nesting islands are now connected to the riverbanks, allowing predators to easily access the nests during the breeding season.

To address this breeding crisis, BNHS, in collaboration with BirdLife and the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department, tested out a community-based conservation project engaging local people to act as guardians for key nesting colonies. Safeguarding these key habitats would also benefit other bird species that nest along the riverbed, including the Black-bellied Tern Sterna acuticauda (Endangered) and many Near-threatened species such as River Lapwing Vanellus duvauceli and Great Thick-knee Esacus recurvirostris.

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River Guardians also watch over the Gharial, a Critically Endangered crocodile © Clpramod

Guardians were trained in identifying and monitoring nests, and assumed responsibility for protecting the colony from free-ranging dogs, cattle and other predators. At the same time, they also monitored the nests of the Gharial Gavialis gangeticus (a Critically Endangered species of crocodile) and guarded a turtle hatchery near the Indian Skimmer’s nesting islands, ensuring the best possible use was being made of the Forest Department’s limited time and resources. So far, the initiative has resulted in a significant increase in nesting success of the target species on at least one of the nesting islands.

We believe that if the project continues with a strong focus on community engagement, this success will continue to grow, creating a significant increase in threatened populations. We are in the process of raising funds to trial this initiative at other nesting colonies at Chambal. We hope this will become a model conservation programme for river birds – one that can be replicated in similar habitats across India, and perhaps the whole of Asia.

This long-term project has been made possible by generous support through The BirdLife Fund for the Conservation of Threatened Indian Birds, financed by BirdLife Species Champion Per Undeland.

One of the local River Guardians diligently watching over nesting Skimmers at Chambal @ Anuj Jain