The incredible and mysterious journey of Amur Falcon – Part 1

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RK Birjit Singh

Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis) is a small bird of prey, a long distance, trans–equatorial migrant and one of the least known bird species among falconiformes till recently but well known to the people of Manipur, particularly to the Rongmei tribes in Tamenglong district since time immemorial. The bird species is locally known as Akhuaipuina in Rongmei language.

In the past, the majestic and graceful arrival of the species had been warmly welcomed and rejoices by the Rongmei tribes with traditional song and dance. The myth and belief of the ancient Rongmei tribes of Tamenglong district is that the arrival of the bird species provides a rich harvest of rice, vegetables and fruits. In fact, their myth and belief is scientifically true as the species consume a lot of insects and termites during its migratory stopover roosting sites otherwise the insects will damage the crops, fruits and vegetables. They strongly believed that the god had sent the bird to protect their crops during the critical hour to combat famine in the area.

They never usually harvest any of the crops or vegetables until the species left for its next refueling migratory stopover. It heralds winter as hundreds of thousands of Amur falcon flaps their wings over the sky of Phallong, Dailong, Barak, Lenglong and other villages of Tamenglong district indicating that the harvest is going to be plenty.
In this way, a strong bond of love and relationship was evolved with our brethren Rongmei tribes with the bird species and still prevalent in Dailong village, some 12 kilometers away from Tamenglong district headquarters in Manipur. The relationship slowly grown to a number of beautiful traditional songs, dances, rhymes and become a very much integral part of the rich cultural traditions of the colorful and vibrant people of Rongmei tribes particularly belonging to Gonmei, Pongringmei, and Pammei.
“Chakaan pat mun kazi ye, Khoipuina kaliap guang nga, Khokupuina san kangzang. mei guai guang zao lo Rongmei khou khoipuina, Sam kangzami. Hei Raguang ta thuanna bam bu ye”. This is a folk song still sung by the Rongmei tribes particularly in Dailong village since time immemorial glorifying the arrival of Amur falcon. The meaning of the song is – “As the Amur falcon flaps its wing in the sky, it heralds winter and the harvest is going to be plenty, Oh! Come everyone and see the Amur falcon hovering and dancing in the sky. Hey! People are praising God…..”

They live in close communication with nature, and their natural environment has a major influence on their lifestyle. The intimate interaction with the surrounding natural environment slowly evolved the living rich cultural traditions of the indigenous Rongmei tribe which has been drastically changed after the conversion of the villagers into Christianity during the last century. The goodies of the past are no more amongst the younger generations of the present day, particularly their looks towards our natural environment.

In the North-east and Manipur, particularly, in the hill districts where people are pride themselves as traditional hunters, it would be pity soon enough if they are left with no birds and animals to hunt at all.

It needs to be admitted that the message of conservation are yet to reach the interior hills of Manipur. Every young boy was seen carrying a catapult and adults carrying guns and they would not let even a small bird to fly freely in the sky. There has been paradigm shift in the rich indigenous cultural traditions of these people which severely affected the environment. One can see hunting and harvesting of Amur falcon in most of the village even though it is not in the large scale as in Nagaland.

There are 69 species of raptor reported from India. The Amur falcon is an international bird, touching the shores of three continents – Asia, Africa and Europe during its migration. It is noteworthy for undertaking one of the most arduous annual migrations of any bird of prey. The congregation of thousands to tens of thousands of falcons at their communal roosting sites in southern Africa is said to be one of the most spectacular bird of prey phenomena in the world.

The name of the species had been derived from Amurland, an unofficial term for a territory in Northeast Asia, which was formerly controlled by the Qing Dynasty and now belonging to Russia. It is considered as a part of Manchuria in some of its definitions. Russia officially received this territory by way of the Treaty of Aigun in 1858 and the Treaty of Peking in 1860.

The real shocking and heart-breaking threat to this majestic species came from Nagaland when news was trickled by Ramki Srinivasan of Conservation India (CI) about the massacre and industrial scale slaughter of the species at Doyang area of Wokha district, during October, 2012 which led to an international outcry and drawn the attention of the world for the conservation of the species.

Description of the species: The male is a largely dark grey bird, with a chestnut lower belly and thighs, and a white under wing, visible in flight. The female is similar in size to the male but differs markedly in plumage, having cream or orange under parts, with dark streaks and bars, grey upperparts.

What is a Bird of Prey?
“Bird of prey” refers to eagles, hawks, falcons, ospreys and owls; all of which are adapted for a lifestyle of aerial hunting. These birds are also called raptors, from the Latin raptor (a robber) and rapere (to seize) referring to their ability to seize and carry off prey. Raptors share several characteristics including:
• Powerful talons for gripping and killing prey
• Sharp, curved beaks for tearing food
• Keen eyesight to spot prey from great distances

The Amur falcon typically inhabits open woodland, including marshy and riverine woodland, as well as wooded steppe. In winter, it may be found in savanna and grassland, roosting communally in clumps of trees, and often roosts in towns.
Breeding: Nesting may be solitary, or in small colonies. The nest may be built in a tree hole, or the breeding pair may take over an old nest of a corvid. Amur falcon laid 3-4 eggs and sometimes 6 usually between May and June, and hatch after an incubation period of around 28 to 30 days. Both the male and female help incubate and feed the chicks, which fledge after about a month. The Amur falcon may reach sexual maturity in its first year. They breed in East Asia from the Transbaikalia, Amurland, and northern Mongolian region to parts of North Korea.

Food: The Amur falcon feeds mainly on insects, including locusts, grasshoppers, beetles, and flying termites. Small birds and some amphibians may also be taken. Hunting may take place throughout the day, with prey usually caught and eaten in flight, or taken from the ground. The Amur falcon typically hovers while searching for prey.
Distribution: The Amur falcon has a wide distribution, breeding across Asia, from eastern Siberia, east through Amurland to Ussuriland, and south through northeast Mongolia and Manchuria, to North Korea and northern and eastern China. The species may have also breed in northeast India?. But this is yet to be established. The Amur falcon spends the northern winter in the southern Hemisphere, in sub-Saharan Africa, mainly from Malawi to South Africa.

Range: During migration, the Amur falcon passes through parts of India, East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Amur falcon’s annual round-trip of 22,000 kilometers is also likely to be the most oceanic migration of any bird of prey, with over 3,000 kilometers of the outbound journey to Africa believed to take place over the Indian Ocean. This belief has been established scientifically through radio tagging.

The Amur falcon had a wide distribution and a large global population, which is believed to be stable until 2012.

Range in Manipur: The range of the species covers, Churachandpur, Bishnupur, Senapati, Ukhrul and Tamenglong district of Manipur. The main roosting site of the species during its migration has been mainly confined to Tamenglong district particularly in Barak, Dailong and Phallong (Bhallok) villages etc.

Migration Route: The migratory route of Amur falcon has been established through radio tagging at Nagaland during 6th November, 2013 by the scientists of Birdlife International (Birdlife International is the country of partner BNHS and IBCN) Hungary with Wildlife Institute of India (WII). Three birds were radio tagged with 5 grams of ARGOS satellite tags with antenna and solar panel on their back under the Conventions on Migratory Species (CMS). The male bird (with colour ring numbr AKM C56801) flew over Senapati, Churachandpur and Bishnupur district, Manipur to Aizawl (Mizoram) entered Bangladesh, Bay of Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Goa. After which it flew non-stop across the Arabian Sea to reach the coast of Somalia on 20th Nov, 2013.
It stayed at the Tsavo National Park in Kenya for a few days, before crossing to Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Botswana, finally entering South Africa on January 9, 2014. During its return journey, it travelled through Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, and Kenya and left the African mainland through Somalia to touch India at Gujarat. It travelled through Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Bangladesh, Meghalaya, and Manipur.

It then flew through Myanmar down to avoid the extreme south-eastern Himalaya, climbed north-east towards Beijing, China and then to Mongolia where it is probably breeding. The female also covered a whooping distance of 14,560 km at 50km/h. These Amur falcons took a non-stop flight of 5,912 km over the Arabian Sea covered in just over five days.

This is so strange and wonderful. Whether it is due to a magnetic sense, innate or acquired knowledge of a route, orientation by sun or the stars, or memories of sounds or smells, Amur falcon do not put a foot wrong when it comes to finding their ways if not disturbed by climatic conditions, habitat change or human disturbance. The question is do they have natural GPS fitted in their head?…. Still bird migration remains as mystery.

Threats: Indiscriminate slash and burn for Jhum cultivation, timber logging which results in habitat destruction coupled with rampant hunting and illegal wildlife trade has threatened the species with extinction in its migratory routes in north-east India. Grassland areas that Amur falcon inhabits in its wintering quarters in southern Africa are under intense pressure from agriculture and commercial afforestation which could bring the species under increasing pressure across its non-breeding range. (To be contd)

Indian Bird Conservation Network (IBCN) in association with the local NGO’s and Dailong village in Tamenglong district spearheaded the campaign in Manipur as an epicenter for the conservation of Amur falcon evoking legendary folklore of the species and relationship with the people of Rongmei tribes. The legendary folklore of the Rongmei tribes regarding Amur falcon had played a crucial role in the protection and conservation of the species before it is too late.

Although, hunting of Amur falcon for meat and recreation were rampant in the past in Tamenglong district of Manipur but it has been controlled in a significant level under the initiatives of the villagers of Dailong, DEEPS and Rainforest Club, Tamenglong supported by Indian Bird Conservation Network (IBCN) and Forest Dept.

As part of the conservation activities of the species, the 1st Amur falcon Dance Festival has been observed in October, 2015 as an annual calendar program in a grand manner under the able leadership of Dr. Chambou Gonmei, Chief Medical Officer, Tamenglong district supported by the Forest Dept. Govt. of Manipur and Indian Bird Conservation Network (IBCN). The festival was participated by thousands of people from different walk of life. A series of awareness campaign were conducted by District Forest Office, Tamenglong led by Kh. Hitler Singh, Range Officer.

Amur falcon is protected under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and the Conventions of Migratory Species (CMS) of which India is a signatory. It is listed as Least Concern (LC) by the IUCN. But immense number does not immunize a species from extinction.

Why Are Birds of Prey Important to Ecology? ; Why are Birds of Prey so important?
The presence of raptors in the wild serves as a barometer of ecological health. Birds of prey are predators at the top of the food chain; because pesticides, drought and habitat loss have the most dramatic impact on top predators. The raptors also play an important ecological role by controlling populations of rodents and other small mammals.

Raptors have been called “ecological barometers,” which simply means they help us gauge how healthy a habitat is. Birds of prey are extremely sensitive to many environmental changes in an ecosystem. They can even sense chemical and pollutant levels that can give people an early warning of any impending airborne threats. Pesticides and other chemicals can build up in our environment and are passed on to animals. This can lower raptor populations due to birds ingesting prey riddled with toxins, which in turn signals scientists that a possible problem exists.

The other states of the country have fancy indoor laboratories where biologist can manipulate DNA or colonies of organisms. But few have such a rich forest, rivers and rivulets, landscapes and magnificent diversity of life in their doorsteps. The Tamenglong district is full of natural resources having blessed with richest biodiversity, an extraordinary living laboratory of the state, some of the last healthiest tropical forest left in the country. But its rich biodiversity and wildlife is yet to be explored biologically whereas extinction and extermination of precious wildlife species is gaining momentum as never before due to habitat loss, indiscriminate and rampant hunting.
Truly, Dailong village and many other parts of the district can be converted into a living laboratory to get a student out of their conventional research room and laboratories into the forest, river, streams and caves, where they can begin the transformation to becoming a scientist. The future of the state like Manipur depends upon wise decision of resource management. Poor decision could leave little beyond a ruined biodiversity and environment with a poor lifestyle of the future generations.

Therefore, measures are suggested to promote scientifically planned and carefully monitored ecotourism in Dailong, Phallong and other villages as it can be a highly desired destination of the budding researchers, scientists and field biologists and steps should be taken up to train local volunteers to guide the tourist in collaboration with organisations who have expertise in this field.

“God loved birds and created trees, human loved birds and created cages”
“Each and every animal on earth has as much right to be here as you and me”.

(The writer is State Coordinator, Indian Bird Conservation Network (IBCN), Manipur and Member, Manipur Biodiversity Board)

Source: The Sangai Express

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