There have been several reports which talk about hornbills and how they are threatened in different parts of India. (Read: Growing threat to Great Indian Hornbills) Most often however, news that we come across is about the Malabar Pied Hornbill and the Great Pied Hornbill, the larger of the birds in south India, and seldom about the smaller and less conspicuous Indian Grey Hornbill and Malabar Grey Hornbill.

Though listed in the ‘Least Concern’ category by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Indian Grey Hornbill, which once inhabited most of the Indian peninsula, has now been wiped out from large parts of its original habitat. For instance, in central India, it is no longer to be seen.

The Malabar Grey Hornbill (MGH) is found in the moist-deciduous evergreen forests of the Western Ghats of India.  Unlike the Indian Grey Hornbill, its bill lacks the casque and it is less striking except for its large size and the laboured flight that makes it stand out from other birds.

Malabar Grey Hornbill. Pic: Madhu Ramnath

In the Palni hills, the hornbill’s range of habitat more or less coincides with the coffee estates at middle elevation, where one can see well-wooded country land interspersed with cultivated patches and coffee estates. The hornbills may be sighted from the Kumbakarai Falls in the lower elevations, to Adukkam and Thadiyankudusai in the middle hills and almost up to Siruvattukadu Kombai. Much of the tract falls under the recently declared Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary, which was already notified in 2013.

Who moved their cheese?

To understand how the hornbill species has fared in the coffee-growing landscape of the Palni Hills, one needs to look at the native flora and the realities of agricultural practice in these regions. Unlike tea, coffee country nurtures a diversity of tree species. Coffee is essentially a shade plant and does not do well if the canopy is opened up beyond a point.

Though most coffee farmers know this, it is ironic that in recent years they have cleared most native trees from their estates and planted exotic varieties such as Silver Oak, with the aim of harvesting the fast growing timber at some future date.

The transport of many valuable native timbers, even from private lands and estates, require permits from the Forest Department. Obtaining these permits can be a long-drawn process, involving both paperwork and money. One reason for farmers choosing to plant these exotic trees is that these can be harvested with less hassle, and most of the timber from these requires no transit permits.

Such practices, however, have had a direct impact on the food sources of several species of birds and animals. The forest landscape of the Palni hills in Tamil Nadu harbours about 25-30 species of Ficus (figs) that is the most important food source for the hornbills. In addition, the Malabar Grey Hornbill also feeds on other fruit like naval (Syzigium cuminii), thalanar (Grewia tiliaefolia), Strebulus asper, species of Burseraceae. It was also observed that they fed extensively and with relish on the fruit of Diploclisia glaucescens, which is a climber and whose fruit hang in lax bunches like grapes.

Though local sentiment prevents people from felling and clearing the banyan and the peepal, the most revered of the fig trees, most of the other species suffer the axe. It has come to a stage when the average farmer of the new generation hardly recognises more than a dozen species of forest trees. Outside the usual range of the Ligustrum, Grewia, Grewellia, Silk Cotton, Rosewood, Jacaranda, Pterocarpus, Caryota and some Terminalia  and Albizzias, people have neither any interest in nor the knowledge of forest flora. A majority of trees are just called ‘kattumaram’ translating into forest trees!

Fluctuating coffee prices have further worried small farmers with several of them resorting to the cultivation of short-term crops, such as banana, chow-chow, beans and chillies, all of which require sunlight. Most of the trees on such private lands have been cleared and the seeds of new cash crops sown, which are then coaxed to grow with an assortment of chemicals.

As one farmer R Krishnan points out, "We need quick yielding crops like banana, since we can't afford to wait for 5-10 years for long-term crops like coffee and avocado. So we have to clear the land of trees, as these crops like the sun."

Forest cleared and burnt to plant banana in the Adukkam hill slopes. Pic: Madhu Ramnath

Needless to say, there is little to forage for the hornbills or for the vast array of birds that come to feed on the same trees: the Common Hill Myna, the Coppersmith Barbet, the Crimson-throated barbet, the Indian Hanging Parrot, various species of parakeets, and the like. Apart from birds there are also many animals, especially macaques and flying squirrels that also feed on the fruit trees.

Revival attempts

Over the last two to three years, the Palni Hills Conservation Council (PHCC), an NGO based in Kodaikanal, has been working in some of the locations at middle elevations, to identify the nesting places of the Malabar Grey Hornbill and make farmers aware of the conditions that are required for the hornbills to thrive.

Sheriff, who works with the PHCC, says "Even most of the local people had not noticed the hornbill before we began our work and held meetings in the village schools in the hills". Children were now alerted to the fact that the bird was endangered, thanks to programmes conducted in the village school. Fruit trees favoured by hornbills and associated species have been grown in nurseries and planted in farms, after discussion with farmers.

Some farmers even mentioned that it actually helped them to keep the fig trees standing on their farms, as these attracted birds and their droppings under the trees was a valuable fertilizer that they collected!

Ficus Glomerata (Athi Tree) with its fruit. Pic: Madhu Ramnath

In view of this experience, it would be a good decision for the Forest Department to have standardised procedures for transit permits for all species of timber, be they exotics such as Eucalyptus, Casuarina, Pine and Silver Oak, or timber from native species. 

If the regulation for felling and transporting timber from private forests and farmlands are the same irrespective of the species, farmers would have little incentive to grow exotics; they would merely be interested in growing native tropical timber of superior quality, for their own use as well as for the market.

For one, this would contribute to indigenous biodiversity and feed into the food-webs of the local fauna. Secondly, and equally important, it would contribute to the national timber-pool. India faces a huge deficit in timber and needs to import a large proportion of its requirement. In a tropical country such as ours that has sufficient knowledge and opportunity to raise its own timber, this is ironical.

The Department could also enforce in true spirit the Tamil Nadu Preservation of Private Forests Act, which is “an Act to prevent the indiscriminate destruction of private forests”. The forest and tree cover of Tamil Nadu constitute only about 22.07 percent of the geographical area of the state, which is far less than the recommended ideal of 33.33 percent quoted in the National Forest Policy (1988).

Simultaneously, just as the house sparrow has become an ‘iconic’ bird in the discourse on urban ecology, provoking city-dwellers to spare more thought for congenial environments for them, the hornbill could be posited as the bird of the hills. Its mixed forest habitat, its peculiar methods of nesting and feeding its young, could well evoke a response that in effect triggers a larger conservation of its landscape of fruit trees and figs.