Thought extinct for a century,then spotted in Maharashtra in 1997,the forest owlet appears to be on the verge of extinction from the forest where it was rediscovered,say Pune-based bird-lovers who have counted the last remaining samples there one pair.
Since the rediscovery,it had been spotted in Madhya Pradesh,Chhattisgarh and Orissa too. The researchers,however,stress that it is only for Maharashtras Toranmal forest that they have past figures to compare the current findings with.
Locally called the duda,the owl is no larger than a human palm. What distinguishes it from other owls is that it is active by day.
British administrator F R Blewit collected the first specimen in 1872. A O Hume,an ornithologist and taxonomist apart from being the founder of the Indian National Congress,first described it to the world. American bird lovers Ben King and Pamela Rassmussen sighted a specimen in Tornamal forest in 1997,the first since 1884.
In 2001,a study by scientists from Bombay Natural History Society counted seven pairs,Toranmals highest ever. That came down to a single pair in 2010-11,according to the study that Punes Girish Jathar and Dharmaraj Patil conducted as part of the Ravisankaran Fellowship Programme under the Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation. Their report is now up on the websites of BNHS,Maharashtras environment department,and Global Owl Project,US. The study has also been used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources for the review of its red data list for wildlife.
We found that the bird is under tremendous pressures such as encroachment,forest fires and use of chemicals and pesticides in farms, says Patil. And Jathar says,The Toranmal figures show us the bird is on the verge of local extinction. We have recommended some urgent steps to conserve the habitat of the bird. The first is to curb encroachment.
Patils stresses the importance of the owlet: The owlet appears at the top of the food chain in the forest,which in this case is teak-dominant. A healthy forest owlet population is a direct indicator of a healthy teak forest,which provides ecosystem services – fertile soil,perennial supply of water,medicinal plants,wild edibles. These services will be automatically ensured at places where the forest owlet has been protected.
This is a very alarming situation, says Asad Rahmani,director of BNHS. Such a fall in numbers in a reserved forest is a clear sign that development activities and other practices are taking a toll on the population of this rare bird. Conservation efforts focused on the forest owlet are urgently needed for overall protection of the ecosystems
Forest department officials admit there hasnt been enough monitoring,but feel encroachment is not a major issue. B P Wankhede,deputy conservator of forests for Shahada Range,says,I have to admit that we have not done enough monitoring on this. But encroachment or development activities have not harmed wildlife as these researchers have claimed.