One evening in 1992, while patrolling in the Chariduar forest near Nameri, an eerie sound scared the daylights out of Ghanasham Rajbongshi. His companion, another forest guard named Tamang, told Rajbongshi that there was nothing to fear — what they had heard was the call of the White Winged Wood Duck or Deo Hanh (Spirit Duck) of Assam. While the ghostly call has been spooking villagers who come to collect firewood in the forests for years, it has also been attracting birders from world over to visit the Nameri National Park of Assam.
For the White Winged Wood Duck is no ordinary bird. Ornithologists liken sighting one to winning a lottery. There are accounts of the birds written in various books — in fact, forest guard Rajbongshi, who is now an author, had written about the bird in his first book Aranyar Bhitorsora (2017). And every year, the Nameri National Park in Sonitpur District, is thronged by birders who come just to see the ‘black bird with the white patch’.
In January 2018, a record sighting of seven birds together at Kuruwa Beel by Guwahati-based birder Pranab Kumar Sharma created a flutter among enthusiasts.
But that was just a lucky anomaly.
“It is not easy to sight a White Wing Wood Duck ,” says Minaram Gogoi, a forest department staffer at Nameri, who had accompanied Sharma, “If you make even the slightest sound, these shy birds will disappear. One needs lot of patience to see them.”
Sharma has been ‘chasing’ the White Wing Wood Duck for nine years now.
MORE HEARD THAN SEEN
It was in the mid-1990s that the bird’s presence in the Nameri area came to light. “In 1997, along with Bibhob Talukdar of Aaranyak, I had brought out a newsletter on birds found in Nameri and we counted 40 White Winged Wood Ducks,” says Chief Conservator of Forest (Jorhat Circle) Ranjan Kumar Das, who was DFO of Nameri from 1995 to 2000. “Those were wonderful times. Sometimes, even 10-12 birds could be seen together.”
In 2003, the White Winged Wood Duck attained the status of Assam’s State Bird. However, sightings have become rarer over the years. In the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, this duck has been categorised as endangered with its population showing a decreasing trend. There was a time when the duck was extensively found in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh while also being sighted in Meghalaya, Manipur and Nagaland. Presently, their population is limited only to certain pockets of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
In the 1990s, ornithologist Dr Anwaruddin Choudhury pegged their number at 490. Choudhury says, “Encroachment, deforestation and anthropogenic pressure have degraded their habitat. Reserve Forests like Kakojan, Kukurmara, Kundil Kalia, Sadiya Station and Kotha in Eastern Assam, which were once suitable habitat for the ducks, are now heavily degraded.”
Choudhury says that he spotted the bird for the first time in 1992 in Upper Assam’s Doomdooma Reserve Forest. “Till the late 80s, the bird was more heard than seen. So that added to its mystique,” he says, adding that the male bird makes a trumpet-like sound while females are characterised by a whistling swoosh while flying.
Since Choudhury’s assessment, there has been no serious study on the condition of these ducks which thrive in wetlands.
In 2018, the Assam Forest Department (AFD) and Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) with support from Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC) launched ‘Project Deo Hanh’ to develop a long-term conservation strategy to revive its population.
Biologist Aftab Ahmed, who is at the helm of the project, says that current figures on the bird population (25 in Dehing Patkai and 20-25 in Nameri; and about 150 in Assam) are all “based on assumptions”.
The team will carry out a survey, as part of ‘Project Deo Hanh’ between October to March. “During monsoons, the forests where these ducks are found become inaccessible. Also, along with patience, you need lot of luck to be able to spot these ducks. So, we don’t have any fixed deadline for the survey. It might go on next year, or even the year after that if we don’t get the desired results,” he says.
In 1969, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) took 12 birds (7 males and 5 females) from Assam to Wetland and Wildfowl Trust (WWT) Centre in Slimbridge, located in United Kingdom to create a captive population of the species. The first breeding in captivity in Slimbridge happened in 1971. Apart from the WWT facilities of Slimbridge and Peakirk in the UK, ducklings were also reared in Guwahati Zoo and Koomsong Tea Estate of Assam; at Bentley, Sussex and Jersey Zoo of UK; Cleres, France; Washington Zoo, USA and the Botanic Gardens in Hong Kong.
One of the objective of Project Deo Hanh is to initiate a conservation breeding programme to supplement the wild population if suitable habitat of these birds are found. Critics think that this might not be the best option since birds reared through captive breeding usually suffer from tuberculosis but Ahmed says that the ducks will be thoroughly screened for such diseases before being released into the wild.
“Like the State Animal of Assam (One-horned rhinoceros), the White Winged Wood Duck, should be considered as the pride of the state,” says Ahmed. However, hardly anyone is aware of this qualification let alone the existence of the bird.
“We had carried out a survey in the Dehing Patkai area. Out of 100 respondents, 70 were unaware of the fact that White Winged Wood Duck is the State Bird of Assam,” says Aaranyak’s Abijit Boruah.
Boruah, who is the Project Officer of the project ‘Reviving White Winged Wood Duck from Extinction in Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary’ along with his team, is carrying out awareness campaigns in the area. Ahmed feel that the pride factor leads to automatic protection by the society and communities. “So, if people of Assam start feeling for the Deo Hanh like they feel for the rhino, the fates of these beautiful ducks will change,” he says.
The writer is a freelance journalist in Assam and tweets at nabarun_guha45