Thursday, November 8, 2012

Massacre of the redfoots

I recently received news (HT Rob Palmer) of a wholesale killing of Amur falcons, also known as eastern red-footed falcons (Falco amurensis), in Nagaland, northeastern India. I use "wholesale" in the literal sense, as these raptors are being killed for sale as food, at the rate of twelve to fourteen thousand per day. (Estimates by Conservation India; article here.)

I'm not unmindful of the First World/Third World issues here, but it bears pointing out that this slaughter is not just contrary to Western sensibilities but also against Indian as well as international law. Unfortunately, it seems there will always be those who think poverty is an excuse for bad behaviour, just as there will always be those who think wealth provides an exemption from common standards of decency.

It really is a pity to see this befall such a charming and indeed beneficial bird. The red-footed falcons (both eastern and western) are small, agile raptors, almost entirely insectivorous, and catch their prey on the wing. We don't have anything like them in North America; the closest ecological equivalent is probably the Mississippi kite. (Phylogenetically, they've been variously linked to merlins, kestrels, and hobbies.) Like Mississippi kites, they are at least partially social, an arrangement facilitated by their dietary habits, and in migration form large, loose flocks. The Amur/eastern red-footed falcon breeds in the Sino-Siberian region (see map below) and winters in southern Africa; as such, it is one of relatively few birds of prey to make a transoceanic migration. As you can deduce from the map, their migration route takes them directly through India, and they use this as a staging area, feeding as much as possible in order to fuel their crossing. And it is here, massing in great numbers on the staging grounds, that they have become so vulnerable to market "hunting".

[Breeding range in yellow; wintering range in blue. Map by Ulrich Prokop, after distribution maps in: Ferguson-Lees & David A. Christie: Raptors of the World. Houghton Mifflin Company Bostand and New York 2001. pp 867 and 276.]

I have placed "hunting" in quotes deliberately: This is mass slaughter for purely economic reasons (short-sighted ones at that), of the same sort that rendered the passenger pigeon and Carolina conure extinct. The little falcons are netted in huge numbers as they go to roost; it seems quite likely that others are shot opportunistically. As noted in the Conservation India report, this is far beyond a subsistence activity: "It is still a mystery where huge numbers of dead amurs go everyday, as the local villages cannot absorb such numbers for their consumption. One of the hunters told us that two pick-up trucks from Dimapur were to pick-up the birds from Pankgi village (we couldn’t confirm this and passed on the information to the District Commissioner and Superintendent of Police). It is critical to understand where the bulk of the birds go."

Update, from a 2009 post by traveler Joyce Tan (HT Bird Ecology Study Group):

There is no shortage of food in Nagaland – they are farmers by tradition, growing padi, potatoes, yam, fruit and vegetables on the hilly slopes, and rearing domesticated animals for meat. It seems that the tribal tradition of capturing wildlife for food remains an active past-time among some segments of the population up till today. I fear for the survival of the Amur Falcon and other wildlife, if they are still being hunted down indiscriminately for sport and recreation. I have spoken to Naga people who are my friends about conservation and wildlife protection. I pleaded with the youngster who had captured the two birds in these photos, to let them go. He politely gave me his word that he would do so. However, I fear that not enough is being done to change the traditional forms of “enjoying” wildlife in these parts. There is one unmistakable observation in Nagaland – in the rural parts that I visited: the absence of any bird life. The flowering plants and trees are there, the forest edge is usually not far away, yet early mornings and evenings are not filled with birdsong and colors. When I do see them, I fear for their safety and freedom.

I will attempt to update this post further as the story develops.

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