To save hornbills, Environment says no to Defence project

In order to protect the endangered Narcondam Hornbill, which is estimated to number less than 350, and its only habitat, the Environment Ministry has refused to clear a critical Ministry of Defence (MoD) project to install a surveillance radar along the coastline in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The Narcondam Hornbill, an endemic species listed in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, frequents the proposed site at Narcondam Island, which is only about 7 square kilometres in area. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) also lists the Narcondam Hornbill as an endangered species.

The standing committee of the National Board of Wildlife, after a site inspection led by its member and conservationist Asad Rahmani, reported that the proposed project could wipe out the species completely.

Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan has, therefore, recommended that the MoD should explore other alternative sites away from Narcondam Island.

"Even if the area to be used for the project is 0.7 hectares, disturbances and damage caused to the habitat due to laying of road and... normal functioning of the radar system is likely to cause irreversible adverse impact on this unique bird and can even wipe out the entire population," the MoEF has said to the Coast Guard, which had proposed the project.

The MoEF has also asked it to constitute a panel including experts on security, sea-water surveillance, island and marine ecology and marine structural engineering to explore other arrangements, like aerial, ship-based satellite, offshore or land-based surveillance in other islands.

Sources said it was a difficult decision for the MoEF considering the arguments in favour of securing the country's coastline.

But in the past two months, it received numerous representations from conservationists stating that most of the nests of these birds are about 200 metres high, and located around the same area in the island where the radar installation was proposed.

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