Elusive white-bellied heron spotted in the high Himalayas

White-bellied heron spotted in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo by Dekbin Yonggam.

White-bellied heron spotted in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo by Dekbin Yonggam.

  • The shy white-bellied heron was spotted in the high Himalayas for the first time in India, officials in Arunachal Pradesh have said.
  • The heron is found almost exclusively in Bhutan and northeast India and has become extinct in Nepal.
  • Hydropower dams and other human interference pose a threat to its already depleted global population.

The rare and threatened white-bellied heron (Ardea insignis) has been spotted for the first time in a high-altitude area in India, sparking hope for potential conservation habitats.

Marked as Critically Endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species because of its extremely small and rapidly declining population, the heron is listed as a Schedule 1 species in India’s Wild Life Protection Act, 1972, according it the highest legal protection.

Graceful with its long neck, the large size dark grey heron has a contrasting white throat, belly and vent, lending it its name. It is mostly recorded from rivers. The IUCN notes that the species has residential populations in Bhutan and India (including in the Manas National Park in Assam), and a breeding population in Myanmar. The bird is possibly extinct in Bangladesh and has been confirmed to be extinct in Nepal. The bird’s global population is thought to be around 250 out of which 50 are in India’s northeast region. 

In Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India, the bird has been sighted before, at the Namdapha Tiger Reserve, and the first nesting site was recorded in 2014. Camera trap images have recorded the species in the adjacent Kamlang Tiger Reserve. Now, two individuals of the birds have been sighted at an elevation of 1,200 metres above sea level in Arunachal Pradesh – reportedly the first time the species has been recorded at such a height in India, according to forest department officials. The birds were sighted in areas close to human habitation.

Officials from the state’s environment and forest department consisting of Santosh Kumar Reddy, the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of Anjaw Forest Division, scientist Dekbin Yonggam, and Range Forest Officer (RFO) Nosing Pul spotted and photographed the white-bellied heron at Walong in Anjaw district of the state earlier this April.

An official statement, reviewed by Mongabay-India said that the presence of nesting sites within the area is a “positive sign for the future habitats”. The bird’s breeding season starts in February and lasts till June. The state’s principal chief conservator of forests, R.K. Singh, said, “It is great news that this critically endangered bird is establishing new habitats beyond its traditional range.” Singh said that the sighting is a positive indicator of the state’s forest ecosystem.

The chief wildlife warden of the state, G. Kumar, said in the release, “It is a good sign for the rare bird to appear in the pristine forest area.” A team of scientists from the state forest department, Wildlife Institute of India, and Zoological Survey of India will jointly begin field research for future conservation prospects for the globally threatened bird, the official release said.

For Reddy, who was part of the three-person team that spotted the birds, it was the first time he had seen the birds. “We had gone for a routine inspection when villagers informed us that the birds were seen near the Lohit river,” Reddy told Mongabay-India. The sighting took place on April 17. He informed, that they had also seen a nesting site at Walong. Reddy said that the sighting can boost ecotourism for the state. He and others also raised doubts over the actual numbers of the birds’ global population, saying that it is most likely not as high as 250.

In India, the white-bellied heron breeds in Namdapha Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh and it occurs seasonally in several other protected areas, including Kaziranga, Dibru-Saikhowa and Manas National Parks, and Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary, the IUCN assessment notes.

Read more: Mandarin duck sighting raises awareness on lesser-known wetlands

New heron sighting significant

Samiran Patgiri, a researcher who has been studying and documenting information about the species for a number of years, said it is a “great discovery.” He said that the population has greatly reduced over the years. “Bhutan has the highest population at around 22 individuals according to the latest data,” he said, observing that the number is a decrease from around 30 individuals recorded in 2019.

The main threats are presumed to be widespread loss, degradation and disturbance of forest and wetlands, according to the IUCN. Patgiri said that the threats to the population are different in different places. “In Bhutan the population is threatened by the hydropower projects while in northeast India the birds face the threat of human interference,” said Patgiri, a doctoral candidate at Mizoram University.

Another reason why the sighting, he said, was significant is that this was the first time a nesting site was recorded since the 2014 recording in the Namdapha Tiger Reserve.

Patgiri is also a member of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission Heron Specialist Group and has documented the bird’s presence in Manas National Park. He said that the birds have been sighted in and around reserved forest areas and a significant portion of the threat to their population is possible human interference.

The white-bellied heron is a critically endangered species. Photo by Dekbin Yonggam.
The white-bellied heron is a critically endangered species. Photo by Dekbin Yonggam.

However, the recent sighting is significant considering that the location is quite close to human habitations, he noted. Contrary to the figures online, Patgiri said that the global population is most likely less than 60 individuals. He said that the ‘shy’ nature of the birds could be the reason for their low numbers. So elusive is the bird that there is no local name for the bird in any of the languages of the communities that live nearby both in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.

A 2020 paper that documented findings of a systematic, large-scale river survey in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam revealed that white-bellied heron was encountered six times in only three of 81 sites surveyed. From field observations during the river surveys as well as the interview results, the authors found that certain fishing methods, garbage, and sand/gravel mining could be potential reasons for restricted occurrence of the heron in the region. Hunting is also a threat that prevails across the region, the study adds.


Banner image: White-bellied heron spotted in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo by Dekbin Yonggam.

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