By Kartik Chandramouli

A bright-yellow bird zipped over our heads while we stood at the fringe of a field nestled in a forest. “Aa aamtiki che. (This is an oriole),” said Pratik, pointing to the black-hooded oriole that disappeared into the thick canopy of the Purna Wildlife Sanctuary in south Gujarat’s Dang district. After a few moments of birding action and then the lack of it, when the group was contemplating to move to the next spot, a shaheen falcon swooped into the scene and perched atop a barren tree. The 16-year-old struggled to recollect the Dangi name of the world’s fastest flying bird (only when diving), but eventually remarked, “Sasin!”

Pratik and his two friends, who came birdwatching for the first time, added that they don’t see the bird often in their area. The trio, who were from a school near Purna Wildlife Sanctuary (PWS), were part of a mixed flock of 12 birdwatchers, including first-timers, beginners, experts, forest guards and volunteers, on a nature trail during the Dang Bird Festival 2020 organised and funded by the forest department.

Eight such teams set out before the crack of dawn on eight earmarked trails in the 160.84 square kilometer sanctuary every day between 7 and 9 February. The participants, most of them from Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, had the objective of watching birds and listening to them, identifying the species and noting observations in this lesser-known forest habitat approximately 130 kilometers from Surat.

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Above photo: Pratik and his school friend from a school near Purna Wildlife Sanctuary in Dang participated in the Dang Bird Festival 2020. Image via Mongabay-India/ Kartik Chandrmouli

Pratik’s team, labelled as the Heart-Spotted Woodpecker, saw birds such as the crested serpent eagle, black-rumped flameback (woodpecker), white-cheeked barbet on the Breeding Center trail marked with teak, bamboo and mixed forests. A flock of four male black-hooded orioles on the tree canopy and a racket-tailed drongo livening the forest floor with its metallic calls were more among the group’s 70 observations. The facilitator of the event, Pranav Trivedi, wanted the habit of closely observing birds take root in participants, and not just the process of making species checklists.

“I call it an awareness and educational event first, and then a citizen science activity,” said Trivedi, an ecologist and nature educator. “Apart from the knowledge, you need to spread the enthusiasm first and attract the fence-sitters. But most importantly, it is for awareness among the local students.”

Two groups were led by the youth from the local tribal community who have been trained over the years in natural history and hospitality through the forest department. “Most of the local youth is familiar with the Dangi bird names and would have seen them at some point,” said Agneeshwar Vyas, Deputy Conservator of Forest, Dang (North) Division. “But hunting with catapults is an issue in this landscape. So, the experience and knowledge sharing between the kids from this area and outsiders can generate awareness and spark new interests.”

During the daily evening gathering sessions at the base, Mahal Eco-Campsite on the banks of river Purna inside PWS, participants ranging from teens to fifty-year-olds shared their day’s experiences while experts spoke about birdwatching, its ethics and the avian biodiversity of Dang. But the birdwatchers’ afterparty was games such as naming Dang specific raptors (birds of prey), frugivorous and insectivorous birds and imitating bird calls.

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In this photo: Agneeshwar Vyas, Deputy Conservator of Forest, Dang (North) Division, addressing participants during the Dang Bird Festival organised by the forest department. Image via Mongabay-India/ Kartik Chandramouli

The three-day exercise recorded 113 species of birds belonging to 45 families. A 2004 study in PWS which Trivedi was also a part of, conducted by the Gujarat Ecological Education and Research (GEER) Foundation and Gujarat Forest Department, recorded 139 species from 41 families. Dang forests form the northern end of the Western Ghats, a biodiversity hotspot. Among the Western Ghats endemic species, sightings of Malabar trogon, Malabar whistling thrush and white-bellied woodpecker were most noteworthy said the organisers. Other important observations included nine species of flycatchers (resident and migrant) such as ultramarine flycatcher and Tickell’s blue flycatcher and seven species each of woodpeckers and raptors. “We didn’t see the black eagle which is generally sighted here and there was no sign of the long-billed vultures too,” said Trivedi, who has worked in the Dang region since 1987. But he added that further data analysis is needed to show bird species trends.

According to Trivedi and Vyas, this fifth edition of the event will help them optimise and standardise the data gathering process. The open-access report, once ready, will be sent to all participants and submitted to the forest department.

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A Shaheen falcon in Purna Wildlife Sanctuary. The three-day Dang Bird Festival recorded 113 species of birds belonging to 45 families. Image via Mongabay-India/ Kartik Chandramouli

The Dang forest habitat and its medicinal plants

The Dang district that lies at the border of Gujarat and Maharashtra has one of the largest extant and dense forests in the state. Around 7.5 percent of Gujarat’s 1,96,244 square kilometre geographical area is covered with forests while the 1,766 square kilometer Dang district has a forest cover of over 77 percent.

The very dense and moderately dense forests of the region, make it a unique landscape as compared to Gujarat’s mangroves, grasslands and scrubland ecosystems. “If you think of Gujarat, the Gir forest or Kutch comes to your mind, not the Dang forests,” remarked Vyas.

“We get the Malabar whistling thrush, Malabar trogon – this is the upper distribution limits of these Western Ghats birds. This is also the northernmost limit for the bonnet macaque and one of the few places it shares with the rhesus macaques,” he added.

Passing through the hilly terrain of the PWS in north Dang that contains dry and moist deciduous forests, one can see the habitat fragmented with the dominating teak tree plantations and bamboo monocultures.

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Dang is a tribal district in south Gujarat with a population of around 2.3 lakhs. The region forms the northern end of the Western Ghats and has some of the densest forests in the state. Image via Mongabay-India

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95 percent of the population in Dang belonging to the scheduled tribe communities. The people have a heavy dependence on the forests for their daily lives and cultural practices. Image via Mongabay-India/ Kartik Chandramouli

On another birding trail at the Preservation Plot, participants meandered through old and massive trees – it took five people to surround and hug a Kalam (Mitragyna parvifolia) tree. Some of the other common trees of the forests shading the trail were sadad (Terminalia crenulata) and dudhkadi (Wrightia tinctoria).

Back on the Breeding Center trail that leads towards a captive breeding center for the spotted deer, the forest rangers stop amidst a patch of bamboo forests that is cut by a dry stream bed. They point out the spot where their camera traps have captured clips of leopards, hyenas and porcupines.

Other mammals such as the tiger, wild dog, sloth bear, smooth-coated otter and the Indian giant squirrel are believed to have faced local extinction in the landscape due to hunting and loss of habitat. High hunting pressure, habitat fragmentation, land-use change, cultivation, overgrazing, hydrological changes to the rivers around continue to threaten the biodiversity of the region.

Dang is a tribal district with 95 percent of its 2.3 lakh population belonging to the Scheduled Tribal communities. The Bhils, Kunbis and Varlis are the prominent communities of the region. All the tribal communities have a high dependency on the forests for produce such as firewood, bamboo, vegetables, fruits and tubers. But one of the richest resources of these forests is its medicinal plant diversity.

Out of 2205 recorded angiospermic plants in Gujarat, 1315 (59.6 percent) plants have been identified with medicinal value. South Gujarat has a high density of these plants. Around 410 plant species from the Dang district itself were added to the state’s gazetteer in 2012.

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Above photo: Barks and roots of medicinal trees and plants collected by a bhagat (local healer). Image via Mongabay-India/ Kartik Chandramouli

Deepak Acharya, co-founder of Abhumka Herbal, makes herbal medicines based on tribal knowledge from central and western India and shares the profit with the tribal community. He has been documenting the medicinal plants and practices of the bhagats (local healers) from Dangs for over 20 years. His aim is to digitize the documentation. “If a bhagat dies, the traditional knowledge disappears,” he said. “If we document, study and validate their practices, modern medicine can use them too.”

Lalubhai Wadhwi, 55, a bhagat from Sawardakasad village was trained by his father. Villagers and some people from cities in Gujarat and Maharashtra, arrive at his doorstep to get cured of issues such as skin diseases, swellings, joint pain, fractures and diabetes. “Now the next generation doesn’t want to learn the tradition. And the worst is that it’s hard to find many medicinal plants.”

Minoo Parabia, former head of the bioscience department at Veer Narmad South Gujarat University (VNSGU) and medicinal plant expert, links the diminishing trend of Dang’s medicinal plants to overexploitation by locals and pharmaceutical companies and tree girdling. Biopiracy could also pose a threat to Dang’s plant biodiversity and the bhagats he adds.

A few kilometers from his house, Lalubhai takes us to show the ragat rohida (Tecomella undulata) tree that is now a rarity in the Dang forests. He says the bark of the tree is used to heal injuries and fractures. After scanning the thick vegetation on the side of a road, he spots the tree and exclaims that overharvesting of the bark and greed have made the tree disappear.

He chips off a small piece of the trunk with a stone instead of a knife, to show the reddish-white inside of the bark that is utilised in medicines. Lalubhai then keeps back the stone on the exact same spot it was picked from and says that this is the way his father would have left the forest floor in its original state.

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In this image: Lalubhai Wadhwi, a local healer, holds a ragat rohida (Tecomella undulata) tree that has declined in numbers. Image via Mongabay-India/ Kartik Chandramouli

Dang’s fascinating forest owlet 

Another aspect to put the spotlight on Dang forest, is the presence of the forest owlets (Heteroglaux blewitti), an endangered bird endemic to India with a population range between 250 to 999. It was thought to be extinct for over 100 years until its rediscovery in 1997 in Khandesh, Maharashtra.

The fragmented population of this diurnal (active during the day) owlet has been reported from the dry deciduous forests of central India, in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. In 2014, the forest owlet was spotted for the first time in Gujarat in Dang’s PWS. A subsequent study found 84 individuals in the protected and non-protected areas of Dang claiming that it could be the second largest population of the bird after Melghat, Madhya Pradesh.

“It is very strange that the bird is endemic to central India and found only in pockets,” said Shomita Mukherjee, Principal Scientist at Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History. “Because the landscapes where they are found are not so unique. You find those habitats elsewhere in India too. So, what limits the birds to these regions?”

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The endangered forest owlet is endemic to India. It was spotted in Purna Wildlife Sanctuary in north Dang for the first time in 2014. Image via Mongabay-India/ Wikimedia Commons

One of the institute’s ongoing projects is to develop a conservation action plan for the forest owlet. “So, one of our main objectives is to go to areas such as the Dang forests and find out how much of the area is occupied by the bird and try and identify the factors that determine their presence,” she said.

Pankaj Koparde, an assistant professor at the MIT World Peace University who has studied the forest owlet earlier, said, “It is observed that the bird occupies areas at the edge of a forest and agricultural landscapes. So, they’ll be vulnerable to cultivation expansion and land-use change.” He added that in regions such as Dang, hunting could still be an issue despite the bird falling under Schedule 1 species of Wildlife Protection Act.

While the Dang Bird Festival did not record any forest owlets this year, it didn’t dampen any spirits.

Irshad Theba from GEER Foundation, an expert birdwatcher and a volunteer at the event, said, “Birdwatchers and researchers will come and go to this remote location. It’s the local community that’ll continue to stay. Sensitising and empowering them towards protecting nature will be good for this ecosystem.”

Sanjana, a student from the local community, convinced the organisers to allow her to attend the event for the second time. She expressed that the highlight of the event was to learn the English names of her homeland’s birds. “It’s surprising to see people come from far to see birds and study about them. I’ll tell my people about this,” she said.

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A trail inside Dang forests that belongs to the dry and mix deciduous forests type largely dominated by teak forests. Image via Mongabay-India/ Kartik Chandramouli

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Banner image: Participants on a trail inside Purna Wildlife Sanctuary during the Dang Bird Festival 2020. Image via Mongabay-India/ Kartik Chandramouli

This article was originally published on Mongabay.com. Mongabay-India is an environmental science and conservation news service. This article has been republished under the Creative Commons licence.