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Young biologist wins Green Oscar for saving Arunachal hornbills

Hindustan Times, New Delhi, 3rd May, 2013

A young wildlife biologist who converted bird hunters into their saviours in remote forests of Arunachal Pradesh was awarded the 2013 Whitley Award, also known as Green Oscar, in London on Thursday.

Aparajit DattaAparajit Datta was among the eight conservationists from across the world to win the prestigious award and shared 2,95,000 pounds as the prize money.

“Datta leads a programme to conserve hornbills in the Indian Eastern Himalaya at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), an NGO established in 1996 to promote science-based wildlife conservation in India,” said a statement by the Whitley Fund for Nature.

Hornbills are prominent birds of Asian tropical forests and Arunachal is home to five hornbill species. But their killing by locals for meat and habitat loss because of shifting cultivation had threatened their existence deep inside forests.

Many tribals were not aware that Due to their predominantly frugivorous diet, the brightly coloured birds with loud calls have always been considered important agents of seed dispersal in the tropical forest. A small and poor tribal group in Namdapha National Park, called Lisu, were hunting the birds and logging for their fuel needs.

Datta established a community-based conservation program with them to reduce hunting and save wildlife by first improving the quality their lives. “We started schools; built river embankments to stop erosion and protect agricultural land; and supplied solar panel lamps that power homes and save the enormous expense of kerosene and batteries,” she said.

Her team also provided fuel-efficient stoves and water-heating devices in an effort to reduce deforestation. In addition, the tribal community for the first time got access to better health facilities and education. And now they were working to find market for handicrafts made by the tribals.

The efforts had resulted in protection of the fragile birds.

She started her work about a decade ago in Namdapha in Arunachal as student of biology about a decade ago and decided to study hornbills as part of doctorate.

“In tropical forests “80% to 90% of tree species bear fruits that animals disperse. But here in Namdapha, many large mammals and birds like the hornbill—crucial to seed dispersal—are hunted. Some parts of the park have become empty forests, devoid of wildlife. The absence of these dispersers could have severe consequences for the regeneration of many plant species,” she said.

The award statement applauds Datta for her approach is raising awareness of the threats to the bird’s survival, and creating a wider rural and urban constituency for conservation through a participatory community outreach programme that gets people involved.