We highlight five such highly threatened species from the region and discuss in brief some of the facts and the prevailing threats to their existence. While there are many other threatened species in the region, which are categorized as Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable etc. by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), we have included these species only to represent the diverse nature of the problems that the wildlife of Northeast India is facing at this moment.
Greater One-horned Rhino (Rhinoceros unicorns)
IUCN status: Vulnerable
A species that needs no introduction to the people of Assam, being the State animal and an integral part of Assamese culture, the Greater One-horned Rhino is under continuous threat of extinction. These gentle animals are being hunted for their mythical medicinal properties; the demand for rhino horns is especially high in the Chinese market. It is interesting to note that they were once distributed throughout the Indian subcontinent, with a range extending from the Punjab foothills, Peshawar, Sind and lower Indus to the far West to Northeastern India, and with discrete records of its existence in Bangladesh, China and Burma. The extant distribution of the species finds a stronghold in Assam, apart from its occurrence in the states of West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh in India and in some parts of Nepal. While the number of rhinos in the wild has increased from about a hundred individuals in the early 1990s to the present figure of nearly 2500 individuals, extensive degradation of habitats and lack of connectivity between the existing populations puts the long term survival of the species at risk, apart from the continued threat due to poaching.
Western Hoolock Gibbon (Hoolock hoolock)
IUCN status: Endangered
The Western Hoolock Gibbon occurs in several states of Northeast India, with its distributional range extending from the south of the Dibang-Brahmaputra river system. This species is truly the champion gymnast of the tropical woodlands, with its strictly arboreal lifestyle. They are mostly seen hanging and jumping from tree to tree at great heights of the forest canopy. The emotive call of gibbons in the wild is a heavenly experience for any nature lover who is out there in the wild, while they may also startle those who are ignorant of their existence! The loss of habitat and hunting for food are two immediate threats to the survival of this species, while fragmentation of habitat and loss of connectivity between different groups existing in the wild is a threat that may jeopardize its existence in the longer run.
Ganges River Dolphin (Platanista gangetica)
IUCN status: Endangered
Ganges river dolphins are undoubtedly one of the rarest mammals of the freshwater ecosystems, occurring in the Brahmaputra and Ganger River and some of their tributaries. Recognised as the national aquatic animal of India, the most interesting feature about this animal is that it is an effectively blind creature surviving in the turbid waters of these river systems, using a unique biological sonar mechanism called ‘ecolocation’. The species is locally known as Sisu or Xihu and can sometimes be observed from the riverbanks, as being a mammal it cannot breathe underwater and needs to surface after every 3-4 minutes. The major threat to the survival of the species include degradation of habitat and water quality due to pollutant load, accidental mortality due to fishing practices such as gill-nets, water development projects affecting the connectivity and intentional killing primarily for its oil, which apart from having medicinal value is used as a fishing lure.
White-winged Wood Duck (Asarcornis scutulata)
IUCN status: Endangered
This bird is in a state of peril, due to a fast dwindling population in the wild as a consequence of human disturbances such as forest clearances, hunting, pollution and developmental activities. The species can be found in the region’s evergreen and semi-evergreen forests with stagnant or slow-flowing water sources. There is no comprehensive study on this species and even in Assam, the species is not getting due attention, despite having symbolic value as the State bird.
Slender-billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris)
IUCN status: Critically Endangered
Among the two species of Critically Endangered vulture species in India, the Slender-billed Vulture finds its stronghold in a few pockets within Assam. Yet, the species is under severe threat, which can primarily be attributed to a veterinary drug called Diclofenac. This drug, being used to treat domestic livestock, is identified as the primary cause of the drastic population decline of the Gyps vultures in South Asia. Conservation agencies have been campaigning for ‘vulture-safe’ alternatives and have come up with a set of such drugs. Serious efforts are underway to raise and breed the vultures in captivity and to replenish the wild population. However, lack of awareness and factors such as poisoning of livestock carcasses and pesticides are still posing as major threats to the survival of the remaining population of this species in the wild.
All photos (except the White-winged Duck) is by Udayan Borthakur
The writer is Publicity Secretary & Head, Wildlife Genetics Division at AARANYAK
Note: This article was first published in Eclectic Northeast November 2015 issue.