By the tip of 2019, I used to be prepared for a change of surroundings. Working as a pure historical past photographer, I’d spent the earlier two years monitoring snow leopards within the Himalayas. Then, one snowy afternoon, I obtained a quick name from Dr. Rohit Naniwadekar, a hen biologist with the Nature Conservation Foundation. He requested me to get to a small volcanic island within the northern Andaman Sea as rapidly as I probably may.
Inside per week, I had swapped the seemingly countless landlocked mountains for a tiny speck of land on the fringe of the world.
Narcondam Island, a chosen wildlife sanctuary the place Dr. Naniwadekar deliberate to conduct his analysis, offers new that means to the phrase “distant.” Located about 80 miles to the east of the principle backbone of the Andaman Islands and totaling solely about 2.6 sq. miles (twice the dimensions of Central Park), Narcondam is a dense inexperienced volcanic mountain peeking out of the deep blue water. To this point, exceedingly few scientists and pure historical past photographers have set foot on its uninhabited seashores.
Attending to Narcondam, which is a part of the Indian union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, wasn’t straightforward. After gaining the right authorities permits, we caught a flight from mainland India to the Andaman Islands — easy sufficient. However that was adopted by a protracted evening in tough seas to achieve Narcondam. Furthermore, the island doesn’t have a docking or delicate touchdown choice, so we needed to soar into tiny rubber boats and struggle the waves earlier than disembarking. We have been drenched from head to toe.
Lastly, the 5 of us — three scientists, a wildlife biologist turned artist and I — discovered ourselves solid away with not far more than our tools, some dry rations and a wholesome dose of pleasure.
The crew’s most important aim was to check and doc the Narcondam hornbill (Rhyticeros narcondami), which is endangered and endemic to the island. As luck would have it, we noticed our first pair flying above the seashore as quickly as we hit land.
Having seen the Nice Hornbill of mainland India myself, I seen that these hornbills have been smaller than I had anticipated. However they have been nonetheless beautiful. The male is slightly bigger in measurement, with a rufous-colored head and black physique, whereas the feminine is solely black. The hen’s closest extant relative is the Blyth’s hornbill, present in Papua New Guinea.
Inside a couple of hours of our arrival, we realized that Narcondam hornbills have been in excessive abundance, even when restricted to the island’s tiny space. Figuring out what number of of them exist and what elements encourage their abundance have been two of the important questions that Dr. Naniwadekar’s crew aimed to grasp through the two-month go to.
Exploring Narcondam was a problem. Its steep terrain consists of ridges and valleys fashioned out of free, crumbly rock, which is held collectively by seemingly impenetrable shrubbery and woody climbing crops often called lianas.
Nonetheless, every day we set out in a special course from our base, permitting the island’s magnificence to unfold earlier than us. Some patches have been dry and harking back to a deciduous jungle, whereas others have been mist-laden and referred to as to thoughts dense cloud forests.
We made our method throughout tangled underbrush on our palms and knees, and gazed up at large buttress bushes, some 130 toes tall, filtering daylight by means of layers of the cover right down to a carpet of ferns under.
In time, the crew started investigating the hornbill’s shocking abundance. They walked line transects at completely different elevations to estimate the hen’s inhabitants densities. Vegetation plots have been specified by an try to grasp floral variety. Digital camera traps have been put in close to fruiting bushes to check the impacts of rodents on native crops.
The work was time-consuming, bodily demanding and monotonous, however the thrill of discovering and figuring out completely different species of crops and animals whereas out within the subject was sufficient to buoy the spirits of the whole social gathering.
Throughout the day, shouts of Latin names of assorted crops and birds echoed by means of the forest. Come night, we’d sit back with contemporary coconut water within the consolation of a hammock. At evening, we’d stare out into the ocean, considering the bottom of the island that lies beneath the water’s floor, dreaming of all of the life we couldn’t see.
Some days, I’d enterprise out alone to search for nests, sitting in bushes for hours on finish with a zoom lens, hoping to seize close-up photographs of the hornbill. I grew to become fondly aware of the ruckus they’d create whereas playfully chasing one another or feeding on a ficus tree.
Narcondam hornbills have large beaks that they use to pluck thick fruit, which they proceed to toss delicately into the air earlier than swallowing it or giving it to a mate.
It was courtship time, and we have been handled to an explosion of conduct that was troublesome to unravel. For weeks, we noticed fixed vocalization, courtship feeding and pair-bonding between potential mates as they referred to as out to one another. The pairs would grasp round nests, cleansing them in flip, flying collectively, feeding collectively, preening each other ever so gently.
Whereas I used to be busy photographing these birds, the crew began to piece collectively the puzzle of the hornbills’ inhabitants. They estimated practically 1,000 birds, similar to a density of about 390 birds per sq. mile — far exceeding all of the recorded densities for some other hornbill species on the planet.
Moreover, the density of the island’s fruit bushes — particularly that of the figs consumed by Narcondam hornbills — was between two and 10 times as high as in comparable forests.
“Figs have a singular characteristic of staggered fruiting,” defined Dr. Navendu Web page, a scientist on the Wildlife Institute of India and the crew’s botanist. “So at any given time there are a couple of bushes in fruit on the island, which ensures a continuing provide of meals for the hornbills year-round.”
Moreover figs, different native crops additionally happen in profusion. And since hornbills are the biggest frugivore on the island, Dr. Web page theorizes that the birds successfully tweak the distribution of bushes to favor those they feed on. In different phrases: By spreading the seeds by means of their droppings, the hornbills are steadily remodeling the island into their very own Backyard of Eden.
Nonetheless, the birds face challenges. Lately, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been a critical asset to India within the nation’s effort to counter China’s enlargement into the Indian Ocean. As such, the archipelago faces danger from potential infrastructural growth.
Local weather change can be a possible menace, significantly because it’s identified to disrupt the fruiting patterns of crops. “In such a tightly related ecosystem,” Dr. Naniwadekar defined, “only one or two dangerous fruiting years would possibly considerably impression the hornbill inhabitants.”
Rats, not native to the island, have additionally invaded Narcondam. Preliminary digicam lure research recommend that they’re feeding extensively on sure seeds and would possibly finally alter the island’s floral composition.
On the finish of our practically two-month sojourn, as a few of us departed on rubber boats towards our extraction ship, I noticed a pair of hornbills flying into the open sky, glowing within the golden gentle of daybreak. It struck me that this might be the final time I set eyes on these birds — true “evolutionary wonders,” as Dr. Naniwadekar had as soon as described them.
“They need to be given the identical respect and safety that we provide to the man-made wonders of our world,” he added.