Currency bills, coins and postage stamps all significantly contribute towards the national heritage of any nation. They bear the mark of important aspects of national history, archaeology, reflects images of different heads of states, significant contributors, historic characters, politicians, monarchs, emperors, lawmakers, mythological characters, statesmen, politicians, national architecture and monuments, national historic and heritage sites, different national symbols, people, social and cultural life of a nation, national sports, national and international sports events and sports personalities, celebrities, aboriginal communities, arts and crafts, wildlife, and natural resources to name only a few. In short, currency bills, coins and postage stamps carry the glimpses of a nation in their own right and often serve as an important window to peep through the steps of history to study, appreciate and understand the socio-cultural context of any nation or a country, both young and old. The practice of systematic study of currency is known as numismatics and the collection of coins is now considered to be a part of that although may not necessarily include both; while the collection of stamps is broadly called philately. The collectors of different currencies are therefore regarded as numismatists; while the stamp collectors are popularly known as philatelists.
Severe anthropogenic impacts across the globe have severely and negatively impacted the natural ecosystems, biomes, habitats and environments. As a consequence, global wildlife including avifauna have been significantly impacted due to environmental pollution, climate change, spread and dissemination of different diseases, uncontrolled and unattended forest fires, habitat destruction and habitat fragmentation, illegal infringements and grazing in protected areas, capture, hunting and poaching of several vulnerable species, introduction of exotic species, infrastructural developments in fragile ecosystems and expansion of agriculture and industries among several other important factors. The currency bills, coins and postage stamps of different countries have been increasingly reflecting the local wildlife, including avifauna, as an important national heritage and resource. This silent approach has an important nationalistic as well as international appeal in prioritizing wildlife and avifauna conservation.
Several currency bills, coins and postage stamps have now been specifically designed and released to address the avifauna hallmark of different modern nations. Such iconic and socio-cultural bonding to national avifauna resources could be well connected and utilized for conservation of several threatened, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered avifauna members around the globe. These not only help in communicating the message of conservation of birds of national, regional and local importance among local community members; but also carry the universal message of bird conservation through dedicated numismatists and philatelists to the international community. Global avian members are being challenged with several natural as well as anthropogenic factors that are threatening several vulnerable species with the risks of extinction. Hence it is important to utilize every possible opportunity for portraying the need for avian conservation. The iconographic presentation of different species of birds through currency bills, coins and postage stamps is an important, innovative and interesting avenue in popularizing conservation of different avifauna members. This could be considered as a new and important approach in capturing avian conservation through national heritage and iconography. Several responsible nations across the continents of Asia, Africa, Australia, the Americas and Europe have already come forward in using bird icons in their currency bills, coins and postage stamps. However, more countries need to be involved, particularly the developing and under developed nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America that represent the bulk of the grandeurs of global avian biodiversity. By working together, we could utilize this innovative avenue to be an important ambassador for popularizing conservation of birds among global communities.
Article contributed by Saikat Kumar Basu
Bengal florican: a bustard species from the Indian subcontinent threatened with extinction in the wild
The Bengal florican or the Bengal bustard (Houbaropsis bengalensis Gmelin) is an extremely rare species of bustard from the Indian subcontinent. The current IUCN status of the species is critically endangered and estimates of wild populations within the subcontinent is grossly overestimated as <~1,000. The species is grossly data deficient in India and the actual numbers could be as low as <200-300 in the wild. The distribution or natural home range of the species is described as stretching between extreme eastern Uttar Pradesh in north India (the western most distribution point) across the Terai tracts of the sub-Himalayas to the eastern and north-eastern Indian states of West Bengal, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh respectively (eastern most distribution point). The species has been reported from adjacent countries of Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh too as they occupy the continuous range distribution within the Indian subcontinent. They are officially reported to be extinct in Bangladesh now and the status of the bird in Nepal is doubtful and severely data deficient. Bhutan comparatively has a better profile of this species among the other subcontinent member countries, most possibly because of its undisturbed natural environment where the anthropogenic pressures have been reported to be significantly less. It could possibly be extinct in the wild in Nepal too, or realistically have population bases of <100-150 individuals.
Their current existence in the wild is extremely doubtful in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh (northern and eastern fringes), Bihar (northern Terai tracts) and West Bengal (Terai region in the northern districts). Sporadic observations have been reported over the last few decades with increasingly lower numbers over time. Unconfirmed reports estimate the population in these states to be as low as <50-100 individuals The best population distribution that has been recently updated is found to be restricted only to north-east Indian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, the extreme eastern most point of distribution of their former home range in the Indian subcontinent. They are most possibly now restricted predominantly to the foothills of Bhutan Himalayas and in isolated forest pockets of north-east India; and extinct in the wild elsewhere in the subcontinent. The most frequent and best documented observation of the species in the wild has been reported in recent times from the north eastern Indian state of Assam only. A separate sub-population group is also reported from South East Asia (Vietnam and Cambodia); and it is quite unfortunate to state that both sub populations are threatened with the risks of extinction in the wild in Asia due to severe anthropogenic pressures.
The Bengal floricans are omnivorous, sexually dimorphic and terrestrial species. The species are characterized with strong and well built muscular legs, big toes with sharp claws, a strong beak and majestic broad wings. The flight patterns of the flocks are either in straight lines or V-shaped. The species is reported to have elaborate courtship displays and has been observed to feast on smaller mammals (rodents), frogs and toads, snakes, insects etc. Territorial aggression is also reported among adult males and in defending their harems of females from other contesting males and intruders into their territory. They are also known to be devoted parents taking good care of their chicks and constantly feeding them, helping them to grow faster. They are mostly fond of grassy plains with intermediate woods and forests and in semi or sub-aquatic habitats. These are mainly ground nesting birds that forage, nest and raise their chicks on the ground. They are capable of sustained flights and take refuge in the trees for roosting and for security from ground predators. The biggest threat to wild populations has been humans.
Extensive anthropogenic pressures on the local ecosystems overlapping with the original home range of the species have marginalized the specie to the verge of extinction. Furthermore, illegal encroachments by humans in their wild habitats have drastically resulted in disturbing their wild habitats and fragmentation negatively impacting their premier foraging ground, courtship, breeding and nesting behavior. The situation has been so alarming that none of the Indian zoos have any florican species in display since the species is so rarely found in the wild. Some recent initiatives of breeding and reintroduction to the wild in the state of Assam have been successful; but, such initiatives need to be duplicated and multiplied across its range for the purpose of the resurgence of the species. Previously, indiscriminate hunting and illegal capture and poaching on the species have been so severe; that it has impacted the wild population base dangerously beyond the natural threshold limit of maintaining stable population for the future. The severe anthropogenic pressures on the species over the decades in the subcontinent have pushed it with imminent threats of extinction in the wild. The situations of the disjunct population from South East Asia are also similarly dark and grim putting question marks on the long term survival of the species in the wild in the continent of Asia.
Among other bustard species from the subcontinent are the comparatively bigger, critically endangered endemic Indian species (with <200 individuals in the wild) widely known as the Indian bustard or the Great Indian bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps Vigors) distributed mostly in western and central India; and the smaller species called the Little bustard (Tetrax tetrax Linnaeus) also restricted in western India and has the near threatened status. The Indian bustard is also reported from Pakistan where it is critically endangered too; but the status of the current population in Pakistan is extremely doubtful due to severe hunting pressures and may be almost close to extinction in the wild due to indiscriminate hunting. Another species reported from western India is the MacQueen’s bustard (Chlamydotis macqueenii J. E. Gray) and has the vulnerable status. The floricans are the bustard species predominantly from the eastern parts of the Indian subcontinent. There are two species, namely the critically endangered Bengal florican (Houbaropsis bengalensis Gmelin) of eastern and north-east India (as discussed above); and the endangered, Lesser florican (Sypheotides indica Miller) distributed sporadically across the subcontinent but more common in the eastern and north eastern states. These latter two species were previously grouped together as Bengal floricans in the past, but has now been split into two distinct and separate species. Another bigger (possibly the largest) bustard species, Great bustard (Otis tarda Linnaeus) is reported in some literature sources from north western Pakistan and Afghanistan. But unfortunately, local field data on the species from these regions are difficult to obtain; and their exact current status in these regions are doubtful due to severe hunting pressure and extremely poor conservation record.
Article submitted by: Saikat Kumar Basu
Vultures constitute an important component of the ecosystem. Being carrion feeders, they perform an important task as finishers in the ecosystem in returning human and animal corpses into their elemental forms back into the system and thus play a significant role as cleaners or disposers in the nature. They are capable of stripping carcasses free of all flesh, soft and hard tissues such as tendons, cartilages, softer bones, skins, hairs and keratins with their sharp claws and beaks; and due to special enzymes in their stomach are capable of digesting them. Different species of vultures are reported from the Indian subcontinent and unfortunately the populations of most of these ecologically important species are showing serious signs of decline across most of their natural ranges. Some of the factors that have contributed towards the rapid decline of the populations of different species of vultures across the subcontinent include: loss of habitats and habitat fragmentations; removal of old and big trees in and around city fringes, city parks and city gardens causing loss of suitable nesting sites; rapid and unplanned urbanization drive to cater to the growing human populations in the cities and towns; unprecedented boom of real estate business and infrastructural developments causing the loss of green spaces within and around the major city areas, the added areas and their subsequent extensions and in the greater metropolitan areas including district towns and municipalities; rapid, unrestricted, unplanned and unmonitored growth of both legal as well as illegal industrial units within city limits and adjacent areas causing pollution of the local environment; severe anthropogenic pressures in the remaining open spaces at the city fringes due to human encroachments and establishments of slums and shanties; communicable diseases among vulture populations; and last but not the least, poisoning of the animal carcasses on which these birds feed as their primary food sources both intentionally as well as accidentally. Furthermore, pesticide poisoning of the birds have also been reported from several parts of the subcontinent.
Subsequent scientific studies established that diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug commonly administered to the Indian livestock for the treatment of wounds and inflammations, as one of the potent chemicals that have been killing and decimating the vulture populations in India through the process of biomagnification. The leading cause of death through poisoning by the drug among vultures is through drastic renal failures. The species that have been worst impacted are the Indian vulture (Gyps indicus Scopoli), the white-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis Gmelin) and the slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris Hodgson (in Gray)); that were reduced from stable populations of several millions to just a few thousands over the span of two-three decades.
In several parts of their former ranges a decline between >70-85% to < 97-99% in their wild populations have been reported raising an important concern for their threats to extinction in the next 20-25 years. Unfortunately, the Indian vulture, the slender-billed vulture and the white-rumped vultures are all now placed under the category of critically endangered by the IUCN; while the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus Linnaeus) is currently considered to be endangered. The only species that is evaluated to be near threatened in the wild is the famous Himalayan vulture or better known as the Himalayan griffon vulture (Gyps himalayensis Hume) that is restricted to the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau and is not dependent too heavily upon livestock carcass as their principal dietary source; and the Eurasian griffon (Gyps fulvus Hablizil) which is under the least concern category. The facts clearly indicate that the vultures belonging to the genus Gyps are most readily impacted and also these species are distributed predominantly in the river valleys, great northern and western plain lands and the plateau region of the subcontinent with significant agronomic activities and substantial livestock populations. Hence the biomagnification poisoning through diclofenac has been identified as one of the most devastating factors decimating the vulture populations in the Indian subcontinent in addition to several other anthropogenic factors mentioned above.
Several vulture rehabilitation, breeding and reintroduction centers have been established in India being alarmed with the sharp decline of the vulture populations and a few more are coming or are being proposed. However, their numbers are too meager compared to the need from the context of species revival. Some success has been documented in the breeding, rearing and reintroduction of different vulture species in the wild in various parts of their former home ranges; however, much needed to be done. Steps have been taken in removing diclofenac as the preferred veterinary drug by the cattle handlers and livestock operators with other alternatives having much lower impacts on the vulture populations has been recommended and/or prescribed. But the drug is continued to be used in small to moderate numbers till date across the home range of the vultures. Lack of education and awareness; as also lack of care and empathy for the long term sustainability of the local ecosystem and environment by agricultural workers, cattle handlers and livestock operators have been another serious concern that needs to be addressed sincerely by the vulture conservation agencies. It will be necessary to completely ban this drug from the livestock industry and strong monitoring and surveillance will be necessary to evaluate the wild populations of vultures in the coming decades. Unless a comprehensive conservation, rehabilitation and reintroduction policy is adopted with strong legislative measures and effective wildlife management strategy is implemented and practiced in saving the Indian vultures, their future looks extremely grim and vulnerable with dangers of extinction in the wild.
Article contributed by: Saikat Kumar Basu
The North Eastern (NE) region of the India is a biodiversity hotspot and represents one of the highest avian biodiversity of the Indian subcontinent. The region is ecologically represented by the Eastern Himalayan biome and is rich in a number of endemic flora and fauna. Several avian species inhabiting this unique ecosystem are not found or reported anywhere else in the world. The region is represented by seven Indian states, namely: Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. Often these seven NE states are referred to as the Seven Sisters. The region has international boundaries with Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The Himalayan state of Sikkim and the Darjeeling district and northern reaches of the Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri districts of the eastern Indian state of West Bengal are ecologically contiguous with this region and together they represent an unique region with unparallel natural beauty, amazing ethnic diversity and a spectacular biodiversity of birds.
The NE India constitutes vast evergreen forests of the Brahmaputra river valley, the broad leaf forests at the foothills and the high altitude sub-alpine coniferous vegetation and the Indo-Myanmar dense bamboo and pine forests. This is a vast ecosystem include the elements of riparian as well as low and high altitude mountainous ecosystems suitable as premier bird habitats. This region hosts one of the most famous and celebrated sanctuaries and reserved forests of the subcontinent as well as the world, known for their spectacular avian biodiversity: Dibang, Namdhapa, Eaglenest, Kamlang & Mehao (Arunachal Pradesh); Manas, Kaziranga, Garampani, Nameri, Dipor Bil, Pobitora, Pabha, Laokhowa, Bornadi & Oran (Assam); Bhagmara, Siju & Nongkhyllem (Meghalaya); Fakim, Intanki & Pulebatze (Nagaland); Keibul Lam Jao (Manipur); Ngengpui & Khawnglung (Mizoram), Gumti, Charilam & Sepaijhola (Tripura), Kyongnosla, Pangolakha, Meanam & Shingba (Sikkim) and Jaldapara, Gorumara, Singalila & Senchal (West Bengal).
The avifauna diversity of this region is spectacular and home to the Great Indian Hornbill (Buceros bicornis L) that has been placed under Near Threatened (NT) status by the IUCN. Several rare species of both resident and migratory birds are reported from this pristine habitat. Being located within the biome of the majestic Eastern Himalayas, the eco-region provides a unique habitat for a wide diversity of local species. This is not only an important ecosystem for the local and resident avian species; but also a diverse habitat for numerous short and long distance migrant species that crisscross the region during their annual and semi-annual migration. The unique ecosystem provides multiple species with adequate opportunity to feed and forage as well as nest, breed and raise their chicks successfully with relatively little anthropogenic pressures and carbon foot prints.
Fig 1. Diversity of avian species from NE India
Several avian species come and visit the NE from other parts of the subcontinent such as Central and Western Himalayas and southern India; and there are also species visiting the regions from the distant Siberia (Russia), Mongolia, central, southern and SE China, Myanmar Thailand, Indo-Chine, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asian countries like the Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan and west Asia. The avian diversity of the region include different species of ducks, swans, geese, teals, grebes, pochards, pintails, ibis, shanks, terns, pelicans, storks, Asian open bills, bitterns, spoonbills, sandpipers, plovers, cranes, egrets, herons, cormorants, kingfishers, lesser adjutants, greater adjutants, crakes, water hens, coots, moorhens, snipes, swamp hens, jacanas, rails, falconets, kestrels, hobbys, hawks, kites, vultures, harriers, goshawks, falcons, owls, owlets, eagles, ospreys, woodpeckers, pheasants, weaver birds, tailor birds, rollers, honey guides, hornbills, sunbirds, bee eaters, orioles, sand grouses, frogmouths, lapwings, muniyas, parakeets, quails, hoopoe, crow pheasants, yuhina, parrot bill, martins, warblers, tree creepers, babbler, pipits, wagtails, leafbirds, flowpeckers, sunbirds, grosbeaks, bantings, larks, thrushes, flycatchers, blackbirds, drongos, treepies, sparrows, common crow, jungle crow, mynas, starlings, barbets, bulbuls, nightjars, swifts, swiftlets, swallows, magpies, fintails, shrikes, wood shrikes, pigeons and doves, blue peafowls, piculets, robins, wild pheasants, swamp francolins, Bengal floricans, coucals, cuckoos, minivets, pitas, dollar bird, malkohas, curlews, ruffs, stints, cuckooshrikes, godwits and different finches to name only a handful.
Fig 2. NE India, a biodiversity rich eco-zone with numerous bird species
However, due to the remote nature of this region, economic development in this zone has been much slower compared to the rest of India. This eco-zone has been traditionally under developed; relying mostly on the vast forest resources, traditional agriculture and tourism as major industry. This actually left the local ecosystem and the environment undisturbed for several decades post independence with a unique habitat completely preserved and globally recognized as an important biodiversity hotspot center. However, the changing population dynamics of the region together with need for economic opportunities for the resident population the call for economic development of the region together with infrastructural initiatives has been sharply rising over the past two decades in areas of hydroelectricity, oil and gas exploration and an aggressive tourism industry. There has been significant proposal of inter-connecting the region with railway and roadway networks. The Indian Railways has notorious reputation in colliding with different wildlife crossing the railway tracks during the night in eastern India; and hence it will be necessary to be extra cautious to avoid such unwanted incidences in this vulnerable eco-region. The new surge for agricultural and industrial developments in the region may have some significant impacts on the local ecosystem and highly vulnerable avian populations.
Fig 3. Unique habitats from NE India and subsequent impacts of anthropogenic pressure on the local ecosystems.
Hence it will be important to follow a long term, sustainable and judicious use of the abundant natural resources of this unique ecosystem. The economic priorities should not completely erode the importance of conserving big parts of this pristine habitat and centre of global biodiversity hotspot representing numerous avian species inhabiting this region. It will be important to apply the principle of eco-sociology in regulating economic opportunities along with environmental conservation simultaneously. There will be certainly some major irreversible and negative impacts on the local ecosystem; however, care must be taken to minimize the losses to the best of the ability to reduce impact on the local wildlife and avian populations. If the wheel of economic development goes out of gear and the conservation priorities get derailed the economic as well as ecological future of this region could be significantly impacted. All the stakeholders in this process need to make cautious move while following a strict principle of stringent monitoring and surveillance at every step of the proposed economic development in an extremely fragile eco-region.
Fig 4. The diversity of avian species and ecosystems from NE India
Fig 5. Rapid urbanization and anthropogenic developmental and economic activities has the potential to impact the sensitive local ecosystem and the local avifauna.
Photo credits: Saikat Kumar Basu, Rahul Ray, Manorma Sharma & Manikankana Dasgupta
Canada, with 450 species of bird species, does not have a National Bird as one of its national symbols till date. Recently, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS) and the Canadian Geographic magazine have jointly initiated a National Bird Project asking Canadians to vote for a tentative National Bird for the nation. The goal of this project is to help designate an official bird for Canada by 2017, the country’s sesquicentennial. The project has been received by Canadians with great enthusiasm and the online voting process has registered over 27,000 votes. The top 5 Canadian bird species in the race have been the Common Loon, Snowy Owl, Gray Jay (Whiskey jay), Canada Goose & Black-capped Chickadee.
Fig 1. Common loon inscribed on the Canadian 1dollar coin. The coin is commonly referred to as the loonie after the popular loon icon immortalized on the 1 dollar coin.
Fig 2. Canada goose inscribed on the Canadian 1 dollar coin.
All other nations from the North American continent have their respective National Bird emblems. The National Bird of the United States is the famous Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus L.). Though the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos L.) is the National Bird of Mexico; some believe the Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway Jacquin), depicted on the ancient Aztec pictograms that appears on the Mexican national flag, to be the true National Bird of Mexico. But the truth is that Mexico has both species designated as their National Birds. A Commonwealth nation from the Oceania, New Zealand has the flightless, terrestrial and nocturnal bird kiwi (Apteryx australis Shaw & Nodder) designated as their National Bird. The only other Commonwealth Nation that does not have any official animal or bird emblem designated till date is Australia. The flightless bird Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae Latham) and the Red Kangaroo (Macropus rufus Desmarest) are unofficially recognized as the National Bird and National Animal respectively of Australia based on their endemic status to the Australian continent, and their wide abundance in the continent and extreme popularity. All the G7 member nations have National Birds except Canada, namely USA: Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), Russia: Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus Ord); UK: European Robin (Erithacus rubecula L.); France: Gallic Rooster (Gallus gallus L.); Japan: Japanese Green Pheasant (Phasianus versicolor Veillot); Germany & Italy: Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos L.). However, UK and Russia do not have an official designation for the National Bird similar to Australia.
Fig 3. The kiwi inscribed on the New Zealand 20 cent coin.
Another major global economic group BRICS (an association of five major national economies including Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) also have National Bird emblem for most members such as Brazil: Rufous-bellied Thrush (Turdus rufiventris Veillot); Russia: Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus); India: Blue Peafowl (Pavo cristatus L.); China: Red-crowned Crane (Grus japonensis Statius Müller) & Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus L.); and South Africa: Blue Crane (Anthropoides paradisea Lichtenstein, AAH). Again, China and Russia do not have official designate for their National Birds. The vast majority of several member nations of important economic organizations across the globe such as G-20, SARRC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), Arab League, Shanghai Corporation, ASEAN (Association of South East Asian nations), European Union, The African Union, USAN (the Union of Latin American Nations), SAREC (South American Regional Economic Organization), OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), many of the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and SAFTA (South American Free Trade Agreement) members also have different official National Bird emblems.
The Canada goose (Branta canadensis L.) is one of the best available candidates to take the prestigious designate as the National Bird of Canada. Their large size, handsome plumage, gorgeous look, elegant personality, graceful flight in a V-shaped pattern, characteristic honking calls and their pan-Canada distribution are significant parameters and credentials for the species to be recognized as the Canadian National Bird. The majestic Canada goose is an important waterfowl of Canada and is found foraging, roosting and nesting around fresh water bodies such as irrigation canals, inland lakes and reservoirs, rivers, swamps, ditches, ponds, pools and around farming and agricultural areas. Males and females have almost identical morphologies, with the males being slightly bigger in size and are hence quite difficult to identify separately. The species are reported to be extremely dedicated partners and parents. There are several sub-species reported across Canada such as: Atlantic Canada Goose (Branta canadensis Canadensis), Dusky Canada Goose (Branta canadensis occidentalis), Giant Canada Goose (Branta canadensis maxima), Interior Canada Goose (Branta canadensis interior), Lesser Canada Goose (Branta canadensis parvipes), Moffitt’s Canada Goose (Branta canadensis moffitti) and Vancouver Canada Goose (Branta canadensis fulva). This is a protected species and a valuable symbol of the Canadian wilderness, rural as well as urban life. Canada goose has never been designated as the State Bird or National Bird of any other states or province or districts across the Americas and to the best of my knowledge across the globe; making it an even more attractive candidate for the National Bird Project of Canada. Canada needs to have an official National Bird; since it has survived without one, unbelievably for the past 150 years.
Fig 4. Canada geese foraging in an irrigation canal.
Fig 5. Canada goose in different aquatic habitats.
Fig 6. Migrating Canada geese with their characteristic V-shaped flying pattern
Fig 7. A Canada geese couple with their chicks.