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The Unusual Story of How Woolly-Necked Storks Are Bouncing Back

The Unusual Story of How Woolly-Necked Storks Are Bouncing Back

Woolly-necked storks in Rohtak, Haryana. Photo: K.S. Gopi Sundar.

A multi-year programme for monitoring large waterbirds in the farmlands of Gujarat, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh is throwing up pleasant surprises.

These landscapes have been found to support previously unknown populations of one of the least studied stork species in the world: the woolly-necked storks (Ciconia episcopus).

Older population estimates had suggested that fewer than 35,000 of these birds exist in South and Southeast Asia. But new data suggests their number could be 120,000-310,00 birds in South Asia alone.

Researchers put together these estimates, along with other information on the species’ habits and needs, over 15 years. And they could likely prompt the species’ global status to be revised.

Though the situation in Southeast Asia for these birds remains grim, thanks to large-scale hunting, we now know that woolly-necked storks are not in as much danger as we thought.

In fact, these storks are now likely to be one of the few species in the world that will have their Red List status improved from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘near-threatened’. The latter reflects new information while also acknowledging that those birds in farmlands will continue to face some threats.

(Editor’s note: The majority of the results presented and/or discussed in this article are based on the author’s ongoing research – an exception made to accommodate the fact that the woolly-necked stork is a poorly studied species. The results haven’t yet been published but have been made available to the Red List forum.)

This story of the woolly-necked storks is important for two reasons.

First, it shows the need to expand our collective conservation vision to outside protected forested reserves. Doing so will likely allow us to find more examples of species that can live alongside farmers when large-scale hunting is absent.

Second, these storks have shown that global processes that designate threat levels to species using the Red List process effectively incorporate new information to update status assessments.

In India, species-rich forests, large protected wetlands and ungrazed seasonal grasslands should remain the backbone of the conservation movement. Farmlands and farmers, it appears, need to be added to our conservation arsenal. And species like the woolly-necked storks indicate that our assumptions on wild species’ needs are not always accurate.

The woolly-necked stork itself is a large waterbird about 4 feet tall, with black and white plumage. It remains very poorly studied.

According to one 1992 report, woolly-necked storks in India use remote wetlands inside forests, which makes them hard to study since they share their habitats with tigers. It followed from this description that since tiger habitats everywhere were under attack, the woolly-necked storks were imperilled as well. Concerns also grew after conservationists in Southeast Asian forests reported significant drops in their numbers.

The species was also labelled as being sensitive to human presence. Widespread hunting in Southeast Asia likely renders all species in several countries rightfully jittery about humans. There was also news of stork nests being raided for eggs and chicks, and adult storks being poached. The situation appeared quite abysmal.

Putting these reports together, the IUCN Red List classified woolly-necked storks as ‘vulnerable’ in 2017.

This status is much more than a simple label; it represents the best available collective knowledge of experts and enthusiasts about different species. When a species is elevated to a higher conservation status, governments, nonprofit organisations and scientists pay more attention. It’s a signal that a species requires more help to survive.

Woolly-necked storms crossed the road in Etawah, Uttar Pradesh. Photo: K.S. Gopi Sundar

The conservation status deliberation is different for birds and animals. The one for birds is conducted openly, on online portals, at frequent intervals, and anyone can contribute their knowledge to the process. This process is exemplary because it acknowledges that not all information on a species is available in one fixed place – like the scientific literature – for Red List use. These forums also provide a way for information not necessarily suitable to be included as well.

Steering the conservation status of the world’s birds is no mean feat, and so it isn’t perfect either. Changes in status are often contentious because of the high stakes. Some status designations also carry higher potential for revenue, and/or allow conservationists to secure habitats, prevent destructive projects and acquire political support for long-term efforts.

In India, the woolly-necked stork’s impending status-change from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘near-threatened’ didn’t owe itself to conservation efforts but to improved scientific understanding that showcased the conservation value of India’s agricultural landscapes.

Indian farmlands to the rescue

While hunting is all too common in Southeast Asia, Indian farmers appear unique in their ability to live alongside a variety of birds. One bird that benefits from such coexistence is the woolly-necked stork.

In India, these birds seem to tolerate human company better than they do elsewhere and they seem to proliferate in agricultural areas. Farmed landscapes crisscrossed with leaky irrigation canals have millions of tiny flooded depressions where these storks can hunt. In areas with rice and wheat cultivation, the fields themselves host lots of prey for storks to feast on all year long. Scattered tree groves and single, large fig trees retained by farmers for fruits, fodder and religious beliefs provide nesting habitats.

Newer studies also show that woolly-necked storks are territorial. Breeding pairs defend small areas as their own, so real estate is serious business. In these areas, they need to have trees on which to build nests and food with which to raise their chicks. As the chicks grow, each one requires 300-800 grams of animal food every day.

The number of chicks that each adult pair can raise depends on the amount of the food they can find. One pair in Haryana nesting on a peepal tree in the middle of croplands raised a brood of six – a world record for storks that make single nests. And that this record comes from a nest built amid crops, and not within a well-equipped wetland reserve, is significant.

Naturalists and bird watchers across South Asia have also been noticing that woolly-necked storks have been changing their nesting behaviour. Unlike most conservation stories, these storks aren’t moving away from humans. Instead, they’re building nests and raising their young on cell-phone towers and high-tension pillion towers, often next to bustling towns.

Also read: How Birds Rescued Me From the Birders, and Other Stories

In the final analysis, the status of woolly-necked storks is tied to Indian and Nepali farmers – an unusual situation in a world where agriculture has often been the villain of conservation stories.

Our challenge now is to identify and encourage conditions that allow wildlife to coexist amid crops. Doing so will greatly ease our collective challenge of safeguarding the future of several wild species.

Gopi Sundar is a scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation, the global co-chair of the IUCN Storks, Ibis and Spoonbill Specialist Group, and a National Geographic Explorer. He has been studying waterbirds in India, Nepal and Australia for the last 20 years.

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