Dr. Aparajita Datta leads The Nature Conservation Foundation’s Eastern Himalaya programme, under which research and community-based conservation with hornbills as a flagship have been carried out for over two decades. She completed her PhD on hornbill biology and their role in seed dispersal in 2000. Since then, she along with her team have worked all over the North East on a variety of hornbill-related projects. She has received several awards including the National Geographic Emerging Explorer award (2010) and the Whitley Fund for Nature award (2013), and the Women in Discovery award. Her interests include plant–animal interactions in rainforests, understanding human impacts on wildlife, and engaging with tribal communities for conservation. She is also currently the Co-Chair (Asia) for the IUCN SSC Hornbill Specialist Group. In this episode, Aparajita talks about hornbills and their ecosystem. She writes and speaks regularly about conservation and her take on nature.

Dr. Datta’s work has encompassed long-term research on hornbill biology in north-east India (breeding biology, roosting, diet), hornbill movement and seed dispersal using telemetry, long-term monitoring of tree phenology, hunting & logging impacts, biological exploration in Arunachal Pradesh & new mammal species discoveries, seed dispersal & seed predation; established community-based conservation interventions with tribal communities (health, education, rural energy), conservation education, a citizen science initiative for hornbills. 

A Hornbill Nest Adoption Program set up in 2011 protects hornbill nests in forests outside a Protected Area, while providing income to people. We have contributed to this programme.  You can too by donating here.

Questions and Timeline

1:30 She lays out the contours of your work with hornbills.  Nesting biology of hornbills.  Their breeding is very unique. They are secondary cavity nesters.  Females imprison themselves inside the cavity for up to 4 months.  They seal the nest with their own droppings. The male is the sole provider.

6:30 Varities of hornbills.  She talks about the majesty of hornbills. 62 species in the world.  Africa- 30, Asia- 32, India-9.  The casque atop their bills. Rhinoceros hornbills. Casque is hollow.  Fused neck vertebrae. Epitome of monogamous birds.

10:30 The connection between plants and animals explained through hornbills. The specialist seed dispersals of hornbills. Terrestrial forest rodents.  Scatter disperser.  Generalist plants and trees and specialized seed dispersal by frugivores.  Complex connections between species in a tropical forest.  Talks about the laurel trees, Phoebe cooperiana— called Sanchar in Nyishi.  They love the fruits.

14:00 Have you seen all the nine hornbill species found in India? Can you talk about them for those who are not as lucky as you? How are they similar and how are they different?

Larger tend to be frugivorous in their diet. Smaller ones eat animal matter.

  1. Great hornbill: Northeast India.  Disjunct population– in Uttarakhand, UP.  Also 
  2. Wreathed hornbill: Northeast India
  3. Rufuous necked hornbill– Northeast, higher elevation,  
  4. Brown hornbill– Northeast, cooperative breeding system.  In the others, you have the male feeding the female inside the cave.  In Brown hornbill, the adult male is helped by juvenile males from the previous years in both nest feeding and defense.
  5. Oriental pied hornbill– wider distribution, Northern, Eastern and Central India
  6. Malabar pied hornbill– western ghats, central India, 
  7. Malabar gray hornbill– endemic, Western ghats, smallest of all hornbills, in the Malabar area,  
  8. Narcondam hornbill– restricted to a six square kilometre Narcondam island in the Andaman-Nicobar islands.
  9. Gray hornbill.

21:00 Talks about her research on the functional role that forest hornbills play as seed dispersers. How hornbills are great seed dispersers.  All seeds except the ficus (which are defecated) are regurgitated.  How to measure the quality of seed dispersal.

27:00 What is recruitment? Rohit Naniwadekar’s work in Namdapha.  Scatter dispersing seeds.

30: 00 You have worked with the local Nishi tribes in the area of hornbill conservation. Tell us about the complexity of this. What is roost monitoring and how do you do it?

She talks about partnerships that they have crea

38:00 Talks about nesting trees.  Tetramelis nudiflora.  Altingia 

42:00 What are your favourite species of birds?

Indian pitta, Blythe’s reed warbler, Paradis flycatcher, yellow-wattled lapwing.  Talks about her neighbourhood birds.

44:00 Her favourite is the rufous necked hornbill.  Final thoughts?

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