Unsung Heroes: A birdwatcher who has played key role in conservation of Bengaluru lakes – The Indian Express

In 1996, when the Karnataka forest department was looking for someone to write a proposal for central funds to conserve the lakes of Bengaluru, they turned to Birdwatchers’ Field Club of Bangalore – an amateur club whose members had done serious scientific work to study lakes and their ability to support bird life in the city.
One of the oldest standing members of the club, ecologist and ornithologist M B Krishna, now 61, and others, drew on the experience of a report prepared by the Birdwatcher’s Club, titled ‘Water Birds and Wetlands of Bangalore: A report on the status, water quality, plankton, and bird populations of the lakes in and around Bangalore and Maddur’, to help write the proposal.
The proposal prepared on behalf of the forest department brought the Karnataka government Rs 28 crore of funds from the River Action Directorate to conserve urban lakes. It has been responsible for saving several lakes in Bengaluru, including the Hebbal lake in north Bengaluru – earmarked for a bus stand at the time – and the Agara lake in the south.
“At that point, nobody in Bengaluru had provided a snapshot of the lakes in the city as we had done. Some people had done a thesis on individual lakes but there was no single snapshot of how the lakes looked comparatively. We did that. Twice, we collected water samples for water quality analysis and we came out with reports providing information on where the birds were located,” said Dr Krishna.
“To cut a long story short, based on the data we had, I was able to write proposals for the government to access central funds for lake conservation and we got something like Rs 28 crore of funds in 1996,” he said.
Out of the Rs 28 crore Rs 24 crore was under National Lake Conservation Plan and Rs 4 crore from Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD). It was under the NORAD project that Hebbal, Agara and Madivala lake conservation was taken up.
The lake conservation efforts that came about as a consequence of the fieldwork of the Birdwatchers’ Field Club resulted in the creation of islands in the Hebbal and Madiwala lakes to allow nesting by water birds, the banning of boating in the lakes and the creation of an environment for housing different types of birds.
“The effort at the time resulted in the conservation of the Hebbal lake, which was earmarked at the time for a bus stand. The Agara lake still survives as a result. The government got some sort of vision on lake conservation issues due to our work at that time,” said Dr Krishna.
The Birdwatchers’ Field Club of Bangalore, which turned 50 this November, and Dr Krishna, who has been a member of the club for 47 of those years, have played a quiet but key role in understanding the ecology and environment of Bengaluru and creating conservation plans.
The club was started in 1972 by Dr Joseph George, a scientist from the Forest Research Institute and former director of the Indian Plywood Industries Research Institute in Bengaluru, who died in 2012. The birdwatchers community in Bengaluru incidentally hosts an annual Dr Joseph George memorial talk every October to mark his birth anniversary.
“Dr George left a legacy for Bengaluru that is at least a thousand times more birdwatchers than he started out with. Even the first-ever publication of Dr Ramachandra Guha, the author, cricket fan, and historian, written when he was eleven, was because of Dr George. It was, of course, on birds,” ornithologist Krishna wrote in an obituary for Dr George in 2012.
Krishna himself became an early member of the club in 1975 as a 14-year-old who was avidly interested in wildlife after drawing inspiration from books for naturalists that he had read from the British Council Library.
As a 17-year-old, Krishna began carrying out surveys of birds at the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens located a short distance away from his south Bengaluru home. “I started doing bird counts on a trial basis at Lalbagh in 1977. From January 1, 1978, I started counting every week,” he said.
“It was what you would call a strip count. It involves counting the birds in the visual strip that you walk through and the methodology evolves from that. In a small way, I have been able to contribute to that methodology also because one of the ideas I got was worked on with a mathematician and it was published in a leading statistics journal,” Krishna said.
The ornithologist is credited with coming up with the first annotated checklist of the birds of Bengaluru. “In 1977, a checklist of birds (of Bangalore) was published by Dr George and others and this was released by Dr Salim Ali (the renowned ornithologist) on his birthday November 11. Dr George and others felt that it needed an update. It never happened. I broached the idea again in 1996. Bikram Grewal had said that he would fund it. We got a go-ahead and we came out with an annotated checklist,” Krishna said.
One of the things that Dr Krishna has seen over the last five decades of observing the bird life in Bengaluru is a drastic drop in the bird population and species in the city.
“I started counting birds in Bengaluru around the late 1970s and counted birds for more than a decade. Not at the same place but at different places in stretches of two years or three years. The point is that it is not a great thing to talk about. The kind of drop that is seen is in the order of 80 to 90 per cent in the bird life. This is a drop of 80 to 90 per cent, and this means we are having only 10 or 20 per cent of birds in terms of population,” he pointed out.
“The birds of Bengaluru are around 340 or 350 species but if you ask how many were sighted in the last year, you would get a small representative number. We could have had better greenery, more greenery, and a better-planned city,” the ornithologist said.
The peak for the number of species breeding in Bengaluru in 1996 within a 40 km radius of the city centre, during the compilation of the annotated checklist of birds of Bengaluru, was 44 per month, according to data gathered by Dr Krishna.
In 2017, the analysis of data from a group watching the birds of Bengaluru showed that the number of species breeding was down to a peak of 11 per month, Krishna said.
“I used to see around 45 species around my home but there are few species now – no crows, no sparrows, no thrushes, no magpie robins only bulbuls come, grey tits come, small winged barbets, koels, and an occasional crow or an occasional myna,” he said.
“We used to count in Lalbagh regularly so I can say the drop is by 80 or 90 per cent. The water birds we used to get regularly – around 1,200 birds in Lalbagh lake – 600 to 1,200 of the migratory Gargini, and you get nothing now,” he added.
The ornithologist is saddened by the destruction of the natural environment for birds that existed before the construction boom in and around the city but sees hope for conservation efforts in the large numbers of people drawn to bird watching and bird photography since the information technology boom hit the city at the turn of the century.
“I started collecting my data when I was at the pre-university level. I have never come across people who have done that. The cultivation of the habit of noting down is very important. You cannot remember numbers without noting them down. It makes you familiar with handling data. In the case of birds if you start early you have a longer time series,” he said.
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