By the end of 2019, I was ready to change the landscape. Working as a natural history photographer, I’ve been tracking snow leopards in the Himalayas for the past two years. Then, one snowy afternoon, I received a short call from Dr. Rocht Naniwa Decal, a bird biologist at the Nature Maintenance Foundation. He asked me to go to a small volcanic island in the northern Andaman Sea as soon as possible.
Within a week, I replaced the seemingly endless landlocked mountains with small spots on the edge of the world.
Narcondam Island, a designated wildlife sanctuary planned by Dr. Naniwa Decal, gives the word “remote” a new meaning. Located about 80 miles east of the main backbone of the Andaman Islands, totaling about 2.6 square miles (twice the size of Central Park), Narcondam is a mountain of dark green volcanoes peeking through the deep blue waters. To date, very few scientists and natural history photographers have set foot on uninhabited beaches.
Getting to Narcondam, which is part of the Union Territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, has never been easier. After getting proper government permission, we boarded a plane from mainland India to the Andaman Islands — easy enough. However, after that, he spent a long night in the rough sea and arrived at Narcon Dam. In addition, the island has no docking or soft landing options, so you had to jump into a small inflatable raft to fight the waves before disembarking. We were soaked from head to toe.
Finally, five of us (three scientists, a wildlife biologist turned into an artist) and I ourselves with our equipment, some dry food, and healthy excitement. I noticed that was abandoned.
The team’s main goal was to investigate and document the endangered species Rhyticeros narcondami, which is endemic to the island. I was lucky enough to see the first pair flying over the beach as soon as I landed.
When I saw the Great Hornbill in mainland India myself, I realized that it was smaller than I expected. But still they were great. Men are slightly larger, their heads are blackish, their bodies are black, and women are completely black. The closest extant relative to the bird is the Blythe hornbill found in Papua New Guinea.
Within hours of arriving, I noticed that Narcondam’s hornbills were abundant, even though they were confined to a small area of the island. Determining their numbers and the factors driving their abundance was two important questions that Dr. Naniwa Decal’s team aimed to understand during their two-month visit.
Exploring Narcon Dam was a challenge. Its steep terrain consists of ridges and valleys formed from loose, brittle rocks, held together by seemingly inaccessible shrubs and woody vines known as vines.
Still, every day we set out in a different direction than the base, spreading the beauty of the island in front of us. Some patches are reminiscent of dry, deciduous jungle, while others are foggy and reminiscent of dense cloud forests.
We walked across the tangled understory vegetation of our hands and knees, looking up at a giant buttress tree about 130 feet high, filtering sunlight through the canopy layer to the fern carpet below.
Eventually, the team began investigating the amazing abundance of hornbills. They walked the line transect at various altitudes to estimate bird population densities. Vegetation plots have been placed to understand the diversity of flowers. A camera trap was set up near the fruit trees to investigate the effects of rodents on native plants.
Although the work was time consuming and physically monotonous, the thrill of discovering and identifying different types of flora and fauna in the field was sufficient to stimulate the spirit of the entire party.
During the day, the screams of Latin names of various plants and birds echoed in the forest. In the evening, relax in a hammock and chill in fresh coconut water. At night, I stared at the sea, looked at the foot of the island below the surface of the water, and dreamed of an invisible life.
One day I was sitting in a tree for hours with a zoom lens, looking for my own nest and wanting to take a close-up image of a hornbill. While playing around chasing each other and eating fig trees, I became familiar with the raccus they made.
The Narcondam hornbill has a huge beak used to pick thick fruits, which it is delicately thrown into the air before being swallowed or handed over to a companion.
It was a time of courtship and we were treated to an explosion of behavior that was difficult to unravel. For weeks, we observed constant vocalizations, courtship feeding, and potential companionship. The pair hung around the nest, cleaned in turn, flew together, fed together, and trimmed each other very gently.
While I was busy taking pictures of these birds, the team began to stitch together hornbill population puzzles. They estimated nearly 1,000 birds. This corresponds to a density of about 390 birds per square mile, well above all the densities recorded in other hornbill species on Earth.
In addition, the density of fruit trees on the island, especially the density of figs consumed by Narcondam hornbills, was two to ten times that of comparable forests.
“Figs have the unique characteristic of staggered fruiting,” explained Dr. Navendupage, a scientist and team botanist at the Institute of Wildlife Sciences of India. “Therefore, there are always a few trees on the island that can feed the hornbills all year round.”
In addition to figs, other native plants are also abundant. Since hornbills are the largest frugivore on the island, Dr. Page theorizes that they effectively fine-tune the distribution of trees to prioritize what birds feed on. In other words, hornbills are steadily transforming the island into their own Garden of Eden by spreading seeds through their dung.
Still, birds face challenges. In recent years, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have become an important asset for India in India’s efforts to counter China’s expansion into the Indian Ocean. As a result, the archipelago faces potential infrastructure development risks.
Climate change is also a potential threat. Especially because it is known to disrupt the fruiting pattern of plants. “In such a tightly connected ecosystem, a bad fruiting year of just one or two can have a significant impact on hornbill populations,” explained Dr. Naniwa Decal.
Rats not native to the island also invaded Narucon Dam. Early camera trap studies suggest that they eat a wide range of specific seeds and may ultimately alter the composition of the island’s flowers.
At the end of my nearly two-month stay, when some of us set out on an inflatable raft towards our extraction ship, I saw a pair of hornbills shining in the golden light of dawn in the sky. I saw it flying. As Dr. Naniwa Decal once explained, I thought this might be the last time I turned to these birds. It’s a true “evolutionary wonder”.
“They should be given the same respect and protection we provide to the artificial wonders of our world,” he added.
Prasenjeet Yadav A natural history and science photographer based in Bangalore, India.You can follow his work Instagram When twitter..