By the tip of 2019, I used to be prepared for a change of surroundings. Working as a pure historical past photographer, I’d spent the earlier two years monitoring snow leopards within the Himalayas. Then, one snowy afternoon, I obtained a short name from Dr. Rohit Naniwadekar, a chook biologist with the Nature Conservation Foundation. He requested me to get to a small volcanic island within the northern Andaman Sea as shortly as I probably may.
Within every week, I had swapped the seemingly countless landlocked mountains for a tiny speck of land on the edge of the world.
Narcondam Island, a delegated wildlife sanctuary the place Dr. Naniwadekar deliberate to conduct his analysis, provides new that means to the phrase “remote.” Situated about 80 miles to the east of the primary backbone of the Andaman Islands and totaling solely about 2.6 sq. miles (twice the dimensions of Central Park), Narcondam is a dense inexperienced volcanic mountain peeking out of the deep blue water. To date, exceedingly few scientists and pure historical past photographers have set foot on its uninhabited seashores.
Getting to Narcondam, which is a component of the Indian union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, wasn’t simple. After gaining the correct authorities permits, we caught a flight from mainland India to the Andaman Islands — easy sufficient. But that was adopted by an extended night time in tough seas to achieve Narcondam. Moreover, the island doesn’t have a docking or delicate touchdown choice, so we needed to soar into tiny rubber boats and combat the waves earlier than disembarking. We had been drenched from head to toe.
Finally, the 5 of us — three scientists, a wildlife biologist turned artist and I — discovered ourselves solid away with not way more than our gear, some dry rations and a wholesome dose of pleasure.
The crew’s principal objective was to check and doc the Narcondam hornbill (Rhyticeros narcondami), which is endangered and endemic to the island. As luck would have it, we noticed our first pair flying above the seaside as quickly as we hit land.
Having seen the Great Hornbill of mainland India myself, I observed that these hornbills had been smaller than I had anticipated. But they had been nonetheless gorgeous. The male is a bit bigger in measurement, with a rufous-colored head and black physique, whereas the feminine is fully black. The chook’s closest extant relative is the Blyth’s hornbill, present in Papua New Guinea.
Within just a few hours of our arrival, we realized that Narcondam hornbills had been in excessive abundance, even when restricted to the island’s tiny space. Determining what number of of them exist and what elements encourage their abundance had been two of the crucial questions that Dr. Naniwadekar’s crew aimed to know throughout the two-month go to.
Exploring Narcondam was a problem. Its steep terrain consists of ridges and valleys fashioned out of free, crumbly rock, which is held collectively by seemingly impenetrable shrubbery and woody climbing crops referred to as lianas.
Still, every day we set out in a special path from our base, permitting the island’s magnificence to unfold earlier than us. Some patches had been dry and reminiscent of a deciduous jungle, whereas others had been mist-laden and referred to as to thoughts dense cloud forests.
We made our approach throughout tangled underbrush on our arms and knees, and gazed up at big buttress timber, some 130 ft tall, filtering daylight by layers of the cover all the way down to a carpet of ferns beneath.
In time, the crew started investigating the hornbill’s stunning abundance. They walked line transects at completely different elevations to estimate the chook’s inhabitants densities. Vegetation plots had been specified by an try to know floral range. Camera traps had been put in close to fruiting timber to check the impacts of rodents on native crops.
The work was time-consuming, bodily demanding and monotonous, however the thrill of discovering and figuring out completely different species of crops and animals whereas out within the subject was sufficient to buoy the spirits of your complete get together.
During the day, shouts of Latin names of numerous crops and birds echoed by the forest. Come night, we’d chill with contemporary coconut water within the consolation of a hammock. At night time, we’d stare out into the ocean, considering the bottom of the island that lies beneath the water’s floor, dreaming of all of the life we couldn’t see.
Some days, I’d enterprise out alone to search for nests, sitting in timber for hours on finish with a zoom lens, hoping to seize close-up photographs of the hornbill. I grew to become fondly accustomed to the ruckus they’d create whereas playfully chasing one another or feeding on a ficus tree.
Narcondam hornbills have huge beaks that they use to pluck thick fruit, which they proceed to toss delicately into the air earlier than swallowing it or giving it to a mate.
It was courtship time, and we had been handled to an explosion of conduct that was troublesome to unravel. For weeks, we noticed fixed vocalization, courtship feeding and pair-bonding between potential mates as they referred to as out to one another. The pairs would dangle round nests, cleansing them in flip, flying collectively, feeding collectively, preening each other ever so gently.
While I used to be busy photographing these birds, the crew began to piece collectively the puzzle of the hornbills’ inhabitants. They estimated practically 1,000 birds, similar to a density of about 390 birds per sq. mile — far exceeding all of the recorded densities for another hornbill species on the planet.
Furthermore, the density of the island’s fruit timber — particularly that of the figs consumed by Narcondam hornbills — was between two and 10 instances as excessive as in comparable forests.
“Figs have a unique feature of staggered fruiting,” defined Dr. Navendu Page, a scientist on the Wildlife Institute of India and the crew’s botanist. “So at any given time there are a few trees in fruit on the island, which ensures a constant supply of food for the hornbills year-round.”
Besides figs, different native crops additionally happen in profusion. And since hornbills are the biggest frugivore on the island, Dr. Page theorizes that the birds successfully tweak the distribution of timber to favor those they feed on. In different phrases: By spreading the seeds by their droppings, the hornbills are steadily remodeling the island into their very own Garden of Eden.
Still, the birds face challenges. In current years, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been a crucial asset to India within the nation’s effort to counter China’s enlargement into the Indian Ocean. As such, the archipelago faces danger from potential infrastructural improvement.
Climate change can also be a possible menace, notably because it’s recognized to disrupt the fruiting patterns of crops. “In such a tightly connected ecosystem,” Dr. Naniwadekar defined, “just one or two bad fruiting years might substantially impact the hornbill population.”
Rats, not native to the island, have additionally invaded Narcondam. Initial digicam lure research recommend that they’re feeding extensively on sure seeds and would possibly ultimately alter the island’s floral composition.
At the tip of our practically two-month sojourn, as some of us departed on rubber boats towards our extraction ship, I noticed a pair of hornbills flying into the open sky, glowing within the golden mild of daybreak. It struck me that this could be the final time I set eyes on these birds — true “evolutionary wonders,” as Dr. Naniwadekar had as soon as described them.
“They should be given the same respect and protection that we offer to the man-made wonders of our world,” he added.
Prasenjeet Yadav is a pure historical past and science photographer primarily based in Bangalore, India. You can observe his work on Instagram and Twitter.