Wildlife Watch

Wild Life Watch

The discovery of the Liocichla
By Lt Gen (Retd) Baljit Singh.
Photo: Rohan Pandit

In the vast Eastern Himalayan region of India, an obscure 218 sq km forest tract acquired worldwide fame overnight among ornithologists. On 25 May 2006, Ramana Athreya discovered a new Indian bird hitherto unknown to science. And with that the count of bird species for India which had stood at 1225 since 1948, moved up by one digit!

Indians through ages have lived in close communion with birds and animals. Through Indian epics, classics and the lives and accounts of philosophers, kings and sages, most Indian birds have been made familiar. But there was no tradition of recording where any bird was first seen, by whom, its field biology and so on. Seen from that context, the present discovery created an exciting bench-mark for Indian ornithology. Now for the first time a bird species has been discovered by an Indian whose identity we know, and whose scientific data too has been successfully compiled. Secondly, in all likelihood, the discovered bird is endemic to India alone making it a rarity meant to be especially cherished and preserved for posterity.

The discovery became public only in Sept 2006 as it was necessary to first slot it correctly within the established ornithological systemic order. The bird was identified as belonging to the Asian Babbler family and of Liocichla genus. Ramana had promptly named it the "Bugun Liocichla" after the Bugun tribe who cohabit that forest tract with this bird. And as all birds must have a scientific

name for case of international usage, the name got Latinized into Liocichla Bugunorum.

The manner of this discovery makes a fascinating tale of adventure. Ramana graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur in 1989. He is a Radio Astronomer of international standing, currently on the rolls of the National Centre for Astrophysics located on the Pune University campus. Outside his profession, Ramana's passion lies in bird-watching.

In 1995 he had gone visiting his wife who, for her doctoral thesis, was pursuing a field project in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. That is when he caught his first and only glimpse of a bird, in the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, which appeared distinctly different from any known species. Then he had to wait for ten long, agonising years for the second encounter with the bird in 2005!

The Eaglenest Sanctuary which lies midway on the road Tezpur-Bomdila-Tawang was to ultimately yield full access to its prized and elusive denizen to Ramana in 2006. Early in the year and over several days, he was able to record the song of the bird on tape and sight fourteen birds in all. And on 25 May 2006, with permission from the government he succeeded in netting one! In less than two hours, Ramana had made a complete photographic album, taken bodily measurements with vernier calipers, removed two loose feathers (one from the tail and another from the wing) and released the bird to join its kin. And from that moment, the Bugun Liocichla became a fact of life!

Most of us are attracted to a bird either by the brilliance of its plumage or the appeal of its song. Where the Bugun Liocichla is concerned, the shades of red, black, flaming orange, yellow, olive, brown, silver and white on its plumage are deftly interwoven into colourful harmony. And the overall color impact is so sublime that the viewer can never have enough of the bird.

All discoveries come at a price always. There is the apprehension that as the unscrupulous are known to pay enormous sums to obtain the rare Lady Slipper orchid from the Easter Himalayas, they may next want to possess a live or dead specimen of this bird. It is a challenge for all Indians and the international community of ornithologists to rise to the occasion with proactive measures which will prevent this precious bird from becoming one more item of commerce in the illicit international wildlife trade.


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