Project Overview

Fifty-seven years. That’s how much time went by between the 1947 discovery of the Mishmi Wren-babbler and when a person reported seeing the bird again. The Eastern Himalayas—the species’ only home—has the second-highest terrestrial biodiversity on the planet, making it a bona fide biodiversity hotspot. But because it is so remote and its infrastructure so rudimentary, the Eastern Himalayas is understudied and underexplored, leaving species to remain undiscovered or to go unseen for decades on end.

“The fact that we’re working in an almost unknown, insanely biodiverse area usually means that anything you see that isn’t a bird, mammal or butterfly has a decent shot at being undescribed,” says GWC Associate Conservation Scientist Gautam Surya, who is leading the work in this region. “There’s so much there we know nothing about, and it could vanish before we ever knew it was there.”

As threats to habitat in the region of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh mount, Global Wildlife Conservation is working to get a handle on which species reside here, where they live and what habitat they need to survive, especially as climate change alters natural areas and the surrounding human population continues to grow. Surya is focused primarily on surveying the bird life, specifically, at Arunachal Pradesh to better understand the distributions of bird species here. This work will ultimately lead to an effective conservation plan for this beautiful region that is vital for global biodiversity.

Project Goals

Accommodations at one of GWC Associate Conservation Scientist Gautam Surya’s field sites in Mandala in West Kameng district in Arunachal Pradesh  (Photo courtesy of Gautam S. Surya)

To understand the distribution of birds in Arunachal Pradesh. Rapid, wide-ranging surveys across the region will help researchers better understand where the birds are found and how the populations are distributed. Surya and his team aim to survey a wide range of altitudes to fully capture patterns of avian diversity, focused on the valleys created by five large rivers (the Kameng, Subansiri, Dibang, Siang and Lohit), all of which originate in or near Tibet.

To use modeling methods to peek into the harder-to-reach areas. Because Arunachal Pradesh is remote, with a rudimentary road network, it’s difficult for researchers to access. In addition, a large chunk of the state is under the control of the Indian Army and it is difficult for anyone to gain access to Army-controlled areas. This combination makes it impossible for even a large team to survey every square mile of the region. Surya aims to get around this by using a method called “species distribution modeling,” which predicts the presence or absence of a specific species based on a suite of environmental variables such as elevation, land use, percent forest cover, etc. Surya aims to produce distribution models for every species he comes across in his surveys to see if they might also live in the places he can’t physically go.

Rhabdophis sp possibly undescribed

A keelback, possibly undescribed (Rhabdophis sp) found along a major road–a symptom of how unexplored the region is, when a large and conspicuous snake found without much searching might be new to science. (Photo courtesy of Gautam S. Surya)

To evaluate the current system of protected areas and identify areas of highest priority. Although some protected areas have been mapped out in Arunachal Pradesh, they exist only on paper, with little to no work being done on the ground. GWC is trying to understand the extent to which conservation goals are being met and to identify the gaps. Once Surya identifies the locations where action is required for specific species, GWC will work on the ground with local groups, government agencies and other stakeholders to ensure habitat protection for those birds the IUCN Red List classifies as of conservation concern.

To predict the impact of climate change. There’s no doubt that diverse mountain ecosystems are among those most at risk from climate change. In order to better protect Arunachal Pradesh’s diversity, we have to understand how it may respond to the changes that are occurring—and that will only continue to intensify. Species distribution models allow researchers to consider future climate scenarios, helping us better predict where species might end up. Truly effective conservation takes into account not only what it takes to protect a species today but tomorrow, and forever.

Quick Facts

Species

Mishmi Wren-babbler, Bugun Liocichla, Snowy-throated Babbler, Ward’s Trogon, Rufous-throated Wren-babbler

Region

Arunachal Pradesh, India

Habitat

Tropical evergreen montane forest, alpine coniferous forest, areas above treeline

Local Partners

Bugun Welfare Society, Government of Arunachal Pradesh

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