Interview conducted by Advaith Jaikumar
On the occasion of the International Day of Action for Rivers, we had the pleasure of speaking with Parveen Shaikh, a scientist at the Bombay Natural History Society, working to conserve the endangered Indian skimmers along the Chambal river.
Parveen training nest guardians in monitoring Indian Skimmer nests and data collection over smartphone
This day celebrates the world's waterways and highlights the need for improved management and conservation efforts to protect these vital ecosystems. Parveen's work is a testament to the importance of scientific research and community involvement in safeguarding the health of our rivers and the species that depend on them.
In this interview, Parveen shares insights into the threats facing the Indian skimmer population and the steps being taken to protect them. She also discusses the broader challenges involved in balancing the needs of all species and stakeholders along India's rivers.
Advaith: Hi, Parveen. It is great to have the opportunity to speak with you on the International Day of Action for Rivers. I am really excited to learn more about your inspiring work, and it is an excellent way for us at WCS-India to commemorate today.
Parveen: Thank you for having me; I'm happy to discuss my work. Although it focuses on one particular river, the event highlights rivers internationally.
Advaith: That's perfectly fine. At WCS-India, we believe that these international days are excellent opportunities to spotlight the diverse conservation projects running in India. Could you tell us more about where you work and why you chose this river for your research?
Parveen: Sure. We began working in the Chambal River in 2017. Chambal is one of the clearest rivers in the country and is an important nesting site for the endangered Indian skimmer and other birds, such as the black-bellied tern. However, the number of skimmers was declining, and not much was known about them. Therefore, we wanted to study and understand more about their status, where they nest and what's going wrong at these nesting sites.
Indian Skimmers cooling on a hot summer | © Parveen Shaikh
Advaith: That's fascinating! Could you explain why the Indian skimmers in the Chambal are threatened?
Parveen: Certainly. The Chambal river has four major dams upstream, three existing lift irrigation plants and two under-lift irrigation plants in construction. These water extraction projects affect the river’s water flow, not maintaining the minimum flow rate during the dry season. There is also rampant illegal sand mining in the river. Both pose a serious risk to the Indian skimmers which nest on the sandbars.
Advaith: I see. Do the Indian skimmers not build typical nests?
Parveen: That's right. When summer comes, the dropping water level exposes stretches of sand in mid-river channels called sandbars, where the Indian skimmer nests. The skimmer pair dig a shallow nest or ‘scrape’ in the sand and lay their eggs directly.
Advaith: Doesn't this leave the nest open to potential threats?
Parveen: Yes, it does. But the skimmers have evolved to nest in this way. The water surrounding these mid-river sandbars provides natural protection to the nests from any predators or disturbances. Unfortunately, the current situation of reduced water level in the river is one of the main reasons for their decline. The water level drops further during peak summer, worsening the situation and severely affecting the minimum flow rate, connecting the sandbars with the bank. This exposes the skimmer nests to threats from predators such as free-ranging dogs and jackals by allowing access. Moreover, livestock ventures close to the river during summer, so many nests get trampled.
Cattle near the nesting colony of Indian Skimmer | © Parveen Shaikh
Advaith: This seems like such a challenging situation for these birds! What are some potential solutions?
Parveen: One of the most direct solutions is to maintain the minimum flow rate of the river. Moreover, sand mining also poses a threat, and since it is a politically sensitive issue, it must be managed better. We have tried experimenting with a few other solutions involving local communities. One such initiative is the Nest Guardian Programme, wherein locals are stationed around Indian skimmer nests to guard them and chase away predators or livestock wandering nearby. This has proven to be largely effective.
Camping hut for the nest guardians on the river bank
Advaith: That really emphasises how involving local communities in conservation can make a significant difference! Does the problem that exists in the Chambal occur in other rivers throughout India?
Parveen: While the exact same situation may not occur, solving water-related issues is always a big challenge in India. For example, we also worked in the river Son in Madhya Pradesh. Here, the number of skimmers nesting is not as high as in the Chambal. However, every year there are instances where the Ban Sagar Dam releases water during peak nesting season, which leads to the drowning of the nests of the inhabitant skimmers.
L: Desertion of eggs due to sudden water release, R: Chicks drowning due to sudden water release
India's rivers are home to a plethora of biodiversity; beyond riverine birds, we have a rich diversity of freshwater turtles, gharials, river dolphins, and many more. Balancing the needs of all species as well as human water use is tricky and needs the involvement of all stakeholders.
One of the key things we need to do is raise awareness about the importance of rivers and the need for conservation. We also need to involve local communities and work with policymakers and decision-makers to ensure that conservation concerns are integrated into policy decisions about water management.
Parveen's research and conservation efforts along the Chambal River provide a model for how science and community involvement can come together to address the complex challenges of balancing human water use with the needs of wildlife and natural ecosystems. We are grateful to Parveen for sharing her insights and experiences with us, and we hope that her work inspires others to take action to protect our precious rivers and the life they sustain.