Photo Story

River Recluse: The White-bellied Heron of Namdapha National Park

A small population of these critically endangered birds live a quiet, secluded life in the wilderness of Arunachal Pradesh

Text by: Sustain Team

In a world increasingly besotted with concrete comforts, Arunachal Pradesh is a rare gem. India’s easternmost state has over 79 per cent green cover (as per the Forest Survey of India 2019) and is bordered by the Himalayas in the north, and Myanmar in the south. It has high mountains, vast rivers, and towering forests that breed diversity: from tigers, red pandas, and rhododendron to exquisite orchids no larger than a fingernail.

Among this colourful cast of characters is a sleek, grey hermit of a bird called the white-bellied heron (Ardea insignis). White-bellied herons are also called imperial herons, due to their stately presence. Adult birds can grow more than four feet in height and are affectionately called “Amitabh Bachchan chidiya” by guides in Arunachal’s Namdapha National Park. They are, however, extremely rare. Scientist Megha Rao had only 12 sightings during her six-month study to assess their status in Northeast India. “Our aim was to study the population of white-bellied herons in Namdapha but also check for distribution across Arunachal Pradesh,” says Rao, who works with the Nature Conservation Organisation, and co-authored a paper on the species in 2020. “We did a lot of fieldwork, interviewed people, traversed the rivers, but sadly, we did not see the bird anywhere other than Namdapha.”

Part of the reason they saw such few birds is that numbers are very low. The IUCN Red List classifies the white-bellied heron as “Critically Endangered” and estimates there are between 50 to 249 mature individuals left in the wild. “Our 12 sightings could have been the same bird,” Rao says, as it is difficult to conclusively identify birds without tagging them, “but I think it was more like, six birds”.

The other reason is the landscape of Namdapha. Unlike national parks such as Corbett in Uttarakhand or Tadoba in Maharashtra, Namdapha does not have roads, or offer safaris of any kind. All explorations through the 1,985-sq-km reserve must be done on foot — a task that is gruelling, and time-consuming, especially on a survey.

Globally, the white-bellied heron is found from lowlands to altitudes of 1,500 m, with known populations in India, Bhutan, and Myanmar. “There have been reports from a single province in China, but it is not confirmed,” Rao says. In the past, the birds also inhabited parts of Nepal and Bangladesh, but are now extinct there.

The Himalayas lie to the north of Namdapha National Park and the Patkai hills to the south. The park is fed by two main freshwater bodies: the Namdapha river, and Noa-Dihing, a tributary of the Brahmaputra. The UNESCO World Heritage website calls the region “Among the last great remote wilderness areas of Asia”.  Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

The Himalayas lie to the north of Namdapha National Park and the Patkai hills to the south. The park is fed by two main freshwater bodies: the Namdapha river, and Noa-Dihing, a tributary of the Brahmaputra. The UNESCO World Heritage website calls the region “Among the last great remote wilderness areas of Asia”.
Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

The park’s isolated location makes it suitable for the white-bellied heron. The reclusive, riverine bird spends its days by the water, living a largely solitary existence, except during breeding time, when pairs come together. “Both males and females help in raising chicks,” Rao says, “with females generally laying about 2-3 eggs at most.” Sexes are largely similar in size and build, though females tend to have slightly paler plumage. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

The park’s isolated location makes it suitable for the white-bellied heron. The reclusive, riverine bird spends its days by the water, living a largely solitary existence, except during breeding time, when pairs come together. “Both males and females help in raising chicks,” Rao says, “with females generally laying about 2-3 eggs at most.” Sexes are largely similar in size and build, though females tend to have slightly paler plumage. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

White-bellied herons begin their morning with a recce of the river. “Most mornings, just before sunrise, I would see them fly past, along the river, to pick a spot to hunt for the day,” says wildlife photographer Sagar Gosavi who has been visiting Namdapha annually for 12 years now. “Sometimes I see them in rapidly flowing sections, and sometimes near very still sections of the river, but always in areas where there is less human activity.” Photo: Sagar Gosavi

White-bellied herons begin their morning with a recce of the river. “Most mornings, just before sunrise, I would see them fly past, along the river, to pick a spot to hunt for the day,” says wildlife photographer Sagar Gosavi who has been visiting Namdapha annually for 12 years now. “Sometimes I see them in rapidly flowing sections, and sometimes near very still sections of the river, but always in areas where there is less human activity.” Photo: Sagar Gosavi

Photographing a bird that is so elusive isn’t easy. It wasn’t until Gosavi’s fourth trip to Namdapha that he captured an image. “I saw them on nearly every trip, but they were always far away, and would fly away as soon as they saw us,” he says. To make his presence less conspicuous, the photographer built a camouflaged hide covered with leaves, and spent days sitting there. It was “just me and my packets of biscuits”, until he was finally rewarded with this photograph. “That day, I got to watch the bird for hours, ” he says. Photo: Sagar Gosavi

Photographing a bird that is so elusive isn’t easy. It wasn’t until Gosavi’s fourth trip to Namdapha that he captured an image. “I saw them on nearly every trip, but they were always far away, and would fly away as soon as they saw us,” he says. To make his presence less conspicuous, the photographer built a camouflaged hide covered with leaves, and spent days sitting there. It was “just me and my packets of biscuits”, until he was finally rewarded with this photograph. “That day, I got to watch the bird for hours, ” he says. Photo: Sagar Gosavi

White-bellied herons are skilled hunters. The fish-eating birds spend countless hours every day, snapping up fish from the waters of the Namdapha and Noa-Dihing rivers. “It is a big bird, with a really strong beak, so it can snap up fish when they hit the rapids,” Rao says. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

White-bellied herons are skilled hunters. The fish-eating birds spend countless hours every day, snapping up fish from the waters of the Namdapha and Noa-Dihing rivers. “It is a big bird, with a really strong beak, so it can snap up fish when they hit the rapids,” Rao says. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

India’s research into the white-bellied heron is fledgeling. We know the birds breed in Namdapha, due to earlier research papers documenting nesting sites, but the details are hazy. “Breeding season is during the summer months, from March onwards,” explains Rao, “but nobody has studied the entire breeding season in Namdapha because the rains start soon after, causing the rivers to swell, and everything floods.” Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee India’s research into the white-bellied heron is fledgeling. We know the birds breed in Namdapha, due to earlier research papers documenting nesting sites, but the details are hazy. “Breeding season is during the summer months, from March onwards,” explains Rao, “but nobody has studied the entire breeding season in Namdapha because the rains start soon after, causing the rivers to swell, and everything floods.” Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

India’s research into the white-bellied heron is fledgeling. We know the birds breed in Namdapha, due to earlier research papers documenting nesting sites, but the details are hazy. “Breeding season is during the summer months, from March onwards,” explains Rao, “but nobody has studied the entire breeding season in Namdapha because the rains start soon after, causing the rivers to swell, and everything floods.” Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

In addition to the birds, animals, and riverine life, the reserve also supports human populations that live in and around the national park. The woman (left) is a member of the Lisu tribe, an indigenous minority with a deep knowledge of the landscape and its inhabitants. In the absence of roads to connect Lisu villages to nearby towns, locals often traverse the forest, sometimes for days before they reach their destination. On other occasions, they make bamboo rafts (right) to transport materials to and from settlements in the region. Photos: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Like many riverine species, the future of the white-bellied heron depends on the vitality of our rivers. “For now, there are no hydro-projects upstream of the birds, but we are talking about only one population,” explains Megha. “There might be others that we don’t know about and considering the number of proposed dam projects in Arunachal Pradesh, it does not look good at all.” The focus, she says, needs to be on exploratory research, so other populations can be found and secured, and the “Amitabh Bachchan chidiya” can continue its meditative life in the Himalayas. Photo: Sagar Gosavi

Like many riverine species, the future of the white-bellied heron depends on the vitality of our rivers. “For now, there are no hydro-projects upstream of the birds, but we are talking about only one population,” explains Megha. “There might be others that we don’t know about and considering the number of proposed dam projects in Arunachal Pradesh, it does not look good at all.” The focus, she says, needs to be on exploratory research, so other populations can be found and secured, and the “Amitabh Bachchan chidiya” can continue its meditative life in the Himalayas. Photo: Sagar Gosavi

Sustain Team
Sustain Team

We are a driven group of people from diverse backgrounds, bound by an abiding love for India’s natural world.


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