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.