The tsunami tragedy: OBC's perspective

by Brian Sykes from BirdingASIA 3, June 2005.

All members of OBC will be fully aware of the widespread destruction that resulted from the tsunami waves generated by the massive earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, on the morning of 26 December 2004. In the aftermath of the terrible humanitarian disaster that affected thousands of kilometres of coastal South and South-East Asia, as well as parts of East Africa, the immediate priority was to prevent disease and further mortality amongst the human population in the areas affected, and to begin the process of reconstruction of lives and livelihoods including basic services. The worst-hit areas were Indonesia (particularly Sumatra, where the large town of Banda Aceh was almost obliterated), Sri Lanka, India (the south-east coast and the Andaman and Nicobar island groups in the Bay of Bengal) and Thailand (the west coast of the Thai Peninsula), with a total death toll in the order of a quarter of a million people. In the following review, I draw on the BirdLife International website.

The immediate biodiversity impacts of the Asian tsunami tragedy The tsunami event is likely to have had some significant impacts on biodiversity, and once the situation has been stabilised these will need to be addressed, although clearly it will be some time yet before certain localities can be fully assessed. The direct impacts of the tsunami on birds and other biodiversity are likely to include: Direct mortality: In the case of birds, this is probably generally low because of their ability to escape, except perhaps in those areas very close to the epicentre of the earthquake (i. e. Aceh, northern Sumatra, and the southern Nicobar Islands). Mammals (and other biodiversity) in the coastal lowlands that were hit by the tsunami are likely to have been more badly affected.

Main area affected by the tsunami

Main area affected by the tsunami

Damage to forests: Television footage and eyewitness accounts suggest that forest areas remain largely intact, even in the worst-affected parts, but it is possible that there will be a die-back of vegetation because of salt-water intrusion. This could potentially affect large areas of lowland forest, and might have a significant effect on some low-lying islands where much of the forest was exposed to sea-water (e.g. the southern Nicobar Islands). It is also possible that coastal mangrove forests were damaged in areas close to the epicentre of the earthquake.

Damage to conservation infrastructure: In Aceh many government and NGO staff involved in wildlife conservation were tragically killed or lost members of their families. Throughout the tsunami zone, protected areas infrastructure and management systems have been destroyed or severely damaged, putting back by years the conservation efforts for these areas.

Damage to wetlands: Many coastal wetlands will have been affected by the large inflow of saltwater and wreckage during the tsunami, with longer-term effects including changes in their hydrology caused by changes to coastlines and damage to sea-defences.

Endemic Bird Areas

Andaman Islands: Eight bird species are endemic to the Andaman Islands, and four restricted-range species are shared with the Nicobar Islands. One of the endemic species is globally threatened, Narcondam Hornbill Aceros narcondami, which is confined to the tiny island of Narcondam (<7 km2). All of the restricted-range species are forest birds, and, given that most of the islands are hilly and these islands are several hundred kilometres from the epicentre of the earthquake, it is probably unlikely that these birds will have been seriously affected. However, the status of Narcondam Hornbill needs to be assessed quickly, given the very small size of the island and its potential vulnerability. The Andaman Teal Anas (gibberifrons) albogularis, endemic to the Andamans, is scarce and has recently declined, and is likely to have been affected by the tsunami because of its coastal distribution. This duck is usually treated as a subspecies of Sunda Teal Anas gibberifrons, but it has been proposed that it should be treated as a full species.

Nicobar Islands: Five bird species are endemic to the Nicobar Islands, and four restricted-range species are shared with the Andaman Islands. Three of the endemic species are globally threatened, Nicobar Sparrowhawk Accipiter butleri, Nicobar Megapode Megapodius nicobariensis and Nicobar Bulbul Hypsipetes nicobariensis; of these, Nicobar Megapode is of particular concern because the greatest concentrations are found in coastal forest. The other two endemic species, South Nicobar Serpent-eagle Spilornis klossi and Nicobar Parakeet Psittacula caniceps (both Near Threatened), are confined to the southern islands, and may have been affected because their ranges are very close to the epicentre of the earthquake. Surveys will be needed to assess the impact of the tsunami on these species.

Enggano Island: Three bird species are endemic to the small Indonesian island of Enggano, Enggano Scops-owl Otus enganensis, Enggano Thrush Zoothera leucolaema and Enggano White-eye Zosterops salvadorii. All are forest birds, and given that the island is hilly and it is several hundred kilometres from the epicentre of the earthquake, they are unlikely to have been significantly affected.

Simeulue Island – secondary area: One bird species is endemic to Simeulue Island, the Simeulue Scops-owl Otus umbra, and another restricted-range species occurs, the globally threatened Silvery Wood-pigeon Columba argentina. Parts of this island are low-lying, and it lies close to the epicentre of the earthquake, so the forest habitat of these birds could have been significantly affected.

Mentawai Islands – secondary area: One bird species is endemic to the Mentawai Islands, the Mentawai Scops-owl Otus mentawi, and another restricted-range species occurs, the globally threatened Silvery Wood-pigeon Columba argentina. Parts of these islands are low-lying, and they are within a few hundred kilometres of the epicentre of the earthquake, so the forest habitat of these birds might have been affected.

Key habitats for globally threatened birds Sundaic (or Sundaland) lowland forests: The lowland forests on the islands of Sumatra, Borneo, Java and the Thai-Malay Peninsula are one of the richest but most threatened habitats in the world. The lowland forests on Sumatra support 14 globally threatened bird species (including three forest waterbirds mentioned below). Although only limited areas of these forests are likely to have been directly damaged, it is possible that additional areas could be affected during the reconstruction process on Sumatra and associated islands.

Mangrove forests: Mangroves are the natural habitat along many of the coasts in the tsunami zone, although large areas have been cleared or degraded. High proportions of the global ranges of two Near Threatened mangrove-specialist species, Brown-winged Kingfisher Pelargopsis amauropterus and Mangrove Pitta Pitta megarhyncha, are largely confined to the Indian Ocean coastlines affected by the tsunami. They may have suffered some direct mortality during the tsunami or through damage to their mangrove habitat.

Globally threatened birds The following globally threatened waterbird species occur in some of the wetlands affected by the tsunami: Spot-billed Pelican Pelecanus philippensis, Milky Stork Mycteria cinerea, Lesser Adjutant Leptoptilos javanicus, Spotted Greenshank Tringa guttifer, Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus and Indian Skimmer Rynchops albicollis.

Three threatened waterbirds, Storm's Stork Ciconia stormi, White-winged Duck Cairina scutulata and Masked Finfoot Heliopais personata, occur in swamp forests (and sometimes mangroves) including at some localities near the coast. A few of the threatened waterbird species will have been nesting at the time of the tsunami, including Spot-billed Pelican on Sri Lanka, and it is possible that there will have been some mortality of chicks at their nesting colonies. Otherwise, although many wetlands will be somewhat changed in character by the tsunami, it appears unlikely that there will be significant negative effects on any of the species listed above. Indeed, some wetlands (including shrimp ponds and salt pans) might revert to more natural ecosystems, which could (at least in the short term) be of benefit to some waterbirds.

Two threatened seabirds occur in this part of the Indian Ocean, Abbott's Booby Papasula abbotti and Christmas Island Frigatebird Fregata andrewsi, although neither is likely to have been affected. Colonies of some nesting seabirds, for example terns and noddies in the Maldives, may have suffered complete loss of chicks and eggs, and some nesting islands may be gone altogether, but these species are generally able to adapt to such losses and can be expected to re-nest or seek out new nesting sites.

Indirect and long-term impacts on birds and biodiversity Despite the wealth of biodiversity in the region affected by the tsunami, this preliminary assessment indicates that few (if any) threatened species are likely to have been seriously affected by its direct effects, and no extinctions are predicted. However, surveys are needed to confirm the situation, particularly in the Nicobar Islands. It is likely that many coastal wetlands will have been affected by the large inflow of salt-water and wreckage during the tsunami, with longer-term effects including changes in their hydrology caused by changes to coastlines and damage to sea-defences. The impact on these areas will need to be assessed with the use of satellite imagery and field visits. Forest habitats, particularly important forest areas on small islands in the Nicobar Islands and off Sumatra, were probably unaffected at first, but some areas could suffer die-off as a result of saltwater intrusion.

In the longer term, the reconstruction process might have significant impacts on biodiversity, particularly if communities of people are to be resettled in forested areas inland. It is important that the environmental impacts of new developments are properly assessed. There is a risk that the disaster is used as a cover for the re-emergence of proposed infrastructure projects that were previously prevented from implementation owing to environmental concerns. There is a danger that shortages of the timber that is urgently needed for reconstruction of buildings and local fishing fleets could lead to the illegal logging and trading of timber. Imported, sustainably produced timber could be supplied free as in-kind assistance by donor states. This measure would greatly reduce the possibility of opportunistic illegal logging of natural forests.

The reconstruction process is likely to provide opportunities better to integrate environmental protection and management with economic development in the region, including the opportunity to conserve and restore coastal habitats such as mangrove as coastal defences.

Recovery - we can all help Apart from the huge sums donated immediately after the event by people worldwide and the possibility that the OBC may be able to help from time to time through the award of conservation grants, are there ways in which we can continue to help?

I have personally visited both southern Thailand and Sri Lanka since the events of 26 December and whilst obviously I am unable to offer any formal scientifically based evidence, what I saw does support much that is written above. As birdwatchers, the best way we can help from now on is by visiting the affected areas. The most important way this helps is by putting cash in the pockets of the local people and helping them re-build their lives. Even in the Klong Thom basin (home to Gurney's Pitta), which was physically unaffected, there has been a human impact and I have met several local people who had been employed in the tourist hotels north of Krabi town, had lucky escapes and are now without gainful employment thanks to the destruction. In Sri Lanka the human situation is far worse and, in addition to the tragedy, the loss of tourism affects many livelihoods outside the immediate hotel trade and throughout the entire country.

It was quite by chance that Margaret and I made our first post-tsunami visit to Krabi within ten days of the event - we were on a planned holiday to Thailand and were in fact overflying Bangladesh when the earthquake occurred. Our immediate reaction was to cancel our plans in the south of Thailand, but our local contacts encouraged us to continue. We found Krabi town untouched and the rich mangrove forest intact. Krabi had been protected from the full force of the tsunami waves that had dissipated their energy on Phuket and the Ko Phi Phi islands - the latter being overwhelmed by the wave with heavy loss of life. We were the first foreigners to venture into the strangely quiet mangroves, almost devoid of local fishermen, but alive with Brown-winged Kingfishers and calling Mangrove Pitta. At least this small corner survived intact. During a subsequent visit, I was able to see at first hand that the islands at the mouth of the Krabi river and the adjacent mudflats famous for wintering Nordmann's Greenshank were also intact and being utilised by feeding shorebirds.

I first visited Sri Lanka in January 2002, when we enjoyed relaxed birding in beautiful and varied habitats with the chance of many stunning endemics. Even at that time the number of people dependent on tourism in which birdwatching played a significant part was self-evident. I decided to make a brief visit to Sri Lanka in late March 2005; in the short time available I split my time between the beautiful forests of Sinharaja and the coastal areas around Tissa including Yala National Park, to look at the effects of the tsunami on the people and wildlife of this area. Sinharaja was as I remembered it, a great area of forest containing wonderful species as well as a good many less desirable leeches!

The manner in which the tsunami waves had penetrated all the weak spots along the south coast was all too apparent to anyone who had visited the area before, but the scale of the clean-up had been enormous, given the delays created by requests from western nations in some localities to allow exhumation of bodies hastily buried in the immediate aftermath. But it was poignant to see the number of tented villages still occupied by survivors awaiting more permanent housing. The scale of destruction and loss of life in the small coastal towns has been enormous. Some communities have suffered as much as 70% mortality. How easy is it for them to rebuild? Even so, shops that had suffered only minor damage had reopened, and farmers were working the ricefields. Life goes on, and the small towns just a short distance inland are physically untouched. Whilst the human tragedy is enormous and the healing process slow and painful, there were many signs that nature is bouncing back. The coastal lagoons on the approaches to Yala from the west appeared just as they were in 2002, and they were teeming with birdlife. I saw many good species of shorebirds as well as many resident breeding birds - breeding was in full swing. Whilst many bushes and trees had been uprooted and killed, those that remained were putting on new foliage following the rains, and indeed rain showers in the days following the tsunami may well have helped to flush away saltwater residues.

I came away feeling that there was a good chance that nature was busy restoring herself, but the human population needed help. More than 300 people were employed as drivers of tourist jeeps in national parks such as Yala, and presently they are amongst those in the frontline of suffering in the aftermath: without visitors they have no livelihood. They along with all other Sri Lankans dependent on tourism can best be helped by the immediate return of overseas visitors who put their tourist dollars into the economy of this beautiful country. But this message applies, of course, to all the countries affected by the tsunami. OBC members can all contribute to the recovery by choosing to holiday in one of these afflicted areas in the coming year.

Acknowledgements I would like to thank BirdLife International for allowing me to use the information on their website in compiling this review.

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