Social media has become a important tools to share information about wildlife. But it can go rogue too
“I have given in to death but look closely at my beak. In it are the fruits I had collected for my love (mate) and the child I have not yet seen. Your mad rush has killed not one but three lives…, ” posted a distraught Baiju Vasudevan on Facebook last month. That morning, the birdwatcher had photographed a lifeless Malabar grey hornbill lying next to State Highway 21, which cuts through the Athirapally-Vazhachal reserve forests of Thrissur, Kerala.
“When I zoomed into my picture, I realised the male bird had fruits in its beak,” says Vasudevan. This was an important observation: a male hornbill is the sole food-provider for its mate and chicks during the breeding season. When the female lays eggs in a carefully-chosen tree hole, she seals herself in with her own excreta. In the next three months, she lays eggs, moults, and tends to the chicks when the eggs hatch.
Another birdwatcher, who read Vasudevan’s post, wrote a comment that would prove a turning point: the fruit-carrying bird would not have glided low enough to be hit by a vehicle unless its nest hadn’t been close by.
The next morning, the Kadar tribal community, forest officials and Vasudevan began a search. The nest was found, and the Forest Department took on the responsibility of feeding the hornbills. This unusual piece of news spread among Kerala’s nature enthusiasts, and news channels began giving regular updates on the birds’ progress.
As the reach of social networking grows, such instances of wildlife activism are no longer uncommon. Social media platforms are turning out to be important tools to share information about wildlife — they offer insights into species’ distribution, threats they may face, or help gather volunteers.
Back in 2015, botanists declared the magnificent sundew as the first-ever plant to be ‘discovered on Facebook’. An amateur researcher had photographed it on a remote mountaintop in Brazil, and his images on social media piqued the interest of scientists. Studies then revealed that it was a critically-endangered species, new to science.
In India too, such serendipitous social media discoveries have been many. In 2015, ornithologist Bikram Grewal posted an 1840s illustration of a blue pitta on Facebook and described it as “arguably India’s rarest bird”. Some people commented that there were no photographs of the bird in the wild from India. This caught researcher Priya Singh’s eye: “That’s when I realised what our camera trap images of the bird from Mizoram’s Dampa Tiger Reserve meant,” says Singh, who then published her find.
Scientist Chandrima Home, of Bengaluru’s Ashoka Trust for Ecology and Environment, created a Facebook group in an attempt to gather data about domestic dogs attacking wildlife in India.
Home received information about 27 such instances through the group between 2011 and 2016. “But people tend to observe larger species being attacked,” she says. “Also, much of the information is intermittent… posts are not too frequent.” Such biases could be a concern while using data obtained through social media sites, but it still has its uses, she says.
Vijay Barve, an ecologist with University of Florida, has studied the use of social networking sites as a source of record of biodiversity distribution. His research shows that information about birds on Flickr can supplement existing information on the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, the largest aggregator of such data.
Social media could even trump traditional approaches when it comes to biodiversity data collection, especially in developing countries, he finds.
Sometimes, online fora catalyse communities coming together offline. For instance, a month ago, Vasudevan posted a request on Facebook asking people to help forest officials fighting a series of forest fires near Athirapally. By the next day, he had managed to get nearly 100 volunteers to beat out the flames.
Likewise, Arun Krishnamurthy of the Chennai-based Environmentalist Foundation of India called for volunteers on social media to clean the oil spill on Chennai’s coast last year.
But there’s a flipside: some of the attention it brings is less than desirable, especially when species’ locations are revealed. For instance, when a rare bird is sighted, large groups of photographers often throng to the spot; some even use unethical bait — food or birdcalls — to attract the birds and get the perfect shot.
Addicted to likes
Another danger is the addiction to public sharing and gathering ‘likes’. “Most people post on social media because fame is a huge incentive,” says Seshadri K.S., an amphibian biologist. “But in the process, they often handle frogs. This is unethical, because people can spread diseases to the animal. Many people have pulled down images once I point that out.”
In fact, the news of Athirapally’s Malabar grey hornbills brought in so many mediapersons competing to document the feeding of the birds that Divisional Forest Officer Rajesh N. had to restrict entry to the area, he says.
Vasudevan says some of them even placed cameras in the tree hole; a video taken using a pinhole camera, which clearly shows the mother and its chick, is currently circulating on Facebook.
Though the feeding probably saved the mother, it could have also been one of the reasons why she left the nest a few days later and never came back to feed her chick. The chick eventually died, despite efforts to keep it alive.
“I agree that media attention can increase awareness, but whether it is good or bad, there is no straight answer,” says Rajesh. “We cannot feed every single bird that comes our way. We have to let nature take its own course.”