A Brown-Headed Barbet sits on a Sausage Tree. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)

World Earth Day: Rebuild Nature’s Cathedral

BloombergQuintOpinion

The world came together in grief as the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was covered in licks of flames. The cathedral was divinely inspiring—and beyond the conventions of religion—for many. And for all, it stood for beauty.

Beauty is a funny thing; an old familiar. We often find things beautiful because they are steeped in familiarity. Like the instantly recognisable quality of a magnetic setting, one like Paris; and the loved sweep of an old piece of built heritage. Like aquiline features, symmetry and detail, these are universal qualities that make the beautiful. It’s no surprise then, that millions of dollars worth of donations have poured in for Notre Dame within days, all for the purpose of rebuilding the cathedral.

And here is what I ask: I want some cathedrals rebuilt too. These cathedrals are often not seen to be much, but comprise the natural infrastructure that keeps our hearts pumping and our world alive – natural drainage systems like rivers that add moisture to our soil and rain to the air. Trees that not only hold up our forests—running like arteries through hills and plains—but also those that shade our balconies and cheeks. And clear, icy streams that house the rarest of wild souls, like the white-bellied heron and the golden mahaseer fish.

A purple Sunbird drinks from a laburnum blossom in Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar, a site where trees are proposed to be cut for ‘redevelopment’. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)
A purple Sunbird drinks from a laburnum blossom in Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar, a site where trees are proposed to be cut for ‘redevelopment’. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)

India’s Most Endangered Bird

Let me start with the white-bellied heron’s story. Herons are a ubiquitous water bird. Often one will find them frozen stiffly near a water body, still as stone before striking with fury for their prey. The word ‘heronry’ may have come from the fact that some heron species nest together on large trees. Scores of nests on one tree, like an apartment complex, sharing space and the safety of a common shelter. A heronry is a sight to behold, and something you can hear before you see.

Unlike its raucous cousins though, the white-bellied heron is solitary, secretive, vulnerable, a misty ghost. It is India’s most endangered bird. It nests alone. It hunts alone.

Found only in Bhutan, Myanmar and India, and extinct from Nepal and possibly Bangladesh, the entire global population is pegged between 50-200 birds.

In India, there may be less than five birds, four in Namdapha in Arunachal Pradesh. And now, one more. In a development that excited the few people working for white-bellied heron conservation, a single bird was found in a new place this March. In the remote and strikingly beautiful Kamlang Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, close to the confluence of Tawa and Lang rivers, the lesser tributaries of Lohit river. For a global population which may be as less as 60 birds, a single mature bird is a gene pool of great value.

A White-Bellied Heron, at the Kamlang Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, on March 14, 2019. (Photograph: with permission from Kamlang Tiger Reserve)
A White-Bellied Heron, at the Kamlang Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, on March 14, 2019. (Photograph: with permission from Kamlang Tiger Reserve)

Imagine this: a large, grey and white bird, poised like a sniper on a boulder framed by mountains, the ground cut by sparkling streams that most of India does not see. It is a striking scene, but not one that is specifically valued. And here is the cathedral the white-bellied heron needs, one that is going up in metaphoric flames. Kamlang is likely to be affected by dams: the confluence area is about 50 metres from the backwaters of the proposed Lower Demwe dam, which recently received wildlife clearances. White-bellied heron expert Ranjan Kumar Das stresses the bird specifically needs clear streams to hunt. It will not use a habitat which does not have clear and flowing water, submergence by the dam will make the water turbid.

Like the Dodo, this is a bird that the modern age has left behind, with needs that are painfully specific.

These can either be understood and valued, or the bird can go extinct, unseen, and thus unmourned. Whether we visit Arunachal or not, see a white-bellied heron or not, this clear-watered cathedral needs saving.

Mumbai’s Few Links To The Wild

In cities, architects, doctors, students, business owners, and parents are coming together to save spots dear to them. Mumbaikars have come out against a slew of transport-related projects that are meant to make the city better. In the way are seemingly small impediments – marine life on the Worli coastline, holding over 30 marine species that thrive in the zone between high tide and low tide. And a forest of trees in Aarey, which holds small spiders, large leopards, frequent threats, and hopes of citizens who want a greener city. From starfish to anemones to dolphins, a growing number of people are discovering Mumbai’s marine life; the struggling city’s unlikely link to the wild, afloat and alive.

 An octopus on the shore at Worli, Mumbai. (Photograph: with permission from Shaunak Modi)
An octopus on the shore at Worli, Mumbai. (Photograph: with permission from Shaunak Modi)

For residents near Aarey, the forest provides succour, fresh air, and relief from the unending urban building-scape. Each of these places has a different language, a different grammar. Each houses a different kind of wilderness, which is spiritual to locals, foolish to planners. These cathedrals need restoration, not obliteration.

Urban biodiversity: a mature peacock near a blooming Semal tree in Delhi. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)
Urban biodiversity: a mature peacock near a blooming Semal tree in Delhi. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)

Also read: 750,000 Pieces of Junk Circle Earth. This Firm Wants to Start Clearing It

We love what we understand, and we often cherish it as beautiful. Thus, even the twisted, leering gargoyle of a Parisian cathedral becomes beautiful. There was a time when nature was seen as spiritual and secluded, best left alone. Not anymore. The destruction of nature’s many-faceted cathedrals, which is our natural heritage—wetlands, coastlines, forests, and rivers—is everywhere. A little starfish, a newly named spider from Aarey, and a ghost-like heron stand in front of massive projects. Can we adjust our lens to see their beauty; see what is unseen? Can we cherish, restore and rebuild these cathedrals?

Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society. Views expressed are personal.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.