Early results of citizen science projects in India, fed by thousands of people reporting wildlife sightings, are benefitting some vulnerable and ecologically important species.

Citizen science, which has gained currency across the world, allows professional and amateur scientists to collaborate on research that needs large-scale observational data.

One such effort is ‘ Hornbill Watch ’, an ongoing project that aims to document the distribution of India’s nine hornbill species. The first analysis of its data, published1 in July 2018 could help identify key territories where these birds need protection.

The nine hornbill species found in India. Illustration: Arjun Srivathsa

Between June 2014 and February 2017, 430 citizen scientists filed 938 records to the project’s website (including sightings made as far back as 2000). The states of Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh emerged as hotspots of hornbill sightings.

Most species were reported largely in forests and plantations, although four were also found in city gardens and parks. One – the Indian Grey Hornbill – was even reported in densely populated cities such as Bengaluru, Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow, Mumbai and Pune. According to researchers, this emphasises the importance of green, open spaces for hornbill survival in an urban environment.

Early birds

Another newly launched project plans to map the distribution of ‘canids’ – a group of carnivores that includes the domestic dog.

Started by a team of five wildlife biologists, the ‘ Wild Canids–India Project ’ is accepting sightings of the eight species and sub-species of wild canids found in India. These are the dhole, golden jackal, Indian wolf, Himalayan wolf, Indian fox, red fox, desert fox and the Tibetan fox. (Though not a canid, striped hyena sightings are also open for submission due to its similar ecology.)

Canids are a great candidate for citizen science because they are among the more easily identifiable species in the country, says Priya Singh, an independent researcher and a member of the Wild Canids team. “Anybody who has even a little knowledge of wildlife would be able to identify them.”

Sightings made as far back as January 2015 can be submitted on the project’s site by clicking on the image of each species. And they have already started trickling in, Singh confirms. The project is accepting entries till the end of this year.

The goal is to understand where and when the species are most commonly seen, and which species carry signs of a disease. “The kind of spatial coverage that we can get via running this kind of a collective exercise would be immense,” Singh told Nature India .

If her five-member team were to do this by itself, Singh says, it would be near-impossible to complete the project within two to three years. So, it is turning to geographically diverse citizen scientists for observations.

Like Hornbill Watch, Wild Canids is aiming at species that are understudied and vulnerable. Hornbills continue to be hunted for their curved beaks and meat while canids are threatened by disease, interbreeding and competition for food by free-ranging dogs.

Hornbills and canids perform crucial ecosystem services that are affected by their falling numbers and shrinking habitats. By feeding on fruits and flying long distances, hornbills disperse seeds widely. Among canids, jackals often scavenge on carcasses, foxes control rodent numbers, and dholes and wolves regulate the populations of their ungulate prey.

Foraging for food

Citizen science brings down the cost of research that is expensive and needs continuous data inputs, says V. V. Binoy, an assistant professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru. It saves a lot of conservation money, Singh concurs.

Data collection can be outsourced but validation and analysis still need human and financial resources . This is especially true for bigger, wide-ranging projects, which depend on grants from research institutes, national or international conservation groups, and companies. Sometimes, state governments also chip in.

The India Biodiversity Portal , a citizen science platform, has received a mix of such institutional and governmental support over the 10 years it has been around. A project of its scale, documenting all of India’s plants and animals, has to often look out for new funding opportunities . The portal has clocked up more than 1.3 million observations of almost 29,000 species so far and rolls out new features for users from time to time. In 2015, the portal introduced a survey of invasive species aiming to map 20 invasive plant and animal species. But, it ended up amassing information on 284, of which 153 were vetted by experts as invasive.

Finding a perch

Citizen science is not without its challenges. Among the key concerns, Singh points out, are protecting location data from misuse and validating sightings submitted by non-experts. So, citizen science projects keep the precise location of species hidden from public view. In case of a discrepancy or an odd data entry, they verify the sightings by reaching out to the contributors.

Validating the work of non-scientists might take scientists a while but citizen-led projects have opened up new, unimagined possibilities for science.

The online database eBird, for instance, has grown to be the world’s largest citizen science community for biodiversity. It has informed conservation science and resulted in scientific publications . Its India platform eBird India was launched in 2015 and already has over 12,000 contributors with 10.8 million observations . It is now beginning to provide insights into the migratory patterns of India’s winged visitors

Using data from eBird, Ashwin Viswanathan, a research fellow at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru, recently created animations tracking bird migrations. Viswanathan mapped birds that come to India for winter and those that pass through the region on their way to wintering or breeding grounds. Species include the European roller, Amur falcon, Blyth’s reed warbler, red-breasted flycatcher and the taiga flycatcher.

One of the most interesting finds, Viswanathan says, is about the migration of Blyth’s reed warbler to the Indian sub-continent. This small brown bird breeds in the Eurasian taiga and is extremely common in India during winter. "Little did we know that the entire world’s population of this species comes to India and Sri Lanka in winter, and spends much more time here than back in its breeding grounds," he says.

"This was made possible by the effort of thousands of birdwatchers and citizen scientists."