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26 Feb 2020, Edition - 1688, Wednesday

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Coimbatore

Avian data lab gets wings

Ajay Menon

Bird traders beware! Covai’s SACON lab is on policing mode

The feather or a drop of blood can say it all. There have been instances when seized rare bird meat finally passes off as that of a `crow’ or a `hen’ and the culprit goes scot free after being part of an annual $8 – $10 billion illegal trade in wild species, including rare birds.

But that can now be history as the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) at Anaikatty near Coimbatore has the country’s best forensic laboratory that has been scientifically preparing database of a variety of birds and animals and any meat can be traced to the bird or animal.

Of the 1,200 bird species seen in the country, at least 37 per cent are reported to be part of international and domestic trade. Owing to poor facilities, the conviction rate in this illegal business is dismal, barely 1-10 per cent as there is lack of lack of legally standing evidence.

On what this evidence is, principal scientist P Pramod told The Covai Post: “It’s all about tissue/blood and feather reference materials which help in identifying the avian species from their remains.” And that is where SACON has become the country’s premier institute with a forensic laboratory that has a large repository.

And this vast repository is not just about clinching criminal evidence for Wildlife Crime Control Bureau and other law enforcement agencies to check this big business of illegal trafficking.

In these times of an aviation industry boom where people want to travel quick and airports spring up in several cities, there is the issue of flights being delayed or cancelled because of bird hits. A feather on the ground or a blood stain on the aircraft can help know the bird species and contribute to ensuring that it does not breed in the vicinity and pose a threat to aircraft, adds Pramod whose ongoing study is all about indepth analysis on bird hits across the country.

It was a dream of the globally renowned ornithologist Salim Ali to have a centre for avian studies. Thus SACON was started in 1990, and the present campus came up on a sprawling 55 acres which is also the ground for a vivid flora and fauna. Of the 177 bird species recorded on the campus, 100 were residents, 24 were found occasionally, 27 were winter migrants and 15 were local migrants. The area has over 400 species of flowering plants belonging to 84 families. The more than 107 butterfly species seen there, account for around one-third of those that have made the Western Ghats home. Not to stop at that, it has 44 species of odonates (insects), eight species of amphibians and 40 species of reptiles. From the endangered Asian elephant and Indian wild dog, there gaurs, sloth bears, leopards, rusty-spotted cat and sambars.

It was very recently that Union Minister for Environment and Forests Prakash Javadekar visited the campus as also the forensic laboratory.

The new state-of-the art facility will have a repository of avian biological samples that would eventually include almost all species in the subcontinent, and would serve as national centre for avian forensics to be used and referred by all law enforcing agencies in the country.

There will be a species-specific DNA data bank and tissue/blood/feather reference material, including DNA signature and feather barb catalogue for references.

The database on many species was progressing well, said Pramod who feels that the lab will be the one-stop shop for all on birds, the best homage to Salim Ali.

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