Birds of India

Bird-watching in India ~ A Decade of Change
November 7th 2010 I Sumit K Sen

~ presented by Birds of India

I only want 
to caress them, 
to see them resplendent. 
I don't want 
to see under glass 
the embalmed lightning. 
I want to see them living.

~ Pablo Neruda, Ode to bird-watching

? Sumit K Sen

Bird-watching is a little known pastime in India. There are, however, signs of change. This article explores the present status of bird-watching in India and looks at the future


Bird-watching
Bird-watching or "birding" is an activity connected with the visual observation and study of wild birds in their natural habitat. To qualify as a birder or bird-watcher, it is sometimes necessary to either travel some distance from home with the primary goal of observing wild birds, or to closely observe and identify birds around your place of residence.

The hobby of bird-watching is now a popular pastime, which developed mostly in the 20th century in developed countries in the west. Great Britain led the way from the 1880s onward, and was quickly followed by United States of America. By the end of the century, bird-watching was spreading to developing countries on the back of growing transnational birding activity.

The growth of bird-watching as a scientific sport was aided by the increasing availability of optical aids like binoculars and the spotting scope. The publication of high-quality field identification guides, journals and magazines, and the mushrooming of bird clubs added to the growing interest in birds. The final impetus came with the advent of the Internet and easy availability of digital cameras in the 21st century.

Birding usually attracts the educated, affluent and middle-aged who are interested in wildlife and are keen to travel and spend time outdoors. In 2006 in America, 63% of all birders were over 45 years, 60% earned over USD 50,000 annually and 63% had at least some college education. 54% of the surveyed birders were females. [Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis, Addendum 2006]

Where it is well established, bird-watching is a fast growing outdoor recreational activity. In the United States about 48 million people (over 20% of the population) were connected with this hobby or sport in 2006 (USFWS). According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), 6 million Britons enjoyed bird-watching every couple of weeks in 2009. Birding is also deep-rooted across much of Western Europe, Japan, Australia and South Africa.

It is therefore not surprising that the bird-watching industry has growing economic importance, both as a domestic industry and as a tourism initiative. In the mature US market, birders generated industry output worth an estimated USD 82billion in 2006. The direct expenditure in trips and equipment alone were USD 36billion in the same year. Bird-watching related activities created 671,000 jobs and generated employment income of over USD 27billion. Govt. tax collection from birding was USD 10billion in the same period [Source: USFWS]. By comparison, birdwatchers in United Kingdom spend about USD 0.5billion annually. In Australia, the Phillip Island Nature Park, near Melbourne, is the country's third largest tourist destination, attracting over 730,000 birders during 2009/2010 to see the 'Penguin Parade'. They paid AUD 9million in just admission fees [Phillip Island Nature Park Annual Report 2009/2010]. And a tiny country like Rwanda earned USD 7billion from bird related tourism in 2008. [Source: Rwanda Investment Forum 2010 ].
 

History of Bird-watching in India
Observation of birds in India has a long and ancient history. References to birds can be found as early as 1700 -1000 BC in the Rigveda andYajurveda.
Later in the 16
th Century, the Mughal rulers observed local birds and kept meticulous records. Emperor Jehangir even commissioned several artists like Ustad Mansur and Abu'l-Hasan to portray birds with great accuracy.

The 1st effort to scientifically document Indian birds began after the arrival of the Europeans to India. The earliest book describing birds in India is attributed to Eleanyar Albin in 1738. Much work of collection and recording followed in later years, but most of the resulting publications were scientific in nature. The first book, which could be used by birders in the field was Hugh Whistler's Popular Handbook of Indian Birds (1928). This was followed by Dr. Salim Ali's The Book of Indian Birds, which was first published in 1941 and went on to sell forty-six thousand copies in the first 10 editions. Ali's book stimulated local interest in bird-watching and culminated in the publication of the classic 10 volume Handbook of the Birds of India & Pakistan (Ali & Ripley, 1964-74) which described 1200 birds from the area. Another development which contributed to the growth of interest in birds was the formation of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) in 1883. The Society focused on the scientific study of Indian wildlife and published acclaimed journals and magazines.

Despite the growing availability of birding aids, and despite the legacy of Salim Ali's work, bird-watching as a leisure activity never really took off in India till the turn of the 20th century. Bird-watching attracts the affluent with leisure time even though it is a relatively inexpensive activity. In a developing country like India, this hobby did not attract the very-affluent because of the lack of supporting basic infrastructure, and the middle-class had other pressing distractions. Instead, local birding was mainly supported by visiting-birders, and they even contributed to the development of bird-watching sites and birding aids like modern-day field guides and birding clubs. Their influence was, by and large, lost on the Indians and even today, birding is a little known pastime in the country and most of the local population continues to be bemused with visitors who peer through binoculars. This may all be set to change.

The Internet and bird-watching
Interest in bird-watching began to change with the advent of the Internet. Suddenly, it brought together people who shared a common interest and provided a platform for sharing information and resolving questions. Prior to the availability of this fast and personal means of communication, most people who shared an interest in birds had to join a local birding club. These small clubs were usually confined to large cities and were poorly funded. Most of them met to share images and some arranged monthly bird-walks for the 100 odd members. It is fair to estimate that by the end of the last century, Indian bird-watchers would not have numbered more than 10,000-12,000.

Internet connectivity and easy availability of computers marked the first stage in the growth of bird-watching activity amongst Indians. In 2000, three internet-based birding groups were established in Bangalore, Mumbai and New Delhi. By 2006 these groups had achieved a combined membership of 2,300 birders, many of whom were new to bird-watching. At the end of 2009, internet-based birding groups in India had proliferated to more than a dozen sites with a combined membership of more than 6,700. Even accounting for the fact that some of the members were common across these groups, some had multiple accounts, and some were merely information-seekers from outside the country, the 192% growth in 4 years was clearly impressive! It is even better if we add the 6-7,000 who joined bird photography-oriented forums, to share bird images and to identify them. To put the 12-14,000 Indian internet-using birders in perspective, Birdforum.net, who claim to be the "net's largest birding community" have a worldwide membership of 95,500 (6/11/10).
 

How many birders in India today?
How big is the Indian birding industry today in terms of birders and birding-related spends? In the absence of any meaningful information it is a difficult question to answer. In terms of India's size, it is certainly insignificantly small, both in terms of share of population and contribution to the economy. But is there a critical mass building up on the back of a vibrating economy and a burgeoning middle-class who are looking for a more active outdoor life? To answer this question we can look at the available data and try and use it to estimate the size of the birding-industry related market.

Our start point is the 12-14,000 odd birders who are members of various internet-based birding clubs/forums. ? Kolkatabirds.comWho are the others? Not all Internet-connected birders choose to join regional net-based bird clubs. But they are presumably a small number and we can ignore them for the moment. More significantly, Internet penetration in India (by active users) is only 5% of the population (2010). That means birders who do not have access to an Internet are not a part of these estimates. How big is this segment? It may not be very large if we consider that BNHS has a membership of only 5,000 and English language birding/wildlife magazines count combined circulation within 30,000 copies. It is therefore acceptable to estimate their numbers across India at around 15,000. On the flip-side we must account for the vernacular nature lover/bird-watcher who are well-spread across the smaller cities and towns all over the country, and who subscribe to native language magazines or are a part of the local club. We have data from visitors to the Birds of India website (more about which later) that indicates birding interest from at least a 100 nodal points across India. A small city like Gondia in Maharashtra regularly sends hits to the website - indicating local interest. But given the fact that bird-watching is a poorly developed pastime in rural and semi-urban India, the size of the non-internet segment will not be very large and 15,000 birders in this segment will be an optimistic number.

We are now in a position to estimate the possible number of birders in India at the end of the first decade of the 21st century.
Internet Users
Birders who regularly use the Internet:                                                         13,000
Non-Internet Users

Birders who share the hobby of Internet-users (15%):                                     2,000
Metro city and urban birders:                                                                       15,000
Non urban birders:                                                                                      15,000
Total Indian bird-watchers (2010):
                                                      45,000

With all such unverified estimates, there is always merit in looking at other sources for any supporting information. Luckily we have help at hand - visit statistics for the Birds of India website (www.kolkatabirds.com) available courtesy of Google Analytics. Birds of India is India's premier birding website and registers over 500,000 page views each year. How can we use the visit statistics in this case? Google Analytics provides information on individual visits, but that data is biased. To eliminate the bias we chose to examine visits to a single stand-alone section - the "Top Bird Photographers". A section like this attracts many bird lovers and there is little reason to suspect multiple visits to this section by the same individual. This section was launched in September 2008 and till date has drawn 16,500 unique visitors. Of this, 80% are from India, which means that 13,000 Indian bird lovers visited the section. Even if 20% of the visitors are not birders, it is safe to assume that about 10,000 individual Indian birders used the Internet to view these pages. Not all net-using birders visit Birds of India, and many visits lead to shared viewings. So the numbers seem to support our initial assumption that about 13,000 bird-watchers in the country can be accounted for, based on their use of Internet-based services. The other numbers in our calculation are more difficult to justify, but if we consider that a book on Indian birds has sold 250,000 copies (see interview with Bikram Grewal), and that Indian visitors to Keoladeo Ghana National Park in Bharatpur topped 87,000 in 2005, it is not unreasonable to assume that the non-net using birder segment is at least 30,000 strong, if not larger.

Based on the above, it may be reasonable to assume that there are about 45,000 active bird-watchers in India today. While this is essentially a rough estimate only, it may be a good starting point which can be refined with more information. Given our personal experience of the Indian birding scenario, we expect that errors would be confined to within (+/-) 10%. We can, therefore, accept this number as representative Given a country with a population of over 1 billion people, this is an insignificant number when compared with the 6 million birders in the UK amongst a population of 62 million. Part of this disparity is due to cultural reasons, but economic development and education levels have a larger role to play. Additionally, many birders in America and other developed countries bird-watch from home. In the US, 88% of birders are 'around-the-home' backyard birders. In India there are few birders who have this privilege at this time and it may be several years before this segment contributes significantly to the ranks of Indian bird-watchers.
 

Bird-watchers contribution to the economy
With the rough-and-ready estimate of the size of the domestic bird-watching market, it is possible to calculate the contribution of bird-watchers to the economy. Such an exercise need also include foreign birders who visit India. Based on our assumptions, we estimate that industry output would, conservatively, be worth an estimated USD 25million (INR 113crores) in 2009-2010.

Our analysis is based on differentiating between the birder types and calculating their average spends. We estimate that about 13,500 active birders (including bird-photographers) watch birds away from home for 40 days in a year and travel larger distances involving overnight stays at least 3 times in two years. Their combined annual spend is USD 9million (INR 41crores). The rest (31,500) are less active and spend 1/4th as much as the active birder. They spend about USD 5million (INR 23crores) annually for bird-watching. The total expenditure by Indian birders is then USD 14million, or INR 64crores.

Foreign birders visit the 'Top 100 birding destinations' like Goa and Bharatpur in large numbers. There are also those who visit lesser explored areas like Eaglenest or Namdhapa in the eastern India. ? Sumit K SenWe have broken up these birders into two groups - the two-week birders who typically go to destinations like Goa, North-east India, Gujarat, Kerala, Western Himalayas etc., and the short-duration visitor who travels to places like Bharatpur. We estimate that the 1st group numbers about 4000, largely driven by Goa. They contribute USD 6million (INR 27crores) from the segment. The larger number of visiting-birders spend 2-3 days in a place like Bharatpur or similar destinations. They number 10,000 and their annual birding-related expenditure in India is estimated to be USD 4million. Total expenditure by international birders in India is then around USD 11million (about INR 50crores) after adding incidental spend not directly related to birding. That sums up to an aggregate annual expenditure of USD 25million on birding in India from all sources. In comparison, the South African birding industry was estimated to be worth USD 80million in 2008 based on available reports.
 

Future of bird-watching in India
What then is the future of birding in India?

At the end of this first decade birding in India has begun to show signs of growth. The big question then is, is this growth sustainable, and if so, what are the implications?

There are some strong signals of growth. Birding needs aids and props to flourish and spread. Good and user-friendly field/illustrated guides like the works by Grimmett & Inskipp, Kazmierczak and Grewal, and the path-breaking work of Pamela Rasmussen have filled a long-felt gap. More regional and vernacular titles are needed now. Affordable bird-watching binoculars are easily available at all large cities but harder to find in smaller cities. Many birding-oriented resorts and eco-camps have sprung up across the country, though many more are needed. Road connections have improved and there are many more flights to many more destinations. India now has some top-drawer bird tour companies like Asian Adventure and All India Birding Tours. It has also spawned some well-known bird-guides/tour-leaders like Peter Lobo, Sujan Chatterjee, Shashank Dalvi, Adesh Shivkar, Manoj Sharma, Nikhil Devasar, Jugal Tiwari, Rahul Rao, Eldhose and Leio de Souza. India even has its first true subcontinental 'Twitcher' in Atul Jain of New Delhi. Regional bird clubs, websites like Indiabirds.com, Birds of India and birding.in, nature photography forums and scientific institutions like BNHS and SACON, all support those who are interested in birding in India. What is missing are regional grass-root brick-and-mortar organizations who can serve as a focal point for local birders like the Audubon Societies in the US and the RSPB in Britain. India is too big a country, with too many people, to have a single organization that can further birding. This is one of the reasons why it does not have a "Rarities Committee" even now.

All of this leads us to conclude that bird-watching in India is at the point of take-off. Growth will be driven by an entirely new segment: the affluent IT, BPO and Call centre bird-watcher. This new breed has the prosperity and the need to step out of their desktop environment. A healthy and flexible pastime like birding is a perfect fit for this growing band of enthusiasts. The signs are already evident. Bangalore is the sunrise IT city in India and its Internet egroup bngbirds ? Kolkatabirds.comregistered an increase of membership of 138% between 2006 and 2009. In the same period New Delhi's egroup registered a 64% growth in membership. India has a lot of people and a growing middle-class. There is little chance that Indians will embrace bird-watching with the same passion as the Americans in the foreseeable future. But like in so many other areas, even partial participation in India often translates to staggering numbers. Almost all the current Indian birders belong to India's educated middle-income group, popularly called "middle-class". The size of the middle-class is variously estimated to be between 50-300 million depending on the income levels and purchasing-power-parity levels used. Irrespective, it is growing and is estimated to grow to 585 million by 2025 according to McKinsey Global Institute. A 20% participation by only the middle-class in India could result in 10/60 million birders today, or 117 million birders scouring the country with binoculars and cameras by 2025. It is possible because the new breed of Indians seek alternative pastime choices. They are fortunate to live in a country blessed with great avian wealth, and they have unexpressed fears about the climate and the environment, and the damage that is being done to it.

Interviews:

Bikram Grewal, Author                  Soma Jha, Birder                  Atul Jain, Twitcher

 

Sumit Sen
Kolkata, India
November, 20
10
I make no claims that my views are those of the 'Birds of India' website or those associated with it.


 


References/Links:
All India Birding Tours
Asian Adventures
BNHS
Birdforum
birdsofbombay
Birdlife International: Why conserve birds?
bngbirds
Caribbean Bird watching (pdf)
Delhibird
Google Analytics
Phillip Island Nature Park Annual Report 2009/10 (pdf)
Texas Agricultural Extension Service: Establishing a birding related business (pdf)

Top Bird Photographers
US Fish and Wildlife Service (pdf)
Wikipedia: Birdwatching 

Recommended citation: This work can be freely used citing: Sumit K Sen (2010). Bird-watching in India ~ A Decade of Change. Available at: http://www.kolkatabirds.com

A pdf of this article is available. Please write to birdsofindia@aol.in with the heading "Bird-watching note"

Please send comments/corrections to: birdsofindia@aol.in

© Sumit K Sen 2010

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