Winner avatar
2023 Continuation Funding
2016 WSCF
2013 Whitley Award
Aparajita Datta India Terrestrial
Hornbills and Himalayan forests

Winner of the Whitley Award donated by WWF-UK

Dr Aparajita Datta’s love of nature and animals began in the classroom, inspired by the books of Gerald Durrell and James Herriot. Arriving at the Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India in 1995 to study the impact of logging on arboreal creatures including squirrels and primates, her attention was instantly captured by the charismatic hornbills which became the focus of her PhD.

Two decades on, Aparajita now leads a programme to conserve hornbills in the Indian Eastern Himalaya at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), an NGO established in 1996 to promote science-based wildlife conservation in India. Focusing on hornbills as a conservation flagship species, she is seeking to improve the status of the bird’s populations outside protected areas by establishing models of community-based conservation. Aparajita is spreading knowledge of the needs of hornbills and their importance as seed dispersers in the maintenance of healthy forest ecosystems.

Image credit: Kaylan Varma

Key to her approach is raising awareness of the threats to the bird’s survival and creating a wider rural and urban constituency for conservation through a participatory community outreach programme that gets people involved.

India’s northeastern region is known for its biological and cultural diversity. The region encompasses two global biodiversity hotspots and the world’s most northerly tropical rainforests, with an estimated 7,000-8,000 species of flowering plants, over 600 bird and 150 mammal species including tigers and elephants. The region also has a diversity of tribal communities and, although large forest areas still remain, most forests are outside protected areas where deforestation and hunting threaten the survival of wildlife and their habitats. The work of Aparajita Datta and her team of NCF researchers in partnerships with local people and the government seeks to find an equitable balance between the conservation and protection of wildlife habitats and the needs and aspirations of rural communities that depend heavily on forest resources for subsistence.

Aparajita’s Whitley Award winning project aims to:

  • Expand the Hornbill Nest Adoption Programme from 9 to 14 villages and give local people a sense of ownership.
  • Set up a pilot forest restoration project.
  • Establish The Hornbill Nyishi Festival to popularize the role played by local tribes in conserving hornbills across the region.

Why it matters:

  • Hornbills are ecologically important as seed dispersers.
  • The project’s inclusive approach transforms hunters into passionate guardians of nature.
  • These forests are also home to tigers, elephants, and a vast diversity of insects, amphibians, reptiles and birds.

Hornbill Nest Adoption Program Mid-season report 2013

Image credit top image: Kaylan Varma


2023 Continuation Funding

Forging forest alliances to scale up hornbill protection
£100,000 over 2 years

The Eastern Himalayan region of India is part of two global biodiversity hotspots and is known for its biological and cultural diversity. For 25 years, Aparajita Datta has worked to protect the region, which is threatened by agriculture expansion, cash crop plantations, illegal logging, and hunting – all of which are exacerbated by poor law enforcement. Global Forest Watch estimated that over 12,000 km2 of tree cover and 2879 km2 of primary forest cover was lost in north-east India from 2001 to 2019.

Although 65% of the forest is community-owned, conservation efforts have mostly been led by the government in protected areas. Using hornbills as a flagship species, Aparajita and her team at Nature Conservation Foundation India are working to address deforestation through community participation and livelihood building. Her Hornbill Nest Adoption program actively promotes the protection of hornbill nests through assigning community stewards and the result is that poaching and disturbances have been drastically reduced with nesting success increasing from around 50% in 2018, to 92% in 2022. Since 2022, Aparajita and her team have also grown approximately 10,000 tree saplings annually to be used for ecological restoration in degraded forests, and as shade trees in tea and coffee plantations.

Aparajita’s small-scale models for hornbill conservation, forest restoration and nature education have been impactful and generated much learning over the last decade, however they have remained intensive, localised efforts, while the threats to hornbills and forests span over a larger landscape. Aparajita will now use Continuation Funding to build upon her success by expanding the Hornbill Nest Adoption program model into government policy, promoting community stewardship outside of Protected Areas and forging new alliances to help with its delivery. The scale up of restoring degraded forests will eventually contribute to increased forest cover across the range area of multiple species of hornbill (including Rufous-necked, Oriental Pied, and Great Hornbills), building connectivity for wildlife between forest fragments and allowing for carbon sequestration.