Decades of widespread hunting and poaching have taken a mighty toll on the Great Indian Bustard. Today, the bird has been extirpated from over 90 per cent of its former range, wiped out even from sanctuaries designated for its protection
Two years back, I read and reviewed a book titled, Witness to Extinction, an evocative documentation of extinction of the baiji or Yangtze river dolphin and, in fact, an entire mammalian family, Lipotidae, which had existed for over 21 million years. It also documents the ineffectual, indeed token efforts or should one say, non-efforts, to prevent the extinction, and I remember writing then, “There is a lesson in the book for all of us, citizens of Planet Earth, whether connected to conservation or not. Surely, we won’t allow such a tragedy, nay a travesty, to happen again?”
Well, it seems we are posed for action replay, and this time the species at death’s door is in our backyard: The critically endangered Great Indian Bustard with its global population — almost exclusively in India — lesser than 300, though realistic estimates put it at about 150. And declining rapidly.
Ardeotis nigriceps, was formerly abundant in the dry grasslands of the Indian subcontinent, with strongholds in the Thar desert and the Deccan plateau. Its abundance and the rampant hunting is indicated by records in The Oriental Sports Magazine of one Robert Mansfield who bagged no less than 961 GIBs in Ahmednagar district. By the 1970s, the population was estimated to be just about 1,300, which crashed to approximately 700 in the next decade. Alarmed by the situation, five ‘Bustard States’ got together and rallied in an effort to reverse the trend, even notifying eight ‘protected areas’. However, this well-intentioned endeavour failed, mainly due to the lack of understanding of the ecological requirements of the bird, and management responses to it.
The decline was particularly sharp, both in the population and the range occupancy, over the past two decades, with numbers dwindling to fewer than 300 by 2008. Already depleted by hunting, remaining populations could not cope with the novel threat of grassland eradication as the country expanded its frontiers of development. At the root is the sheer lack of understanding of the grassland ecosystem. Though grasslands are rich in biodiversity, harbouring many endangered species, they have traditionally been classified as ‘barren’ wastelands and were judiciously converted, until very recently, into ‘forest’ with monocultures of eucalyptus and Prosopis juliflora, etc. It was easy to dismiss such ecosystems too, and they were handed out to agriculture, industry, infrastructure or any such development activity. Well-intentioned schemes such as the Indira Gandhi Canal project in Bustard’s best habitat, the Thar, brought in irrigation, completely altering the ecology of the region. It opened up huge areas of the western Thar to colonisation and the canal’s ecological, demographic and sociological impact ruined the desert ecosystem. The report of the Task Force on Grasslands and Deserts appointed by the Planning Commission has it right when it states that “grasslands and deserts are the most neglected ecosystems”. Conversion of low-intensity agro-pastoral landscapes which are ‘GIB compatible’ into intensively farmed (mechanised, irrigated along with high fertiliser and pesticide use) areas is the key threat, since they deplete the Bustards’ natural food (insects and fruits) and critical habitats (Dutta, Rahmani, Jhala, 2010).
Today, the Bustard has been extirpated from over 90 per cent of its former range, wiped out even from sanctuaries designated for its protection. Bustards are now extinct in Gaga-Bhatiya in Gujarat, Rannibenur in Karnataka and Sorsan in Rajasthan, while nearing extinction in Ghatigaon in Madhya Pradesh. The Son Chiriya (as the GIB is called locally) sanctuary in Karera in Madhya Pradesh has also ceased to harbour the bird, with the last sighting reported in 1994. The Great Indian Bustard sanctuary in Maharashtra has fewer than 20 of the birds now.
At the turn of the century, one could easily spot over 30 birds in Rollapadu in Andhra Pradesh. But the reports are now dismal with only eight birds and no successful breeding since 2010. Experts say that the construction of the Alaganur reservoir was the tipping point as it changed the cropping pattern — from groundnut that was favoured by the GIBs to cotton, which was now possible due to irrigation — and is of little use to the bird. The story is similar in Kutch, where cotton, largely Bt cotton, cultivation is taking over the Bhanada in Naliya. Fewer than 25 Bustards survive in their last habitat, Naliya in Gujarat, and are besieged by a multitude of threats such as rapid intensification of agriculture, industrialisation, proliferation of wind turbines (ironically touted as “green energy”), encroachments, electric wires, unsound management practices — trenching, bunding, etc — problems common in most of the GIB range. Infrastructure like electric poles and wind turbines within Bustard breeding areas can kill birds as flying low to the ground increase the risk of colliding with such man-made structures. A couple of such incidents have been reported from Solapur and Kachchh, many more may have gone unnoticed. In Nannaj in Maharashtra the 2010 census threw up a count of just nine birds and no breeding since the past four years. Across, the border in Pakistan exists the only population of about 15-20 of GIBs outside of India. Hunting is a major threat here, and reports cite that of the 63 birds sighted in four years, 49 were hunted. (Khan et al, 2008)
While we may not have the same levels of hunting, it persists across the range where the GIB clings for survival even in its best stronghold, the Desert National Park, with purportedly about 75 birds, as was evident when a GIB was recently gunned down at noon, near the Sundansri enclosure. Reports indicate this is not the first, and only, incident — just one that came to light, indicating the poor levels of protection in the park. Besides, the same problems that plague the rest of the habitats persist here — including the fact of oil reserves in the park.
So, will we let this magnificent bird, the emblem of grasslands, which lost the crown being our national bird the peacock, apparently due to the wisdom of some babu who feared the ‘Bustard’ may be mispelt, vanish in our watch? I like to think, and hope, not. But the time to turn the tide is now, if the species is to have a future.
We need to designate well-protected, safe core breeding areas, with a landscape conservation strategy where the Bustards’ ecological needs must be factored in with low-intensity livelihood concerns. Detrimental infrastructure must be curtailed in priority areas coupled with policy changes regarding land use and prioritisation of Bustard-friendly grazing and cropping policies. A conservation breeding programme on scientific lines may also be required. These and such other such recommendations are given in the Union Ministry of Environment & Forests’ Guidelines for State Action Plans for Bustards’ Recovery Programmes that must be implemented on an urgent basis by States — guided, monitored and aided by the centre, and other relevant scientific and research institutions.
(The columnist is senior consultant, WCS India, and founder-director of ‘Bagh’. She is also a member of the National Board for Wildlife)
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