The population of this majestic bird has declined alarmingly, especially in Rajasthan, but conservation efforts could once again see it flying high
By Prakash Bhandari in Jaipur
The Great Indian Bustard (GIB), a large bird found in India and Pakistan, is critically endangered. This bird was historically found in some 11 states in India. But its population has dwindled over the past four decades and it is now mainly found in small numbers in AP, Gujarat, Karnataka, MP and Rajasthan. But Rajasthan is of particular interests as it has more than 50 percent of the bustard population of the world.
The rapid decline in its numbers attracted the international attention of ornithologists and bird lovers all over the world and led the Ministry of Environment and Forests to prepare a species recovery program in 2012 for three types of bustard: the GIB, the Bengal Florican and the Lesser Florican. Of the 25 species, India is home to four – the three mentioned above and the Houbra Bustard.
Though Rajasthan is characterized by super aridity, it has unique areas of spectacular habitats. Its grasslands are breeding grounds for a number of avian species, with the Thar Desert having some 250 to 300 of them.
In 2013, Rajasthan initiated “Project Great Indian Bustard” which identified and fenced off bustard breeding grounds in protected areas and provided secure breeding enclosures outside protected areas. Although the bustard was brought under the umbrella of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, it did not help matters.
The GIB is not only extinct from some 90 percent of its former habitat, but has disappeared from three sanctuaries made especially for its protection. The main causes of its disappearance are poaching and destruction of habitat (grassy plains). The decline in bustard numbers in India is staggering: it shrunk from 745 in 1978, to 600 in 2001, 300 in 2008 and not more than 125 in 2016.
Birdlife International, an international body, said in a 2011 report—“Big birds lose out in a crowded world”—that the GIB is in the critically endangered category. Hunting, habitat loss and fragmentation have all reduce its population tremendously.
Birdlife International’s director for science and policy, Dr Loen Bennun, said: “Birds provide a window on the rest of nature. They are very useful indicators of ecosystem health. If they are faring badly, then it will be so in wildlife more generally. Species like the GIB that need lots of space are losing out.”
However, in the long run, it is humans who will lose out as the services that nature provide us start to disappear. “Efforts to conserve GIB through habitat improvement and people’s participation will also focus attention on wider conservation issues.”
G Vishwanath Reddy, additional principal conservator of forest of Rajasthan said that this state is the custodian of more than 50 percent of bustards across the world. “We are making all efforts to stop the extermination of the species across the globe. Rajasthan is the only state to launch Project Bustard which was started in Desert National Park (DNP) in Jaisalmer,” he said.
DNP, spread over 3,162 km in Jaisalmer and Barmer, was set up in 1980 with the objective of conserving the unique bio-diversity of the western Rajasthan desert ecosystem. While the GIB is the main species in this area, there are more than 200 other bird species, including the Steppe eagle, Tawny eagle, the Buzzard, Laggar falcons, Common Kestrel, various types of vultures, Sand-grouses and grey falcons.
Incidentally, bustards breed from March to September. The female lays a single egg and is involved in incubation and care of the young. The eggs are at risk of destruction from other animals, particularly Ungulates (large mammals) and crows. The GIB can be conserved only through intensive patrolling by field staff, making check posts and barriers at strategic locations, habitat protection through planting grass like sewan and providing water facilities, said Reddy.
“The Rajasthan government also has plans to give incentives to farmers in Jai-salmer district for protection of the species and to help in eco-development and eco-tourism activities,” he said.
Further, said Harsh Vardhan of the Tourism and Wildlife Society of India: “State governments must secure and fully protect all ‘lekking’ sites. This may be the single most important step in saving the species. A lekking site is a traditional place where males gather to display and attract females. If these sites are subjected to disturbance or degradation, GIBs may not be able to breed. Even if large areas of potential GIB habitat are protected, but specific lekking sites are not, their numbers will continue to slide.” As there are multiple threats to these sites such as industrial development, agriculture, irrigation and highways, protecting them needs political will and cooperation by multiple departments and local communities.
He also suggested that the state government should examine the feasibility of captive breeding by constituting a core group of experts with experience in breeding bustards or similar endangered birds.
“We have before us the example of the recovery of the California Condor, a large-sized, slow-breeding bird that was on the verge of extinction. But captive breeding saw the birds go from 22 to 405, with 226 living in the wild,” he said.
Chief wildlife wardens of GIB states should also be more proactive and prohibit entry and photography during the breeding season (April 1-October 31) at all bustard habitats.
“Even disturbance outside the breeding season can have serious implications for the species. Wildlife photographers should voluntarily desist from GIB photography. It will be an absolute shame if we allow this magnificent bird to become extinct,” added Vardhan.
The bustard is also critically endangered in Pakistan but the reason there is lack of protection and rampant hunting by Arab Sheikhs. They come with trained falcons to Cholistan area of the country to hunt the Houbra bird. Pakistan had come under fire for granting permits for it and has now officially banned this hunting.
MIGRATION TO PAKISTAN
A recently published research paper in “Current Science” revealed that the GIBs ventured into Cholistan desert between June and September last year. During this period, poaching activities took place continuously.
The paper said that two distinct practices of hunting took place in Pakistan. The first is market-based hunting, which means organized hunting of select species which is driven by regional and global markets for their high demand. The second is hunting by locals to generate income.
“Conservation of a wide range of trans-boundary species cannot be done in isolation. There has to be cooperation among countries in preventing hunting of migratory species,” said Anoop KR, deputy conservator of Forest Desert National Park. Unfortunately, there is no cooperation or treaty between India and Pakistan on conservation of endangered species. He said a few days back, he had received a report that a group of 15 to 20 GIBs was spotted in Bijnot area off the Pakistan border.
Chief Conservator of Forests, Govind Sagar Bharadwaj, said: “GIBs certainly migrate from Jaisalmer district and chances are that they might have flown to Pakistan. The future of this bird in the Indian subcontinent is bleak. India and Pakistan need to initiate joint international conservation measures to save the GIBs from extinction.” Moreover, strict enforcement of laws and massive awareness campaigns may help save the GIBs in Pakistan, Bharadwaj added.
Following the chances of migration of GIBs from Jaisalmer to Pakistan, it has been decided to put satellite chips on a few birds so that their movement and migratory patterns can be tracked, he said.
“This project will be carried out by scientists from Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra-dun. Experts from International Union for Conservation of Nature and internationally known bird-tagging experts would also be roped in.”
Hunting of bustards was also a popular activity during the Mughal era. Emperor Babur was noted to have said that the flesh of the leg of some fowls and the breast of others was excellent. The GIB is, however, a wary bird and hunting it is often a challenge for the hunter. The Mughals also found that the GIB had great aphrodisiac value.
Flying high in more ways than one!