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In the borderless world of the Great crested grebe

As species like the Great crested grebe fall in numbers, the most important lesson to take is that untrammeled, natural habitat is worth its weight in life itself

A Great crested grebe in Gajoldaba, West Bengal.
A Great crested grebe in Gajoldaba, West Bengal. (iStock)

I dig my face into my jacket, trying to erase the cold biting at me. In front of me is the silvery Gandak river, behind which lie the gentle slopes of Nepal. The water ripples and laughs, the clear, cut-glass air making its colours a little brighter. The river must be freezing, I think. Just then, a single head pops out of it. A bird with a white head ending in a brown-orange face, and a lovely crest on top. It is solitary; tiny in front of the large river; brave in the face of a swift current. It dives deeply into the water and is completely gone. There is no tail visible, no leg raking through the water. It re-emerges a few minutes later, looking neither soaked nor ruffled—like it had never left. There’s something oddly plucky about it being there by itself, near the border of India and Nepal, in the shadow of a dam. I wonder how it feels about the cold water, and then I remember the Great crested grebe (GCG) has come from the Palearctic, a much colder place. The sighting of a single bird—my first migratory GCG of the season—is testimony that the river provides habitat for wildlife; that the borders created by us don’t hold for our wilder friends.

This spirited grebe has shaped history in many ways. Once, its lovely feathers crested women’s hats. The hats were so much in vogue (birds were hunted for them) that the Royal Society for Protection of Birds was formed in the UK to stop their hunting and exploitation. Over a century later, the bird made headlines this year again, as a subspecies of the GCG, the Australasian crested grebe, was voted the “bird of the century” in New Zealand. No less than the British-American comedian John Oliver had campaigned for it.

Also read: Why nature is our shield against climate change

On its migration, the grebe I was looking at has crossed more than a few international borders. While we know borders as signifying different time zones and nationalities, for a wild animal, crossing borders often means finding habitat to duck wings or a head in.

Last year, I was in Raimona national park in Assam. This deep, moist forest is part of the Manas landscape. Tigers, golden langurs, elephants and birds move in and through this area. (Sometimes, it may be more accurate to say they crash through: A gaur I saw there, in between intermittent rain, was so surprised by us that it hurtled through the forage, the sound of its departure carrying through the forest.) Manas and Raimona shoulder Phibsoo and Royal Manas sanctuaries in Bhutan. The area has trees that look much more than a tree usually does. The trunks are full of lichen, the branches laden with orchids. Mosses grow on bark, looking like carpets woven by clever hands. The ground is full of shrubs that grow thickly upwards, emerald, impenetrable. Within this cover, elephants and gaur walk. Some elephant herds cross over between Bhutan and Assam. And in Bihar, when the Gandak floods, rhinos from Nepal end up in India, clambering up rocky beaches in a desperate bid to survive.

The Great crested grebe is a symbol that wildlife has no borders—but it also shows us the importance of preserving natural habitats. Not just for the great beasts like rhinos and elephants, but for smaller (and no less “great”) grebes too. Unfortunately, the GCG is not doing as well as it once was. As per the State of India’s birds report launched this year, an assessment of the current status of hundreds of Indian birds, it has registered a decline of over 70% in the last two decades.

We seem to miss some species more than others. Historically, we have missed good-looking and familiar animals. At this moment, India is planning the revival of not one but three species.

One of them is a famous, much-covered “de-extinction” story—the cheetah. Apart from the cheetah safari recently set up in Kuno, Madhya Pradesh, the government of Gujarat has received approval to start a breeding centre for cheetahs in the Banni grasslands. The second is a beautiful cat with tufted ears you have never heard of—the caracal, also called the syahgosh in Hindi. The caracal once covered many arid regions in India. Today, this secretive cat—medium sized at about 15 kilos—seems to be have reduced greatly in numbers based on lack of sightings. The National Board for Wildlife has identified the caracal as a priority species. Though in an initial stage, it is reported that the Rajasthan government is mulling a conservation breeding centre for the caracal.

A Chital stag in Valmiki Tiger Reserve in Bihar.
A Chital stag in Valmiki Tiger Reserve in Bihar. (Neha Sinha)

The third animal we want to snatch back from extinction is the Great Indian Bustard (GIB), which at 20 kilos, is one of the heaviest flying birds on earth. Somewhat similar to the caracal, the GIB was once found all over central India. Now, it is confined mainly to Rajasthan and Gujarat. Rajasthan has started conservation breeding for this magnificent bird.

The challenge now is to ensure that natural habitat be secured, so captive animals can eventually be released. For what has historically plagued these species is rapid loss of habitats and the unfortunate classifications of grasslands as “wastelands”: barren and unproductive. ‘Wasteland Atlas’ by Indian Space Research Organisation classifies nearly 17 percent of land in India as wasteland—this includes grasslands, scrub, marshes, ravines and other ecosystems. It is perhaps no coincidence that all three species are those of grasslands and scrub landscapes—the hot, dry places which are now seeing a gold rush for solar power.

As species like the Great Indian Bustard, the caracal and the Great crested grebe fall in numbers, the most important lesson to take is that untrammeled, natural habitat is worth its weight in life itself—be it at borders or within states.

That day after sighting the grebe in the Gandak, we went inside Valmiki Tiger Reserve in Bihar. The area had an unbelievable kind of beauty, touched both by mountains, grassy knolls and rivers. Long-legged birds—plovers and sandpipers—ran along pebbles on the river side. Alluvial grasslands spread out like savanna wallpaper, the setting sun looking like it was caught in the branches of a dry tree. Gentle slopes ran in ripples in the background, with a towering sal forest fringing the foreground. Scarlet minivets birds—the male red, the female mango-yellow, zipped between trees like they were writing something in the air.

As I returned to the city, I spotted a Great crested grebe on the outskirts of Delhi. My first thought was: “Is this the same bird I saw near Nepal?” My second, more sensible thought was: It doesn’t matter. What matters it came here, and we must make sure it continues to arrive.

The back of my knee itched, and I asked my wildlife friend what it was. “Ticks, maybe mites,” he responded. “Sometimes they lay eggs under your skin, too,” he said with some relish.

I shuddered. My skin was inflamed. But I remembered the grebe in the icy water, whose ancestors were once part of a lady’s hat. In all that is wrong in the world, we have also made progress; recognising the value of the natural world is a chief part of that progress. “I’ll take the tick over an email,” I replied.

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author of Wild And Wilful: Tales Of 15 Iconic Indian Species. Views expressed are personal.

Also read: All is not well if the common bird is declining

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