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The Great Indian Bustard’s last sigh

Once in the race to become India's national bird, the Great Indian Bustard now faces extinction. How did we get here? Lounge travels to one of its last remaining habitats in Rajasthan to find out

A female Great Indian Bustard at the Desert National Park, Jaisalmer. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee
A female Great Indian Bustard at the Desert National Park, Jaisalmer. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Jaisalmer: In the March 1961 edition of the Newsletter For Birdwatchers, the late ornithologist Salim Ali made a pertinent point about choosing India’s national bird. The idea of each country designating a national bird, he wrote, was recommended by the 12th World Conference of the International Council for Bird Preservation, held in Tokyo in 1960. The purpose was to channel public attention towards a bird species that stood “in the greatest need of protection" in each country, especially where it was threatened with extinction because of public apathy or “direct human persecution".

Ali’s point was ignored. By 1963, the Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus), commonly known as the peacock, was chosen as the national bird after deliberations by state governments, who were asked for recommendations, and the Indian Board for Wildlife (now the National Board for Wildlife). Ali deemed the selection “meaningless". The iconic Sarus crane, the numbers of which dropped sharply in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the swan (hamsa) didn’t make the cut. Another contender was the Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps).

More than five decades later, the bustard remains overlooked. According to the IUCN Red List, an information source on the global conservation status of animal and plant species, the bird’s population was approximately 1,260 in 1969. It was present in 11 states, including Haryana, Punjab, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Today, this critically endangered species—with an average weight of 15-18kg, among the heaviest of flying birds—barely survives, despite many of its remaining habitats in Rajasthan (where it is the state bird), Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka being turned into priority conservation sites (also known as “important bird areas"). The current total population is now estimated to be less than 200.

According to a July story in the Down To Earth magazine, experts from the Wildlife Institute of India and the Bombay Natural History Society confirmed reports that the Kutch area in Gujarat now had just one male Great Indian Bustard left, dashing hopes of breeding in the region.

Efforts to save the species, which is placed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, the highest degree of legal protection in the country, are ongoing. In 2013, the Rajasthan government launched Project Great Indian Bustard, with the aim of constructing breeding enclosures for the species and developing infrastructure to reduce human pressure on its habitats. Recently, wildlife officials and experts submitted their recommendations to the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife to save four critically endangered species, including the bustard, from extinction.

“There are likely around 10 bustards left in Kutch," says Sutirtha Dutta, project scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and a team member of the Endangered Species Recovery Programme. The programme is funded by the ministry of environment, forest and climate change and works towards reversing the declining numbers of several important terrestrial and marine species. “Breeding males have not been detected in the landscape for a while, and the sub-adult male that is being seen will take a few years to reach its breeding stage."

The bustard is a slow breeder. When there isn’t much rainfall, it may even skip breeding. The last remaining male bird in Kutch is a sub-adult, an intermediary stage between juvenile and adulthood when the bird is independent of its parents but not sexually mature. The bustard’s size and other characteristics are also impediments to survival. It cannot perch on trees and the female nests on open ground, laying just one egg.

But the Great Indian Bustard faces a larger threat—from man-made changes to its last remaining natural landscapes.

A ‘Chinkara’ at the Desert National Park. Photo: Alamy

Inside the protected zone

The Thar Desert in Rajasthan can be unforgiving. In the summer, the mercury can go up to 50 degrees Celsius. Jaisalmer, the beautiful, medieval trading city in the heart of the Thar, is home to the Desert National Park (DNP) wildlife sanctuary, which is spread over 3,162 sq. km. Some parts of the DNP fall in Barmer district. The sanctuary’s landscape is primarily sand dunes and a mix of perennial grass, shrubs and trees. The sanctuary is also a natural refuge for more than 270 animal species. Rajasthan now has the biggest population of the Great Indian Bustard in India, 120-150 birds.

“The biggest threat is still habitat loss," says Ashok Mahariya, deputy conservator of forests, wildlife, Jaisalmer and deputy field director of DNP, when we meet at the DNP office on the outskirts of Jaisalmer. “When this area was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1980, the villages were small. Over the years, the population has increased, as has the number of villages (there are about 88 villages within the DNP area now). Back then, farmers used to grow just one crop a year. But changes in rainfall patterns and the emergence of cash crops such as guar (cluster bean) have worsened the (habitat loss) situation."

The DNP was notified as a wildlife sanctuary, but it is still not a national park. Under Chapter IV of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, grazing or movement of livestock in a sanctuary is allowed in a regulated or controlled manner and not prohibited. The main occupation of people living in the Thar desert is animal husbandry. People in villages inside the park are allowed to graze their cattle on gochar lands (grazing lands), as their communities have been doing for generations. This right was formalized in 1980, during the settlement of rights when the DNP was declared a sanctuary. “But the sewan grassland landscape is the bustard’s natural habitat," Mahariya adds. The bustard, known locally as godawan, flourished for years in these grasslands, but now most of that land is lost to agriculture and other human activities.

The wildlife department has built wire-fenced enclosures to save what remains of the grasslands in a bid to preserve the bird’s natural habitat and provide safe refuge. Yet, Mahariya points out, so far only 5% of the area of DNP has been converted into enclosures as part of in situ conservation (conservation of species within their natural habitats and ecosystem). Anthropogenic pressure and resistance from a section of villagers still cripple these on-ground efforts.

“The local people complain since they feel their basic needs are not being met and infrastructure is not being developed," Mahariya says. “They are also not allowed to sell land to each other. Farming and working on khatedari land is their right and that is not a problem. But these restrictions have affected their view towards the forest department."

Overall, resistance appears in the form of illegal farming and land encroachment. There have also been cases of grazing within the secure enclosures, despite the wire-fencing.

The Indira Gandhi Canal brought many socioeconomic positives to Rajasthan, but it also had its downsides. Along with the increase in human habitation along the canal, came animals such as feral pigs and dogs, which prey on the bustard’s eggs and offspring.

Relatively new high-power tension lines and windmill transmission wires have also hampered conservation efforts. “Bustards have poor frontal vision and heavy flight, which make them particularly prone to power-line collision. In the last year, five birds have died due to power lines in Rajasthan and Gujarat. Windmills are not problematic per se, but they facilitate the expansion of power lines in GIB habitats," says Dutta, over email.

Mahariya says finding a way around the power lines remains a challenge since these are located on revenue land as opposed to forest land. One solution is to bury them underground, which is a time-consuming and costly exercise.

The other solution is to use bird diverters to make the power lines visible to the birds. The diverters sway and spin in the wind, reflecting sunlight and glow in the dark. “Positioning them in a zig-zag pattern on the existing lines might help," says Mahariya.

“The Wildlife Institute of India suggested the use of bird diverters to the power companies. They even provided some imported prototypes to the companies. Meetings were held at the level of the chief conservator of forests, Jodhpur circle (the last round of meetings were held in 2017). As far as I know, some local companies are also willing to replicate these prototypes and install them on existing lines, but there has been no compliance or significant developments," adds Mahariya.

He says that they intend to conduct more meetings soon and sensitize the power companies about the situation. “It’s possible to create a win-win situation where power needs can be met and this species can also stay safe," adds Mahariya.

Children at the protection post in Sam village, Jaisalmer. Photo: Nitin Sreedhar

Man versus bird

At the village level, there is a curious mix of support and opposition. Mahariya says villagers living in settlements within the DNP are dissatisfied. “They feel conservation efforts for the birds are detrimental to their daily activities," he says.

But some village representatives say the situation can be salvaged. Liyakat Ali, 29, a former sarpanch of the Bida gram panchayat, says things can improve if the forest department and villagers strike a balance between conservation and daily life.

“The villagers in this area do have awareness and love towards the godawan," says Ali, who is originally from Jaisalmer’s Neemba village. “These villages have been here for almost 800 years now. Our ancestors told us stories of the godawan co-existing with the livestock and other animals, be it cows, sheep or other cattle. Flocks of the godawan would move with a herd of cattle. The birds flourished then. The villagers here still believe in the old ways of conservation. But there is no understanding between the forest department and villagers. Both of them haven’t tried enough to find a middle path, where the wildlife also stays safe and people remain connected to important amenities and services."

Some local communities like the Bishnois in the nearby Pokhran and Ramdevra areas have willingly given parts of their panchayat land to the wildlife department for the protection of the bustard and other species. Individuals, like Musa Khan, 24, from Neemba have found a way to earn a living by creating awareness about the bustard.

“The forest department is right," says Khan, a licensed birding and nature guide since 2015. “They’re doing their job by building enclosures. But the villagers don’t have enough land. They just do farming. This year they couldn’t even do that because of drought. They think that if the bird ever goes extinct, the wire fencing will go away. But I tell them that the more trouble the bird faces, the more trouble they will face as well."

The introduction of eco-development committees (EDCs) has also helped repair the fractured local support. Under the EDCs, villagers and communities that live in close proximity to the forest have been given employment opportunities in the form of forest work. “We are trying to make people understand the situation," says Yusuf Khan, 58, head of the EDC in Sam village in Jaisalmer. “We have informed all the herdsmen in our area. Today everyone has a phone. Whenever they see a godawan, they inform me. Then I inform the DNP officials, be it the local forest ranger or guard. Sometimes we go ourselves to see the bird and then inform them." We meet Yusuf at the DNP’s Sam protection post, just after our car broke down, hampering our plan to surf through the Sam sand dunes and approach the enclosure in Kanoi village. It was here in May last year that a male bustard was killed when it flew into the power lines.

Yusuf, a shepherd and seasonal farmer, is dressed in a faded white kurta-pyjama and turban. Having lived in the Sam area all his life, he tells us about conservation efforts and awareness about the godawan from across the border in Pakistan. “We are followers of the Pir Paggara (Pir of Pagaro, a spiritual leader in Pakistan). We went to visit him. He announced to all of us that we shouldn’t hunt a godawan, no matter how hungry we or our children were." As we leave for the Sudasari enclosure, a hot spot for the bustard in mating season, he adds, “Ever since we came back from our visit, in 2011, this has been the point of discussion whenever a group of people sits down together in our villages; that we need to save the bird."

Back in the urban sprawl of Jaisalmer city, historians and cultural experts say the people here are not bothered about the bird’s future. Tourism has taken precedence over conservation. “There is no awareness among the people here," says Niranjan Purohit, curator of the government museum in Jaisalmer, which was started in 1984. “A small part of the population that reads the newspapers knows that the godawan is Rajasthan’s state bird and that it’s nearing extinction, but that’s pretty much it."

N.K. Sharma, 82, a former teacher and founder of the Folklore Museum and Desert Cultural Centre in Jaisalmer, recalls how, decades ago, he tried creating awareness about the bustard with the help of folk songs and dramas. “This was in 1970, when I was a teacher. These folk songs would depict where the bird used to live, describe its beak, what it ate, its mating call and display," he adds. “But today…I don’t think the godawan’s future is a worry for people."

Flight path

At the national level, there is increased awareness and there have been calls for more effective conservation. But significant progress has not been made. In 2016, the Central government decided to set up captive breeding and hatchery centres in Rajasthan. In June, a memorandum of understanding was signed. According to a June Hindustan Times report, the financial support and responsibility to develop and execute this project over the next 35 years will be shared between the Central and state governments. But even captive breeding does not guarantee success, especially in the case of critically endangered species.

“Captive breeding is challenging, especially for such a large bird that is easily injured by living in cages, that takes years to reach reproductive maturity, and then has a very low rate of fertility," says Paul M. Dolman, professor of conservation ecology at the School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, on email. “There can be issues in correctly incubating eggs, rearing chicks with the right diet and avoiding developmental problems. Such problems and challenges can be solved with time and expertise."

Dolman was the author of a study published in the Journal Of Applied Ecology in June 2015. The research suggested that some near-extinct species should be encouraged to breed in the wild rather than in captivity.

Even if captive breeding works, it will hardly matter if there is no sustainable habitat left to release the bird back into the wild. The biggest problem for the bustard is that it requires large swathes of grass plains to thrive. That is precisely why the bird has vanished from almost 90% of its former range, in the face of rapid agricultural expansion and infrastructural developments. “Short grass plains are the first to disappear under the plough or industrialization. They are the first to be occupied by human beings," says Asad Rahmani, former director of the Bombay Natural History Society, over the phone. “This is a very difficult bird to save in situ. Most of the time it’s outside the protected areas and outside the jurisdiction of the forest department, where they have no control over grazing and the laying of the pipelines, wires and roads," adds Rahmani, who calls the bustard, a “hardy" bird. He says in the case of the bustard, captive breeding needs to be done in the form of conservation breeding where the main purpose is to release the animal back in the wild.

“It can be bred easily in captivity. Conservation breeding means you have to breed the animal in such a way that the second and third generation could be released back into the wild. These birds should be raised in such a way that they have minimal contact with human beings."

If the bustard is to co-exist with humans, the latter might also have to adapt and improvise. In some parts of Europe, such as Hungary, Germany and Austria, constant conservation efforts—including reduced intensive farming—have led to a steady improvement in the population of the Great Bustard (Otis tarda). This species in Europe has been facing issues similar to the bustard in India. “If people apply and support biodiversity-friendly farming and avoid using too much fertilizers and pesticides, the diversity of plants, insects and other arthropods will be higher, providing a better food source for bustards," says Tilman Schneider, associate programme officer at the UN Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals in Bonn, Germany, over email. But Schneider reiterates that these species “require sufficient undisturbed habitat for their survival".

Home and dry

The arid lands of the Thar that fall inside the DNP are the perfect habitat for the Great Indian Bustard. It has an abundance of avian diversity for company too. As our vehicle clambers across sand dunes on the route leading to the Sudasari protection post, around 60km from Jaisalmer, we spot species like the tawny eagle, southern grey shrike and the rosy starling perched on top of trees and power lines alongside the road. It is hard to imagine this barren land supporting any life at all, let alone more than 100 species of birds. When we arrive at Sudasari, Sriram Saini, a veteran range forest officer, tells us that the Great Indian Bustard is not the only species that is in danger here.

“Cultivation and agricultural activity have also affected other unique species like the Indian spiny-tailed lizard," says Saini. “Their population here is still in the thousands but it used to be more before their habitat was disturbed. Since their population has gone down, it has affected predators like the falcons and tawny eagles. The food chain is broken. It’s pretty simple. If you play with nature, it will play with you as well."

Forester Kawraj Singh and a couple of other forest guards take us to explore the area in the hope that we will spot the bustard. As our jeep traverses the motorable dirt road along the periphery of the enclosures, a small herd of chinkaras (Indian gazelle) gallops inside. A couple of nilgais (Asian antelope) scurry away on hearing the vehicle. A spiny tailed lizard moves towards our vehicle but then decides to hide inside its burrow instead.

We are 8-10km inside the enclosure area when Singh spots something towards the north-west and stops the vehicle. “There it is!" he says, pointing at the scanty grasslands, where two Great Indian Bustards, one visibly bigger than the other, are moving together. The bird’s black crown and brownish body are detectable to the naked eye, but we use a Champion 10x50 binocular to get a closer look.

The birds are at a fair distance, so we move the vehicle further and stop near the ghadeli naadi (pond in the local dialect) enclosure, which is under construction. Now on foot, Singh requests silence by putting his finger on his lips. We walk a few steps further, with nothing but the sound of pebbles and dirt crumbling under our shoes.

The two bustards are about 500-600m from us, but Singh says this is as close as we can get. He hands over the binoculars so that we can get a better look. “This bird flies less and walks more," he says. “It senses danger from a distance and that someone is following it." Even from such a distance, spotting the bird is thrilling.

A few minutes pass and the pair moves farther away from our line of sight. We return to the vehicle and make our way back to the protection post. One thing is certain—as long as the “hardy" bird keeps moving and surviving, perhaps all hope is not lost.

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