Who clipped the bustard's wings?

CONSERVATION

Who clipped the bustard's wings?

PROJECT BUSTARD

As the population of the Great Indian Bustard continues to drop drastically, experts have now mooted the idea of a ‘Project Bustard’ on the lines of Project Tiger and Project Elephant. The bad news for wildlife enthusiasts is that the Great Indian Bustard (GIB), which was sighted three years ago in a remote village near Bellary has abandoned its habitat recently.

This is the second such incident in the state since the early Eighties. The bird has even abandoned its eggs, according to local wildlife enthusiasts.

Experts believe that this critically endangered bird will not abandon its unhatched eggs, unless it is disturbed.

The bird is not only locally extinct from almost 90% of its former range, but has also disappeared from the three wildlife habitats declared sanctuaries 25 years ago for its protection. Experts say that apart from hunting and habitat destruction, which have pushed it to near-extinction, mismanagement of habitat, sentimental protection of certain problem animals, insecure and confusing tenurial systems, apathy and ignoring of scientific advice have added to the threats faced by these species.

With hardly 300 of them left, immediate measures such as habitat protection and creating a conducive atmosphere to breed should be taken to protect the bird. The GIB, a large bird of the short grass plains of the Indian subcontinent was once widely distributed from Punjab and West Bengal in the North to Tamil Nadu in the South, and Sindh (in Pakistan) in the West to Orissa in the East.

It was always found in the grassy plains, some times overgrazed by livestock or wild herbivores and shared its habitat with blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra), chinkara (Gazella bennettii), nilgai (Boselephus tragocamelus), grey wolf (Canis lupus), Indian fox (Vulpes bengalensis), red fox (Vulpes vulpes), wild cat (Felis chaus) and a large number of bird and reptile species. The stronghold of the Great Indian Bustard was the Thar desert in the northwest and Deccan tableland of the Peninsula.

Agriculture, overgrazing and destruction of grasslands because of livestock and hunting have resulted in drastic decline in their numbers. Today, the bird is confined to a few pockets in six states including Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

“Project GIB on the lines of ‘Project Tiger’ and ‘Project Elephant’ is the need of the hour. The government should intervene immediately,” says Asad R Rahmani, Director, Bombay Natural History Society.

While noting in his study paper that change in land use pattern was the prime reason for deteriorating population, Rahmani adds, “Though eight sanctuaries were established during the ‘80s to protect the Great Indian Bustard including two sanctuaries established exclusively for the Lesser Florican (Sailana in Ratlam and Sardarpura in Dhar districts), the status of these birds has further deteriorated because of habitat changes.”

He added that the GIB has become extinct in Karera Bustard Sanctuary, while two-four survive in Ghatigaon Bustard Sanctuary and probably none in Sorsan area of Rajasthan. Also, the grasslands of Sailana, vital for the survival of the Lesser Florican, have been ploughed over. Most of the Floricans now survive in private grass bheeds or vidis, which are fast disappearing.

Sanctuaries like Karera, Nannaj, Rollapadu, Sonkhaliya and Sorsan were established on revenue land that included private agricultural areas or common grazing lands. Respective state governments ignored the ‘settlements of rights’ proceedings in all these sanctuaries which left them with virtually no control over the land.

“Therefore it was not easy to protect the habitat or take up any habitat improvement because in most of the cases the land was not under the control of the Forest Department which was incharge of managing these protected areas,” the paper says. 

Pointing out that even the existing sporadic population in some sanctuaries like Ghatigaon are threatened due to habitat changes by expansion of agriculture or human settlements, Rahmani says, “Development of roads or canals, and industrialisation are still going on and it is feared that unless immediate measures are taken, some of the sanctuaries like Ghatigaon would lose their bustard populations in another two-three years.”  

Protection of grassland vegetation

Grassland vegetation forms an important aspect in GIB conservation. Being a grassland species, the GIB shares its habitat with other mammals and birds. However not much importance is given to grassland conservation in the country. Though the largest livestock populations in the world, with an estimated 540 mn heads thrive in the country, there is no grassland policy.

In Karnataka...

The bird was found in some grassland patches in the state.  Following this, a sanctuary at Ranebennur was declared. However the bird abandoned the habitat in the early Eighties due to anthropogenic pressure. The acacia plantation started as part of increasing green cover has turned adverse for conservation of this rare bird.

An attempt to revive the habitat was made by the Forest Department in 2005 at Ranebennur, but it did not yield much results. Even an appeal to clear the sanctuary of the acacia species, according to the state forest department, is pending before the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

After a gap of over 20 years, the bird was rediscovered at a remote village near Bellary, when a team of Bellary wildlife enthusiasts found them in a field in 2005.  Rahmani still puts Ranebennur as a potential bustard site and part of the proposed Project GIB.

Sanctuaries to be benefitted:

* Rajasthan: Desert NP, Talchapper, Gajner
* Gujarat: Desert Wildlife Sanctuary, Narayan Sarovar, Lala and Naliya, Wild Ass Sanctuary, Velavador, Dahod grasslands
* Madhya Pradesh: Sailana, Sardarpur, Ghatigaon
* Maharashtra: Bustard Sanctuary, Rehukuri
* Karnataka: Ranebennur
* Andhra Pradesh: Rollapadu
* Uttar Pradesh: Dudwa, Katerniaghat, Kishenpur, Sohagi-Barwa
* Bihar: Valmiki Tiger Reserve
* West Bengal: Jaldapara, Gorumara
* Assam: Manas, Kaziranga, Pobitora, Laokhowa, Burachapori, Orang, Sonai-Rupai
* Arunachal Pradesh: D’Ering Memorial Sanctuary 

Photo: Samad Kottur

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