Sarus finds saviour in wetlands of UP

Harming crane is akin to committing crime

Sarus finds saviour in wetlands of UP

The change of land use may adversely affect the population of
Sarus cranes

Notwithstanding the growing human population, urbanisation and change in the land use, globally threatened Sarus cranes appear to have found a saviour in the wetlands and agriculture fields of Uttar Pradesh, especially in some districts in the south-western region.

According to experts, the wetlands of UP, especially in the districts of Etawah and Mainpuri, provide a favourable environment for the breeding of the Sarus cranes (scientific name Grus Antigone).

The Sarus crane, which is the state bird of UP, lives primarily in the agricultural landscapes, especially in flooded paddy fields.

“The landscapes in Etawah and Mainpuri in the south-western UP is a mosaic of agriculture croplands with monsoonal rice and winter wheat and wetlands that are flooded by seasonal monsoon rains and leakages in the irrigation canals,’’ said K S Gopi Sundar, Regional Director of the US-based International Crane Foundation.

“The area has the largest known Sarus crane population in the world and the numbers appear be at least stable in the last 150 years despite the change in the land use and growth in human population,’’  Sundar told Deccan Herald.

Their population, however, has been on the decline in Haryana and Gujarat though it is rising in Himachal Pradesh, Sundar said. The farmers in Etawah and Mainpuri “revere” Sarus cranes for their long pair bonds and it is considered a crime if any one causes any harm to the cranes, he added.

Interestingly, the tolerance towards the bird in the eastern districts of UP is much less compared to the western region of the state. “Sarus crane pairs in Etawah and Mainpuri are unique in maintaining year round territories, which they actively defend against neighbouring pairs.

Eggs are laid and chicks are raised in these territories. Chicks are driven out just before the subsequent breeding season,’’ Sundar said.At nearly six feet, the Sarus crane is the tallest flying bird in the world and it nests in the wetlands.

“It is a slow breeder… raising one or two chicks each year, if successful and therefore is susceptible to rapid population declines,” said Sundar, whose research
papers on the subject have been published in several international journals.

He said that farming posed various kinds of threats to breeding birds, including mortality from trampling and machinery, reduced prey availability, and
increased risk of predation of young birds exposed after the harvest.

“The two vital reasons that have improved the chances of Sarus cranes’ nests and broods surviving in this landscape are: the farmers retain their current positive attitude towards crane nesting in paddy fields and a patchwork of even very small wetlands is retained amid the croplands,’’ he pointed out.

Sundar said that the landscapes outside strictly protected areas like national parks and wildlife sanctuaries can, in some instances, be of crucial importance for the conservation of certain species.

The biologist, however, feared that the change of land use could have an adverse impact on the population of Sarus cranes. “It has been found that the change in the rainfall pattern may not have substantial effect on the Sarus crane breeding. The loss in the dry season may be made up in the next wet season but the land use change causes permanent loss,” he stressed.

“Developmental activities like urbanisation or converting the wetlands into dry lands for housing projects have a permanent effect on the Sarus crane population,” he noted.

He, however, said that keeping in view the current situation, the farmers of UP are not a problem but illegal conversions of wetlands and unplanned development that do not consider conservation of important habitats like wetlands are real threats.
A study by Sundar found that wetland attrition due to expansion of agriculture and towns reduced territory quality of a little less than 10 per cent Sarus crane pairs.

“Expansion of towns permanently displaced 0.7 per cent pairs annually,” he said.
Breeding success increased when pairs had more wetlands in their breeding territories but decreased when wetland were removed.

Although it is highly unlikely that the entire landscape in the densely populated UP will ever become available for Sarus crane conservation and the
increase of cultivation at the cost of the wetlands is imminent, Sundar feels that the vast areas of the state are still multifunctional, providing excellent crop
produce while also allowing persistence of significant population of otherwise declining fauna like Sarus cranes. “Conservation interventions in these situations must be carefully considered,” he said.

According to the International Crane Foundation, which is working towards conserving cranes, wetlands and grasslands all over the world, the “future of the Indian Sarus crane is closely tied to the quality of small wetlands in India that experience heavy human use, such as: high rates of sewage inflow, extensive agricultural runoff, high levels of pesticide residues, and intensification of agricultural systems.”

Sundar’s work has also shown that in India, mortality due to collision with electrical wires is a significant threat and cranes have died due to pesticide poisoning. While the conserving the largest global population of this magnificent species is the
responsibility of UP, the best hope to conserve Sarus cranes and their wetland habitat is the humble farmer, concluded the well-known biologist.

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