On its last leg

Endangered

On its last leg

Poaching, grasslands getting converted to farmlands, feral dogs chasing the bird away and dwindling genetic diversity have all contributed to the near-extinction of a bird that was once tipped to be India’s national bird, says Atula Gupta.

Five of them live in Madhya Pradesh; thirty in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and the remaining 50 per cent of the population, numbered between 175 and 200, now survives in Rajasthan. Meet the Great Indian Bustard, a bird that was once touted to represent India as its national bird, but became a victim instead, of a society busy saving celebrity species like the tiger or busier shaping a new wildlife-free India. With each approaching day bringing the bustard closer to a fate the nation might regret forever, have the government and the people finally woken up to the great peril this species faces at present?

Great Indian Bustards are a grassland species and truly a great specimen of the bustard family. Heavily built, an adult stands tall at about one metre with long legs and an equally long white neck adding to its majestic demeanour. Days are spent on the ground feeding on locusts, beetles, butterflies, snakes, scorpions, lizards, mustard and pulses like Bengal gram and groundnut seeds.

Even their nests are on the ground with breeding season between August and December and the female laying one to two eggs. Flying only to migrate to other open areas, the grasslands are thus their lifeline. What is heartbreaking, therefore, is how a bird so majestic that it cannot be forgotten even on a fleeting glimpse is leading the life of an obscure, forgotten star owing to years of neglect.

Most conservationists agree that the best hope of the bustard’s survival is in Rajasthan where the state bird has the maximum population in the world. Preferring the tall grassland areas near Jaisalmer and Barmer, the bird is frequently sighted at the Desert National Park where its population is believed to be 100. However, owing to its high density in the region and its magnanimous appearance, the poor bird has also become an easy target for poachers – some even within the elite circle of protectors.

On May 13, 2013 the son of a forest officer was reportedly caught by local villagers at the Desert National Park’s Sudasari range in Jaisalmer district hunting for the regal bird. According to the village head, the forest officers, however, ignored the incident and even refused to arrest the said poacher. The post mortem report had clearly mentioned the use of a sharp weapon and villagers have previously noted similar poaching incidents in December 2012 and March 2013.

Poaching is only one of the many perils threatening the bustard in the state. Other problems are feral dogs chasing the bird away, grasslands getting converted to farmlands, and dwindling genetic diversity.

As a recent boost to the conservation efforts, the Rajasthan government has approved of a Bustard recovery programme with a budget of Rs 12 crore allotted exclusively for it. This state government initiative is clearly a generous move, but its success will only be visible when the bird’s population recovery is visible.

Rarer than the tiger

The bustards are a species more threatened than the tiger and, unlike these wild cats, they do not even have the ability to survive in varied ecosystems and habitats. While tigers can live from marshy areas of Sundarbans to dry, hot and arid forests of Ranthambore, the bustards only survive in grasslands. And it is this specific habitat that it misses the most in India today.

Farmers in Rollapadu in Andhra Pradesh recall how even a decade back they could see at least 40-50 bustards in and around the district. But as farming land need grew, the bustards vanished. Even though the Rollapadu Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary was set up in 1987, locals say that the Alaganur Balancing Reservoir close to the sanctuary converted much of the grassland to wetland, degrading the habitat. Other problems included the growing blackbuck and wolf population.

The Rollapadu Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary has now been selected as the site where revival of the dying bird species will be attempted with help from the Bombay Natural History Society, World Wide Fund for Nature and state forest departments. The project will continue for the coming ten years, studying the birds, their habitats and ensuring minimal obstruction to their existence. It is again a measure whose success can be ascertained gradually, when the bustard population recovers.

The Wildlife Institute of India has also come up with plans to track the birds through satellites in order to gather more information about them.

The Indian cheetah became extinct in the year 1952. It was the last mega species to have been completely eradicated from this nation thanks mainly due to conversion of grasslands to farmlands in the rapidly developing India post Independence. Sixty years later, another species stands on the extinction path today, getting ready to be sacrificed in the name of more development needs that are shamelessly unaccommodating to the vast wildlife of the land.

Conservation strategies that look good on paper have many hurdles to cross before the bustard is saved, including dealing with land mafia, lax public servants and a public that is vastly ignorant of the threatened life of the bird. Three hundred and counting, it is a conservation race that is still on.

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