Doctor dedicates life to save Great Indian Bustard

Doctor dedicates life to save Great Indian Bustard

Doctor dedicates life to save Great Indian Bustard
It was a sort of proverbial love at first sight for Dr Pramod Patil. In 2003, he first saw a Great Indian Bustard (GIB) at Nannaj in Solapur district in Maharashtra. Since then, he has not looked back and this 30-year-old doctor has decided to dedicate his life to GIBs. These majestic birds are critically endangered and highly threatened and facing extinction.

Patil, who completed his MBBS some nine years ago, is a diabetologist and runs a clinic in Pune. For the doctor, saving GIB has become passion and mission. “Having a medicine background and a knack for communication and being gadget savvy gives me an edge,” he said. Being a doctor, people respect him. “In medical science, we are taught community medicine and a doctor is community-centric by default and nature conservation is all about community involvement,” he said. 

Patil remains determinedly adamant to reverse their decline by winning the support of local communities, government officials and experts in the task of protecting the bird, together with its vanishing grasslands, said the Sanctuary Asia magazine about him, when it conferred him with the coveted Wildlife Service Award.

“We have to act now....time is against us,” Patil told Deccan Herald. As of now, around 200 of GIBs are left in the country and if efforts are not made in the next few years, these would be extinct. In fact, if this unfortunate thing happens, after cheetah, it would be the next big animal or bird to be extinct from this part of the globe.

The Indian Bustard or GIB (Ardeotis nigriceps) lives in short-grass plains and deserts in large arid landscapes. It is now confined to only eight pockets in five Indian states-- Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The largest population of about 100 birds can be found in Jaisalmer, Barmer, and Bikaner districts in Rajasthan where it is the State Bird. Remaining population number less than 30 birds each.

In Madhya Pradesh, it appears to have disappeared. GIBs figure in the International Union of Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) “Red List of Threatened Species for Birds”. The former Director of BNHS-India, Dr Asad Rahmani had been a foremost researcher of GIBs and the baton has now come to young naturalists like Patil.

Patil, who works as an Advocacy Officer on GIBs for BNHS-India, recently received the Whitley Award 2015, which is often referred to as the Green Oscar.  The grant supports the conservation and advocacy work for the critically endangered iconic species of Indian grasslands, GIB. The Princess Royal presented the Whitley Award purse of £35,000 to Patil at a grand ceremony in Royal Geographical Society, London, in honour of his work to protect GIB in the Thar Desert, Rajasthan. Patil is one of the seven individuals worldwide to have received the grant this year.

A couple of months ago, during an interview with Deccan Herald, Dr M K Ranjitsinh, the first Director of Wildlife Preservation of India and the member secretary of the Task Force that formulated the Project Tiger, too had expressed concern over the falling numbers of GIBs. “This is something very sad. We have to ensure that GIB is not extinct,” he had stated.

Adds Patil: “When we speak of protecting GIBs, these are not just GIBs. We are speaking in terms of protecting other species that are found in habitats of GIBs like the grasslands and shrublands besides sand dunes. These birds are often found associated in the same habitat as blackbuck.” Poor planning and lack of community involvement are resulting in public opposition to conservation and the GIB has disappeared from four protected areas designated for its conservation.

Poaching and habitat loss from livestock grazing and agricultural encroachment have also contributed to its decline, according to the Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN), which is a UK registered charity offering Whitley Awards and ongoing support to outstanding nature conservationists around the developing world.

In 2014, Patil received the Wildlife Service Award of Sanctuary Asia. Patil is a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission of India, where his vast knowledge on the behaviour and ecology of the bustard  helped formulate creative solutions that are now being implemented by central and state governments.

About how it started, he said that in 2003 he visited Nannaj and fell in love with the bird. “I still remember, it was August 15, 2003, I could then see 17 of them....today around four are left there,” he said.

GIBs can be saved from extinction, he insists. But there are some big, genuine and complex problem areas. “One of the biggest reasons is that there is a declining support of the local people. Their involvement in conservation is of utmost importance but the same is not the case here. They don’t love the bird as much as they used to. There are several reasons for this. They have lost confidence in the system because of complexities in land rights issues. Other challenges are loss of habitat and poaching. Community involvement is going to be the deciding factor,” he added.

The bird is also facing another critical threat of loss of habitat due to encroachment resulting from the expansion of  agricultural fields and alteration of the habitat for urbanisation and industrial infrastructure. These result in the habitat loss for the  birds, which lead to the  decrease, dispersal or migration in the population. 

According to Patil, all bustard sanctuaries share common problems such as change in land use pattern, habitat loss, increased disturbance to breeding, and alteration of habitat due to plantations or overgrazing, among others. No population of bustard is safe in India and, therefore, can’t be guaranteed against extinction. GIB is a slow breeder, produces only one chick per breeding season. This makes the species vulnerable for local extinction in an unexpected calamity. 

Asked about conservation plans, he said: “Conservation breeding programmes of Pygmy hog (Sus salvanius) and Asian Gyps Vultures have been feasible in India. Similarly, conservation breeding of GIB can become a success story provided that a professional attitude and scientific basis is followed  from the beginning. Although individual states may  be eager to plan for conservation breeding, support  and commitment from Ministry of Environment and Forests and Central Zoo Authority is absolutely essential.”

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