Flight risk: Inside the fight to save the great Indian bustard - Hindustan Times
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Flight risk: Inside the fight to save the great Indian bustard

ByNatasha Rego
Jan 29, 2022 04:12 PM IST

There are 150 left in the wild. About 16 are dying every year, as they collide with high-voltage power lines that should not have been sanctioned in the Thar Desert. Conservation efforts now race against a clock set to extinction. Can we save what might have been India’s national bird?

The story of the great Indian bustard is the story of all that we are doing wrong.

 (Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee) PREMIUM
(Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee)

The vast grasslands of the Thar Desert that are its home have been classified as wastelands for decades. That was the first mistake.

As we know, deserts and grasslands that seem lifeless are teeming with life, most of which cannot exist in any other landscape.

Strike two: Because these were technically wastelands, they were readily allocated as real-estate for solar- and wind-energy projects, starting in the late 1990s. As those projects took shape, they threw up high-voltage power lines across what was once open air.

The great Indian bustard (GIB), with its poor frontal vision, has been flying straight into these power lines. Of a tiny population of about 150 now left in the wild, about 16 are dying every year as a result of these collisions.

The situation is so critical that, last April, the Supreme Court ordered that all power lines in GIB habitats be moved underground. No action has followed (and the government has requested the court to modify its order). It will soon be a year since that order. Another 16 of the birds are likely gone.

There were only about 600 left in 2001, when the toll from the power lines began to mount. We can take some responsibility for that too. Before the power lines, the greatest threat to the GIB was hunting.

In the early 19th century, a single Englishman, a Colonel Robert Mansfield, wrote in Oriental Sporting Magazine that he had shot as many as 961 great Indian bustards near Ahmednagar in Maharashtra over 25 years — a particularly massive number given that the average female only lays one egg a year. (Incidentally, these eggs have a survival-into-adulthood rate of 12% to 35% today.)

All these factors combined have earned the GIB a Schedule 1 tag as a heavily protected species under Indian laws, and the tag of critically endangered from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which first put the bird on its global Red List in 1994.

This is a species with fairly high odds stacked against it even in the undisturbed wilds. It’s a large creature that moves slowly in the air (the word bustard comes from the Old French “oustarde” or “slow bird”). It is a ground-nesting bird, which makes its eggs particularly susceptible to predators. Before you try to ease your conscience with that information, it must be said: without our intervention, it would not be going extinct. With the right intervention, it could be saved even now.

A great Indian bustard on farmland at Siruguppa in Bellary. Conservationists recorded small flocks spotted here between 2006 and 2016. Then land-use patterns changed, and a large anti-poaching camp (below) was constructed. There have been few sightings since. (Samad Kottur)
A great Indian bustard on farmland at Siruguppa in Bellary. Conservationists recorded small flocks spotted here between 2006 and 2016. Then land-use patterns changed, and a large anti-poaching camp (below) was constructed. There have been few sightings since. (Samad Kottur)
(Samad Kottur)
(Samad Kottur)

But power companies say moving power lines underground will drive costs up exponentially. “It’s been almost 10 months since the order and nothing has budged,” says MK Ranjitsinh Jhala, a former bureaucrat and the wildlife activist who filed the PIL that was heard in the Supreme Court. “Instead, new power lines are coming up to this day.”

Would the species have fared better if it had been picked as the national bird of India, instead of the Indian peacock? It was a strong contender, back in 1960, when the 12th World Conference of the International Council for Bird Preservation suggested that each country designate a bird that was “in the greatest need of protection”. “It was shot down because there was concern that a slight mispronunciation of its name could lead to disaster,” says Ranjitsinh. “The GIB has long been a godfatherless species.”

Clipped wings

As the clock ticks down to what many believe is near-certain extinction, sightings in former strongholds are becoming rare. A bird that was once spread across 11 states now exists in mainly one: Rajasthan.

For a decade, there was some good news in Karnataka. From 2006 to 2016, ecologists tracked the growth of a tiny but potentially breeding community of GIBs. “In 2016, we conducted a rapid assessment with the help of locals and found 12 individuals, including chicks, in the grasslands of Siruguppa taluka, on the banks of the Tungabhadra River in Bellary district,” says wildlife biologist Samad Kottur.

Soon after, this area was disrupted by the construction of one two-storey anti poaching camp and two four-storey watch towers. GIB sightings have since become rarer, Kottur says. Contacted for a response, a forest department official shared documents listing “GIB initiatives” in the area, including the construction. “One most important factor having a major impact on the conservation of GIBs in the Siruguppa landscape is rapid change in the land-use system and in cropping patterns,” says Sidram Chalkapure, deputy conservator of forests with the Bellary division.

“I slot extinctions into three categories,” says Ranjitsinh. “Those that occurred because we didn’t know how to stop them; those that occurred because we allowed them to occur; and a unique position which is the one we are in, where the very authorities appointed to save a species are contributing to its demise. That is what I believe is happening in Bellary.”

A great Indian bustard found dead at Ramdevra in Jaisalmer. An estimated 16 bustards die each year, in collisions with high-voltage power lines thrown up by power projects sanctioned in the Thar Desert. (Radheshyam Pemani Bishnoi)
A great Indian bustard found dead at Ramdevra in Jaisalmer. An estimated 16 bustards die each year, in collisions with high-voltage power lines thrown up by power projects sanctioned in the Thar Desert. (Radheshyam Pemani Bishnoi)

A SMALL STRUT FORWARD

All is not lost. For the past two years, efforts have been underway to breed the GIB in captivity, in Rajasthan. This will be challenging. The great Indian bustard has some very peculiar mating rituals.

For one thing, male birds must build something of a stage. They flock to clear display grounds, called leks, where they then spread their wings, puff out their plumage, extend the neck pouch and proceed to call so loudly, that the hooting can be heard 500 metres away.

So far, a captive-breeding programme has secured 16 chicks; the aim is to have 35. They will then be bred and, if all goes well with the mating dance, their chicks will be released into the wild.

Also in Rajasthan, ecologists are working with local herding communities to train some members as guides for birders. The hope is that these members of the community will, in the process, come to understand the bird, empathise with it, and work towards some measure of coexistence.

They’re both long shots. It will be at least 13 years before the first captive-bred chicks’ own chicks can be released into the wild. At the current rate of loss, the existing population of wild GIBs will be gone in less than a decade.

So the species could be technically extinct in the wild before some chicks are rewilded. Even in that best-case scenario, the question remains: What will be waiting out there for them, when they fly back into the Thar Desert?

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COUNT DOWN

1: is the number of eggs a female great Indian bustard lays, per year

12% to 35%: are the chances that a chick born of that egg will survive into adulthood, according to date from WII

1,260: In 1969, there were an estimated 1,260 great Indian bustards in the wild, spread across 11 states (Haryana, Punjab, Odisha, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh), with a few also recorded in Pakistan. This was according to a population assessment by RS Dharmakumarsinhji, a noted ornithologist and environmentalist (and erstwhile prince of Bhavnagar). The numbers were laid out in his 1971 report, Study of the Great Indian Bustard, submitted to the World Wildlife Fund.

745: By 1978, the number has plummeted to 745, according to a fresh population assessment by Dharmakumarsinhji. This report was submitted to Birdlife International, a global bird conservation NGO. Birdlife was, and remains, one of the sources by which IUCN determines which animals to add to its Red List of threatened species.

600: By 2001, there were an estimated 600 great Indian bustards left in the wild, according to the BirdLife International Red Data Book, an exhaustive work in two volumes that assessed 665 of the most threatened bird species in Asia. By this time, the GIB had been on the IUCN’s Red List for seven years.

Efforts to protect the bird’s habitat had begun to gather steam, but the battle to contain the spread of power lines across its habitat is a losing one.

300: By 2010, there were 300 of the birds left, across just six states — Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. This was according to a study published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research by GIB ecologists Sutirtha Dutta, Asad Rahmani and Yadvendradev Yadav.

150: By 2020, the number of great Indian bustards left in the wild had fallen to about 150, spread across just five states: 128 in Rajasthan; about 10 each in Gujarat and Karnataka-Andhra Pradesh; and less than 8 in Maharashtra.

This was the figure submitted by the Government of India to the UN’s Convention on Migratory Species, which aims to protect endangered migratory species across their various habitats. The GIB, incidentally, is considered a migratory bird, but its migrations remain circumscribed to within the stretch of 11 Indian states and borderlands with Pakistan that it has traditionally occupied.

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