The Great Indian Bustard is a “Friend of the Farmer” and its wellbeing will pave the way for the survival of other birds.

The Red List Index of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Switzerland is out, and this time, the Great Indian Bustard, Ardeotis nigriceps, has been upgraded to critically endangered list as it faces high level of threat.

There are 23 species of bustards found in the whole world. Of these four are found in India; which are - The Great Indian bustard Ardeotis nigriceps; the Houbara Bustard Chlamydotis undulata; the Lesser Florican Sypheotides indica; and the Bengal Florican Houbaropsis bengalensis.

The Great Indian Bustard was once, one of the most commonly seen birds of Indian grasslands. It was initially found in more than 16 States.

Now with only around 300 individual birds being recorded, it is seen with difficulty in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and some parts of Pakistan.

The Great Indian Bustard was one of the choices for the National Bird of India but it lost out to the peafowl as the peacock is believed to be a lot more beautiful.

The Great Indian Bustard is considered the “umbrella species” of Indian grasslands ecosystem. By conserving them many other species found in grasslands will survive. They are the best indicator species of a healthy grassland home.

“In Andhra Pradesh, the Rollapadu Bird Wildlife Sanctuary is home to this large bird.

The numbers have come down drastically, with only around 22 birds being recorded in the 2006 census. Last year only 6 were probably seen. However, two hatchlings were also spotted,” says Mr Vijay Kumar the District Forest Officer, Atmapur, Kurnool District.

Reasons for loss

“Loss of habitat is the cause in the decrease in the population of this bird. Dry grasslands, are being converted into wetlands for farming,” adds Mr Vijay Kumar. “With more land coming under human occupation, these birds find it difficult to support themselves. 3000 acres of land can support only 10-15 Great Indian Bustards, who need a lot of flight area and a lot of space to move around and live.”

The Great Indian Bustard female lays only one egg in a year. This is another serious issue, as each egg is precious and needs to be protected. Predators like wolfs and monitor lizards, feed on the eggs. Overgrazing on the grasslands by blackbuck and cattle has caused loss of feeding ground for these birds. Mr AK Naik, the Chief Conservator of Forests and Field Director of Nagarjunsagar and Srisailam Tiger Reserve says, “The people living in the villages near the Rollapadu Wildlife Sanctuary are being sensitised to this issue and are being made aware of what they can do to help.”

“We are educating the people on what crops to grow in their farms, to be sure not to destroy the eggs and to be careful not to destroy the grasslands. The Great Indian Bustard is a “Friend of the Farmer” and this is something the farmers are being made to understand.”

Most forest officers and bird conservationists feel that if Project Bustard is launched on the lines of Project Tiger and Project Elephant, there is some more hope of protecting this beautiful bird from extinction. You can log onto www.projectbustard.org for more information on the bustards of India and to support the campaign.

Facts about the Great Indian Bustard:

· It is a very large and heavy bird growing up to 122 cm and weighing up to 18 kgs.

· The males are bigger than the females.

· It is brown and white in color, with a whitish grey head.

· The upper plumage is rufous, finely penciled with black.

· It has a long neck and long bare legs, similar to an ostrich.

· The crown is black and crested while the head and neck are pale.

· It is well known for its magnificent courtship display.

· The male produces a deep resonant ‘Hoom' like call, during the breeding display, which can be heard up to a kilometre away.

· It lives only on short grass plains avoiding thick, shrubby and woods landscape.

· It breeds once in a year.

· The female lays a single egg on bare ground and the chick is attended to only by the female.

· It is omnivorous in diet mainly relying on grass, small shrubs, insects, rats, channa, groundnut and bajra, depending on the season.