The declining fortunes of many bird species in India, and the likelihood that some of the critically endangered ones would barely exist in a small part of their historical range in coming years call for a serious review of conservation efforts. There are 145 avian species in the country facing various levels of threat according to a list compiled for the current year by IUCN, an international conservation organisation. Among the birds that face a bleak future is the great Indian bustard. By some estimates, less than 250 representatives of this heavy, terrestrial species survive today. Research insight points to the peculiarities of its grassland habitat, growing pressures from cattle grazing and expanding farming activity as significant causes for its depletion. The Bombay Natural History Society, after a lot of study, has expressed worry at the lack of a comprehensive approach to conservation. A comeback for the great Indian bustard, as well as the lesser florican and Bengal florican belonging to the same family, will now depend on a conservation programme that is based in science and quickly builds community support. Rajasthan has the largest known population of the great Indian bustard and has done well to allocate resources to aid a dedicated effort.

The priorities for the handful of States where the species still exists are clear. Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh have to contend with the fact that the great Indian bustard does not confine itself to a protected area, and often flies into community lands. Competition from cattle for the grasses here brings the bird in conflict with humans, often with tragic results. A fodder supply scheme to spare the grassland and thus aid the bustard will go a long way in the restoration of bird populations and insect diversity, which are inter-linked. Forest officials in Karnataka and elsewhere have also unwisely changed the open landscape into plantations of exotic tree species, dealing a blow to the bird. The mistake has been realised in Nannaj sanctuary of Maharashtra, and bustards have reappeared in areas where the trees have been removed; unregulated tourism, however, continues to be an impediment here. There is apprehension that the new law on land acquisition may work against grassland birds, since cultivated lands are eligible for higher compensation, and farmers may remove grasses. This is not an insurmountable obstacle, and those areas hosting the great Indian bustard and other wildlife can be classified separately, and farmers compensated through alternative mechanisms. Ultimately, a landscape approach to conservation is what can save India’s critically endangered wildlife.

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