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Updated: June 25, 2013 01:10 IST

Not that Great being an Indian Bustard

Neha Sinha
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The Great Indian Bustard
The Great Indian Bustard

Unorthodox models of conservation are needed to save this elusive and magnificent big bird

“Have you seen the Big Five?” That’s the question you will invariably be asked if you visit the East African states. The Big Five, Africa’s largest, and thus most prominent, mammals — the lion, the rhino, the leopard, the buffalo and the elephant — have dominated camp fire stories, tourist expectations and the growth of conservation.

Across the world, big animals have a lure that is unmatched — they inspire knee-knocking fear, awe and wonder. The Galapagos tortoise, weighing over 400 kilograms, is also called the Galapagos “giant,” the Indian Rhino is also called the “Great” Indian Rhino, and the elephant is often called the “gentle giant.” In India, much like in Africa, we share habitat with a range of veritable giants: the tiger, the largest of all big cats; the lion, also called the “king” of the jungle; and the brown and black bears, possibly the largest of all carnivores in this country. Yet, one giant has missed out, even though its very name gives away both its endemism as well as its size: the Great Indian Bustard.

Rajasthan’s lead

Found only in India and Pakistan, the sole viable range and population of the Great Indian Bustard is now in India. Here too, the bird, which weighs between 18-20 kilograms and the size of a terrier, has lost more than 90 per cent of its habitat, and is down to a miniscule population of 200 individuals. Thus, it is possibly one of the most critical of all critically endangered bird species in India. Last year, the Ministry of Environment and Forests issued guidelines to start a Centrally sponsored plan called “Project Bustard” in the bustard range States — a much delayed clarion call for three neglected types of bustards, of which the Great Indian Bustard is numerically the closest to extinction. On the lines of Project Tiger and Project Elephant, other Great Indian Bustard States such as Rajasthan, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra have been invited to submit species recovery plans to the Centre to avail of funding and start long-term conservation programmes. Last month, the Supreme Court called for the operationalisation of the National Wildlife Action Plan and specifically directed the Government of India and the Union Environment Ministry towards starting species recovery plans for the bird. This month, on World Environment Day, Rajasthan became the first State to declare Project Great Indian Bustard. This is the first time that the west Indian State has announced a landscape plan for its State bird. While we need more range States to actively pursue Project Bustard, we will have to move away from traditional approaches to Centrally sponsored conservation schemes and look at a truly unorthodox protection regime for this unorthodox bird.

Ecological and social niche

The Great Indian Bustard is one of the heaviest flying birds on earth. With its head turned up at a characteristic 45° angle, it gives out a deep “hoom” call, which can be a heard up to a kilometre away. Its local names, Godawan and hoom, are derived from this booming call, an indication of the way its presence has built up in local consciousness. In the 1960s, ornithologist Salim Ali proposed that to “focus interest and solicitude” on a bird that represented the country, the bird should be chosen as the national bird. Despite this consideration and its prominent size, it has since been relegated to complete neglect, perhaps because of the habitat it lives in: semi-arid grasslands, which to untrained government eyes, is an epithet for a wasteland. The only habitat protection law that India has is the Forest Conservation Act (1980). And therefore the question is: are grasslands “forests”? Biologists argue that grasslands should be legally considered as forests, for the purpose of conservation of both the habitat and the unique assemblages of species they hold. The only species that went extinct in independent India was the Cheetah, also a grassland species. In its report of the Task Force for Grasslands and Deserts, the Planning Commission notes that species closest to extermination are grassland species, found in dry, wet and high altitude grasslands, such as the lesser florican, the pygmy hog, the Bengal florican and the Nilgiri Tahr. Forest “management” has led zealous forest departments, trained to raise forests and nothing else, towards burning grasses, ploughing soil, and planting trees where grasslands once swayed.

The Great Indian Bustard, with most of its habitat range lost, today poses one of the most pressing challenges to conservation design and management. Despite being such a huge bird, it is a cryptic giant. It converges before the monsoon at sites where it displays for breeding, enlarging its neck and “moustaches.” But where it goes in the non-breeding season is a mystery. With the display season now on, Gujarat, for the first time, has granted permission to the Wildlife Institute of India and others to satellite track the Great Indian Bustard (in the way tigers have been tracked before) to understand its foraging and dispersing ecology. Conserving this bird will mean both legal protection of breeding and display areas, and joining hands with communities over a large, legally unprotected landscape where the Bustard “disappears” to. Herein is the biggest challenge — to help create ownership towards the last few individuals of this wandering, vagrant bird, the very last evolutionary dregs of a species whose habitat is now an anachronism. It will, in effect, mean creating a vibrant social niche among people, for a bird which is near forgotten.

Community-driven

Where semi-arid grasslands are not available, the Great Indian Bustard is found in pseudo-grasslands — traditional cropping areas of traditional crops, such as millets and sorghum. Here, it has also been found to nest. If arid and semi-arid grasslands — both natural as well as pseudo — can escape land-use change, the other pressing concern is to allow some areas to retain their traditional Great Indian Bustard friendly crops.

Instead of a strictly protectionist or legally-enforced approach, we will need a management approach, most of which will have to be self-enforced by communities. Conservation planning will have to involve new players, like district commissioners, the revenue department, agricultural officers and gram sabhas. All of them have to be roped in to identify and protect revenue and private lands that bustards forage on, and to encourage natural agro-biodiversity.

If we can save the Great Indian Bustard from extinction, it will mean a triumph against the fatal end, but also a template for facing the typical problems of contemporary conservation today: working with whatever habitat we have left, using principles of restoration ecology to safeguard ecological baselines, and creating reconciliation with dense human communities who hold rights to these areas and are a reality in wildlife conservation today.

(Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society. The views expressed are personal. E-mail: n.sinha@bnhs.org.)

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It is very true that the species require collective effort from
various agencies for its conservation. Due to habitat ,loss the species
is loosing its grounds in its home range, but I would like to draw the
attention of the community that at present still there exists an ideal
habitat for the species, although patchy at various places, in the
Saurashtra region of Gujarat State which are the semi arid grasslands
called "VIDIS". there is ample of scope to launch an community driven
conservation programme in such grasslands. Patches collectively with
state forest Dept, GAUCHARS of Gram panchayat, Private Grasslands and
others provide a network of landscape with varied degree of
opportunity and challenges. Gujarat and especially saurashtra which
proved its will for conservation,having favourable socio-economical-
political factors with pro-conservation approach & with various
examples of successful cooperative movements can play very important
role in conservation of this species.

from:  Dr. Rajan.D. Jadav
Posted on: Jun 26, 2013 at 13:08 IST

Govt should come forward to pledge at least 30% of area for trees and animals to protect 1000s of species from 1 dangerous species (human).

from:  Rajapandi
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 17:32 IST

People can't seem to get away from this obsession of centring their ecological and environmental concern around something 'big','great','large'...Why cannot we look at environment in its totality beginning with our own consumeristic lifestyle and things seemingly more indeterminate like insects & bugs, small shrubs and plants that probably, have a 'greater' (pun not intended) bearing on the natural world and its upkeep and not just that of tigers, leopards, elephants? Though the word habitat and its upkeep is used, which presumably includes the entire landscape of flora and other organisms which is equally needed to conserve the specie they are championing, it appears perfunctory. In effect pitching their conservation discourse centering around big mammals, birds, carnivores, such naturalists can be seen as simplifying a more complex natural world whose interplay is still not clear.

from:  R S Krishna
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 16:00 IST

In India we donot have proper system to tap young grads towards
environmental education.More are lured by other lucrative careers.
As a result sensitivity on environmental issues are not being brought
among young as well as normal populace.
It's time for governmental institutions to make people especially
students sensitised about their surrounding environment.
Rajasthan's efforts to start "project great Indian Bustard" in June 2013
is a welcome step to conserve the species.

from:  HAVISH MADDURI
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 15:59 IST

This creature is doomed--like the Indian elephant. The only species which will survive longest in India is homo sapiens and the likes of Mr. Raj, your lead commentator!!!

from:  Ramu
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 14:45 IST

@Raj

Planet is not for one species only. Birds, puny, big, ugly or beautiful, do have a right to live on this planet. Simple because you and me are breeding like flies does not mean that nothing should be done to save the endangered species.

from:  Dilawar
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 14:20 IST

Stop shedding crocodile tears! I am really astounded as to how people can
cry over a puny bird, while millions of humans die of starvation.

What is the need for such a useless species? If it wants to survive, it
will adapt. Look at our Great Domestic Crow, it thrives. Any money spent on
such pointless projects will only be pilfered away by our corrupt
administrative systems and further impoverish the government.

Stop wasting money and time on such redundant issues, and prioritize the
usage of our borrowed, limited resources to deal with the Great Human
Disaster that we call India today.

You love birds, "Get a Pet!".

from:  Raj
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 12:55 IST

The Great Indian Bustard is an critically endangered specie. Being the
state bird of Rajasthan holds more importance for us. Quick action is
required now. Instead of wasting time in approval from Central
Governemt, it is better to protect its habitat and poaching. In
Pakistan, this bird is hunt illegally and the government of that country
is disinterested in taking any action in protection of this great bird.
So India has to bear more responsibility in protecting the pride of
India.

from:  Akshay Dhadda
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 10:44 IST

Collectively we could not save the beautiful white Siberian Crane for extinction in India and will the same fate await the Great Indian Bustard - GIB?
Perhaps yes, until and unless the vast number of grasslands, usually referred to as wastelands, are not protected for encroachments and encounters with harmful human beings.

If states like Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh etc. also starts calming that the GIB is their “property” like Gujarat does to Asiatic Lions, where will the GIB prevail, certainly not in midair. Moreover only a collective effort by all the states is put into action by all the concerned states will the GIB survive?
Otherwise by the end of the century there will be no GIB to talk about.

from:  N.Shiva Kumar
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 10:16 IST
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