Steady encroachment of marshlands and rampant use of pesticides is pushing the graceful Sarus Cranes to the verge of extinction

With their habitats shrinking fast to make way for the ‘green revolution’, the lanky, handsome Sarus caranes — the tallest flying birds in the world — are increasingly staring at an uncertain future. Primarily found in India, the Sarus cranes stand gracefully at six feet, towering over even the average Indian male human being. Other tallest birds — the African ostrich and Australian emu — cannot fly with their rudimentary wings.

Known for living life king size, the Sarus cranes today are on the verge of extinction in the wild as rapid expansion of agriculture is bulldozing their natural habitats. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed the bird as ‘vulnerable’ because it is suspected to have suffered a rapid population decline. This is the result of widespread reductions in the extent and quality of its marshland habitats, exploitation and the effects of pollutants. At a time when the Sarus crane population is rapidly decreasing, 14 of these endangered birds were found dead on January 15 on the outskirts of Delhi. Apart from the Sarus cranes, conservationists also found carcasses of other water birds and apparently they have been poisoned by excessive use of pesticides.

In India, the total quantity of pesticides used increased from 2.35 thousand metric tonne in 1950-51 to nearly 85,000 metric tonne in 1993-94. Today the pesticide usage is a staggering over one lakh metric tonne per annum; it is literally poisoning the ecosystem that ultimately affects the human beings who are at the apex of the food chain. Dr. S. Sandilyan of Wildlife Biology department in A.V.C College in Tamil Nadu says, “Researchers have expressed concern over the safety of the increasing use of pesticides and recommended finding effective alternatives such as bio-pesticides and bio-control. Birds play an economically significant role in agricultural environment by way of feeding on insects and also controlling weeds by consuming the seeds and preventing further invasion.”

In an unusual feat, recently a photographer from Gujarat managed to catch a large flock of 27 Sarus cranes in a single frame on February 20. India today has only about 10,000 wild Sarus cranes left, which are scattered in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Gujarat and other areas surrounding these States.

Dr. Gopi Sundar of the International Crane Foundation (ICF) says that the Sarus used to inhabit a larger swathe of the subcontinent until just about a hundred years ago. Today, however, it’s been hunted out of Bihar, and driven out of Madhya Pradesh due to inhospitable modes of farming. In Punjab and eastern Uttar Pradesh, its numbers have dwindled due to rampant human encroachment. In Rajasthan and Gujarat, however, the picture is less bleak, with cranes finding solace along the network of canal systems.

In the early 1970s, ornithologists Dharma Kumar Singhji and Lavkumar witnessed a single congregation of 88 Sarus cranes in Gujarat. During the same period, the famous Bharatpur bird sanctuary with a mere 29 sq km area had hundreds of them surviving in its bountiful bosom. Kailash Shankala, another Indian naturalist, counted a flock of 1,400 and 1,596 in the years 1979 and 1982 respectively in Bharatpur. This year, the same bird sanctuary is woefully bereft of these birds as only two pairs were spotted here.

Of all the cranes ever sighted in India, which includes the Demoiselle crane, the Common crane, the Siberian crane (extinct in India), the Black necked crane, the Sarus crane is easily the most charming for its social skills and zeal for life. Of the 15 species of cranes found globally, six are found in India and the Sarus crane (Grusantigone) is the only resident species.