“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.
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. )