Are critically endangered Great Indian Bustards now migrating to Pakistan?

Environmental activists suggest the birds, one of India’s most critically endangered species, may have migrated due to their shrinking habitat in Desert National Park

Updated - October 21, 2022 10:29 pm IST

Published - October 21, 2022 10:28 pm IST - JAIPUR

A Great Indian Bustard captured on camera in Pakistan’s Cholistan game reserve by wildlife photographer Syed Rizwan Mehboob. Photo: Twitter

A Great Indian Bustard captured on camera in Pakistan’s Cholistan game reserve by wildlife photographer Syed Rizwan Mehboob. Photo: Twitter

The recent sighting of three Great Indian Bustards (GIBs) deep in Pakistan’s Cholistan desert has given rise to speculation that the endangered birds might have flown across the international border from India’s Desert National Park (DNP). GIBs are critically endangered in Pakistan because of lack of protection and rampant hunting.

An Islamabad-based wildlife photographer, Syed Rizwan Mehboob, released pictures and a video of the GIBs after spotting them in southern Punjab province’s Cholistan game reserve earlier this month. Though Mr. Mehboob did not claim that the GIBs had arrived from India, environmental activists in Jaisalmer district have postulated that the birds might have migrated due to their shrinking habitat.

A Great Indian Bustard captured on camera in Pakistan’s Cholistan game reserve by wildlife photographer Syed Rizwan Mehboob. Photo: Twitter

A Great Indian Bustard captured on camera in Pakistan’s Cholistan game reserve by wildlife photographer Syed Rizwan Mehboob. Photo: Twitter

The GIB, which is the State bird of Rajasthan, is also considered India’s most critically endangered bird and is protected under the Wildlife Protection Act. Its population of about 150 in Rajasthan accounts for 95% of its total world population. The captive breeding of GIBs was taken up in the DNP through a project executed by the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India in 2019.

As many as 24 GIB chicks are in hands now and are being reared in DNP by a team technically supported by the International Fund for Houbara Conservation of United Arab Emirates. As Rajasthan shares the international border with Pakistan’s Sindh and Punjab provinces, it is suspected that the GIBs might have flown across to the neighbouring country’s desert amid fears that they could become easy prey for the poachers there.

DNP Deputy Conservator of Forests Ashish Vyas told The Hindu that several GIBs had been tagged for behavioural studies and monitoring of their movements. “They forage in the Thar desert area, which is their natural habitat, and no GIB from the Indian side has migrated to Pakistan,” Mr. Vyas said.

The GIBs in Thar desert have been facing threat to their survival because of intensive agricultural practices, laying of power lines and industrialisation. Experts have observed that the endangered birds have raised their families within the DNP and outside in the rural pockets, where the feed and grassland habitat is available. They also move in the crop fields to pick up insects and lizards and like to hide there.

Tourism & Wildlife Society of India (TWSI) secretary Harsh Vardhan said if the GIBs flew to Cholistan, they would fly over Salkha, Mokhla, Ramgarh and Tanot – all in India and north of DNP – and then cross over to Pakistan to fly over a no man’s land for a long distance. The birds will then land in one of the three districts of Cholistan – Bahawalpur, Bahawalnagar and Rahim Yar Khan.

Mr. Vardhan said the GIBs reaching Cholistan was a possibility if one considers the likelihood of their stoppage at several places to consume feed and replenish their energy lost in flying. “They would fly to that region only if there was no feed within and outside the DNP or if they felt there was less space for movement and raising their family,” he said.

The conservationist, who had attended the Second International Symposium on Bustards in Peshawar in 1983, said it would be ideal for India and Pakistan to collaborate on conservation of GIBs by developing a protocol through diplomatic channels. Pakistan could be given a demonstrative example of India’s ex situ breeding project for GIBs in the DNP and encouraged to invite experts from UAE. “Cambridge-based BirdLife International can also be invited by the Indian government to take the lead and set examples in Pakistan,” Mr. Vardhan said.

Significantly, the GIB was added to the world list of protected species of the ‘Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals’ during its 13th conference in Gandhinagar in 2020. Pakistan is a signatory to the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the convention.

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