The fall of a florican

The rapid decline of this flamboyant bird is tied to the destruction of grasslands, India’s least valued ecosystem

Published - August 25, 2018 04:27 pm IST

 The lesser florican’s remarkable mating ritual could soon be history

The lesser florican’s remarkable mating ritual could soon be history

Before me spread an interminable swathe of golden grassland, rippling like waves. I scanned the landscape for the creature I was here for, but to no avail. Just as I gave up hope, a chicken-sized bird shot up in the air, descended, and then rose again — shimmering black body and silvery white wings that opened to reveal dazzling colours before it floated to the ground.

It gave an encore performance every few minutes, bursting on the horizon and displaying its fine plumage before rapidly descending again. This flamboyant little performer was the male lesser florican, and it does this display 500 to 600 times a day in an effort to attract a mate.

This was about a decade ago and I was in Gujarat’s Velavadar, a tiny 34 national park three hours from Ahmedabad. The florican flies into this grassland at the onset of the monsoon to breed, and takes off after the rains, presumably to peninsular and northern Indian grasslands, although where precisely it goes, and why, is one of nature’s unsolved mysteries.

This remarkable mating ritual could soon be history with fewer than 300 lesser floricans remaining in India, according to a recent Wildlife Institute of India (WII) report.

This is a sharp drop from less than 20 years ago, when the population was about 3,500. Lead author of the WII study, scientist Sutirtha Dutta, finds the plunge alarming and stresses the urgent need for a conservation plan if we are to save the bird. “A species is considered critically endangered if it sees a 75-80% population decline in three to four generations, as might be the case of the Lesser Florican,” he writes.

Smallest bustard

Before their legal protection in the 1970s, it was hunting that exterminated large numbers of floricans, but the main reason for their decline now is the loss of habitat. The lesser florican, Sypheotides indicus , is the smallest bustard in the world, weighing 500 to 750 grams, and is found only in India. The country’s other two resident bustard species, the great Indian bustard and the Bengal florican, are equally imperilled, classified as ‘Critically Endangered’ in IUCN’s Red List. Fewer than 150 great Indian bustards survive; and less than 350 Bengal floricans remain, scattered in small fragmented populations in a few protected areas in the Terai, Dooars and Brahmaputra floodplains.

Historically, the lesser florican’s habitat spanned from Gujarat and Rajasthan to West Bengal and Odisha, from eastern Uttar Pradesh to Kerala. It was once also found in Nepal, and there were occasional reports of sightings from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Today, its viable population is restricted mainly to just two locations: Velavadar, with 96 to 115 territorial males, and Shokaliya-Bhinai villages of Rajasthan with 110 to 136 territorial males.

The rapid decline is tied to the decimation of India’s least valued, most ill-managed and highly endangered ecosystem — the grassland. Generally dismissed as ‘wastelands’, grasslands have been massively diverted for infrastructure, real estate, roads, power projects — including renewable energy projects. Misled efforts to ‘green wastelands’ have also transformed grasslands into monoculture woodlands with disastrous impacts on several species.

Grasslands under stress

The truth is grasslands are vibrant ecosystems that support some of India’s rarest wildlife — pygmy hogs, wild buffalo, Nilgiri tahr, wolves, caracals, swamp deer and hog deer. Yet, less than 1% of grasslands come under the protected area network. And even that minuscule area is under stress. When I visited Sardarpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh in 2013, I was deeply disappointed to learn that no lesser florican had visited that monsoon, and that only one had visited the previous year. What a fall for a sanctuary created in 1983 at the urging of India’s ‘Birdman’ Salim Ali because it teemed with floricans! At the time, the kharmor, as it is locally known, was present across the 340 sq. km of the sanctuary, including in the fields and 14 villages it encompassed.

There are many reasons for its near extinction here. Less than 1% of Sardarpur is classified as ‘forest’ land, the rest is either revenue or private land, making management and protection difficult. Restrictions meant the villagers could not sell their own land, or raise loans using land as collateral, festering much resentment.

Changing crop patterns and agricultural practices affected the bird too. The florican frequents croplands to feed on caterpillars, worms, centipedes, flying ants, small lizards and frogs. It also feeds on seeds, herb, berries and shoots. The shift from traditional crops like lentils and legumes to cash crops like soya and cotton led to intensive use of pesticides, killing off insects that dominate the bird’s diet.

Saving strategies

Measures to save the bird have to be flexible, multi-layered and site specific. A sensitive and inclusive approach that takes into account the difficulties that local communities face is important.

Core breeding areas must be inviolate, and protected from over-grazing and other anthropogenic pressure. Other potential breeding sites need to be protected and restored. Florican habitats must be declared Eco-Sensitive Zones to regulate land use and development.

Rajasthan’s Shokaliya, for instance, is extensively mined for quartz, mica, marble and masonry stone, and has gouged out the grasslands. Velavadar’s future is also at stake, with a Special Investment Region proposed on its edge, which will connect with expressways, highways, airports and sea ports.

I remember my visits to Bharatpur in Rajasthan, and feeling a devastating sense of loss at the absence of the Siberian cranes who once wintered here. The ‘Sibes’ were last seen in 2001-2002. Their migratory routes and destination are precarious now, and this magnificent bird is but an aching memory. Will the florican too fade into a bittersweet memory?

There is hope yet. Last week, a forest official shared a video of a breeding pair from Sardarpur — one of four spotted — which has not seen any kharmor for nearly five years.

Intense protection of the 500-odd hectares of grassland over the last two years is beginning to pay off.

Though a city-dweller, the writer is at home in the forests she is committed to protect.

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