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A race against time to save the Great Indian Bustards

Read time: 5 mins
© Devesh Gadhavi

Standing a metre tall and weighing up to a whopping 18 kilograms, the Great Indian bustards (GIB) are one of the heaviest flying birds on Earth. Yet, they are unable to ‘throw their weight around’ in this world dominated by us. Their numbers have drastically declined by nearly 90% in the last 50 years, and the future of these charismatic birds look very bleak. They are now in a tight race against time for their survival, and if things don’t change fast, they could be the first species to go extinct in independent India.

The Great Indian bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps) is a large bird that resembles an ostrich as it has a horizontal body and long, bare legs. These grassland dwelling birds are omnivorous, feeding on insects, grass seeds, millets, berries, rodents and small reptiles. Once abundant in twelve states of India and parts of Pakistan, these birds are today listed as ‘critically endangered’ by the IUCN Red List.

The latest population assessments estimate fewer than 150 of them left in the wild. Recent surveys recorded no observation of these birds in Madhya Pradesh, under eight of them in Maharashtra, 5-10 birds in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, under 15 in Gujarat and between 90-128 in Rajasthan making it the last stronghold for their dwindling population. A 2011 study by researchers from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, found a low genetic diversity among these birds, indicating that their population has been on a decline since a very long time.

Great Indian bustard numbers

The loss of habitat is a primary threat that is pushing these birds towards extinction. Besides, feral dog attacks, road kills, and hunting exacerbate the situation. Although there have been several attempts to breed them in captivity, success has been elusive. Being slow breeders and with a lifespan of only 12-15 years, their biology works against all conservation efforts. To breed them in captivity, a centre was planned to be set up in Rajasthan in 2017 under the watchful eyes of WII in collaboration with international experts who have bred the Houbara Bustards successfully. However, it is far from being used.

Interestingly, collisions with high-tension wires kill many of these bustards, with ten deaths recorded in the last decade. “These numbers are from the carcasses that were detected in Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat and reported by various people and NGOs. We have probably lost many more, which were never reported as the carcasses may not have been found”, says Devesh Gadhavi, Deputy Director of The Corbett Foundation (TCF), an organisation dedicated to the protection of wild species and their habitats. As per a 2017 study by WII, in the Thar region of Rajasthan alone, as many as 18 bustards could be dying due to collisions with these killer wires each year.

In a final attempt to save these iconic bustards, Sanctuary Nature Foundation, Conservation India and The Corbett Foundation have launched an emergency campaign to protect them. The drive takes a page out of mitigation strategies used in other parts of the world and proposes to place all overhead power transmission wires, in critical habitats of these birds, underground.

“With help from years of observations by teams from WII, TCF, and other researchers and birdwatchers, a few patches of power lines have been identified as 'risky zones' for the Great Indian Bustards in Gujarat and Rajasthan. With the rapidly dwindling population, we cannot afford to lose a single bird. Hence, we urge that power lines in these patches be made underground with immediate effect before we lose more birds”, says Gadhavi, who is also one of the campaign’s scientific advisor.

In areas where the movement of these bustards is frequent, the campaign promoters suggest installing reflectors on overhead wires as a precaution. These reflectors divert the birds from crashing into power lines. Similar measures of underground cabling and marking of power lines have drastically reduced mortality of bustards in other parts of the world.

Protection of grasslands, the primary habitat of the Indian bustards, is the next step that the campaign addresses. “We will also be requesting the Government to declare some 'no infrastructure zones' in some GIB areas, as per the MoEFCC's guidelines (2013) for the recovery of this species. We need to have some 'safe patches' for GIBs”, voices Gadhavi. Grasslands, which are often perceived as ‘wastelands’ and neglected, play a key role in the ecosystem. They are also home to other members of the bustard family like the Bengal florican, Lesser florican and the MacQueen’s bustard, various species of eagles and vultures. “Any effort to conserve the Great Indian bustard and its habitat, will also be an indirect effort to save all these associated species”, he adds.

In the two weeks since the campaign was launched on 7th December 2018, nearly 10,000 people have signed and supported the online petition, including former Indian cricket captain Anil Kumble and actress Dia Mirza. “It will be an international shame and disappointment if India is unable to prevent the extinction of the Great Indian Bustard, despite all the scientific know-how and financial resources available. Unfortunately, this bird hasn’t received early support from our politicians, policy-makers, corporate sector and the general public. This is our last chance to prevent its extinction—by providing it with ample habitat, safe flying space and non-toxic food to make sure their population bounces back”, says Kedar Gore, Director of TCF.

"We have scientific solutions to save the Great Indian bustard and growing public support. If this incredible species goes extinct, it will only be for lack of political will. Urgent intervention on behalf of the government will be a sorely needed sign of their commitment to preserve India's fading biodiversity", says Cara Tejpal, a conservationist from Sanctuary Nature Foundation.

There is no single solution to saving this iconic Indian bird. However, raising awareness about its habitat and tackling the significant threats with conservation efforts could go a long way in protecting it from the brink of extinction. If you are one among the many who wish to support this campaign, here is the petition page - http://www.conservationindia.org/campaigns/gib2018