What a Bustard!

Photo : Forest Department of Gujarat

Great Indian Bustards (GIB) are conspicuous and quite large with a black crown over its head. Males’ crown is much more defined with a large gular pouch in its neck. It uses that to create a call which attracts the females for mating. This call can be heard from about 500 meters away. The male also weighs twice than the female. GIBs endemic to India, of course, the name suggests it. But why am I writing about it? Why are environmentalists so concerned about them? Well, GIBs are one of the three bustards found in India which are critically endangered with a population of only 150 surviving individuals. GIBs were once found across the entire western half of India, starting from Punjab and Haryana in the north to Tamil Nadu in the south and from Odisha in the east to Rajasthan and Gujarat in the west. But sadly now these birds can be found majorly in the Thar desert of Rajasthan, it's last stronghold. Other states like Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh also house a few individuals (less than 30). There are also other two species of bustards which is again critically endangered, namely, Lesser Florican and Bengal Florican.

So what's the reason for their exponential decline in population? It's not a reason but sundry reasons. The most critical being those induced having anthropogenic origins. Historical data states that these birds undergo flocking during the roosting time where one flock usually contained about 20-50 individuals but now it is limited to only 2-3 individuals per flock. During mating season, which is usually between March and September, differing regionally based on rainfall, these flocks segregate and the male goes to the breeding grounds for mating. Males establish a mating ground which the female attends. The males take particular spots in the breeding ground and produce deep resonant sounds and cock their tails. Sometimes they also get into fights with males that intrude their territory. The males usually prefer open landscapes with a minimal visual obstruction while showing courtship behaviour. A recent study shows that breeding is restrictive to traditional areas and negatively influenced by disturbances. Females usually lay one egg, rarely two, in open ground and incubate it for 25 days without any nest protection from the males. When these nesting sites are disturbed it causes premature mortality of the egg and chick.

Photo : Bipin C.M

GIBs face a direct threat of extinction from many factors, hunting being one of them. The bustards which fly to Pakistan during the mating seasons are hunted for food. Some cases of hunting have also been reported in India. Apart from that man-made structures also pose a threat to its existence. Many GIBs have died due to collision with high voltage electric wires and fast-moving cars. Dometic dogs of the farmers and the free-ranging dogs of the villages also pose a threat to the GIBs as often they are seen disturbing the displaying males and damaging nests. Cases of eggs being taken by humans for food have also been reported in Karnataka. As one female lays only one egg, even the loss of one is great damage to the population of the GIBs. Unethical photography practices during the breeding season is also a case which causes disturbances and morality.

The loss of habitat is one major reason for the decline of the GIB population. According to the reports published by Wildlife Institute of India, less than one per cent of the grasslands are under protected areas. Widespread agricultural expansion and mechanization, the building of irrigation systems and roads, mining and industrialization and well-intentioned but ill-informed habitat management have caused the reduction in the habitat of GIBs. Also, the increased availability of water due to improved irrigation and hydraulic systems has caused the farmers to shift their crop growth from monsoonal crops to cash crops which are not suitable for the GIBs. Encroachment is also a major issue due to ambiguous land distribution policies between the Revenue Department, Forest Department and the local communities. In many protected areas, the open grasslands have been converted to shrublands by planting exotic trees/shrubs by the forest department. This is the classic example of well-intentioned but ill-informed management practice. This new habitat is not at all suitable for the GIBs, neither for roosting nor for breeding.

For effective conservation of these birds, various ecological aspects should be known about. Unfortunately, there are many loopholes of information like lack of centrally coordinated scientific population estimation protocol, lack of knowledge about their ranging patterns (seasonal movement and land use) and lack of awareness among common people. The large range of the GIBs has resulted in strict legislation and conversion of private lands to protected lands. This upsets the people and thus results in a lack of support. Also, cases have been seen where the prevention of grazing by farm animals has caused a surge in the blackbuck population which adversely affected the crops of the farmers thus creating bitterness amongst the local population.

Therefore to conserve these birds and revive their declining population, many strategies need to be adapted and initiatives must be implemented. One of them is the study of their population ecology. In-depth knowledge about the ecological factors governing the life span of these birds will help biologists and policymakers make more scientific and adept decisions for their conservation. As there are no captive GIBs, their extinction in the wild will cause the total extinction of this species. Thus conservation breeding programmes should be started as soon as possible. The protection of the core areas inhabited and used by the GIBs should be under extreme protection without any loopholes. If GIB was declared as the National Bird of India when suggested by Salim Ali, we wouldn't have reached this appalling state.



Thumbnail Photo : Dhritiman Mukherjee

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