What’s India’s most endangered species? The answer, undoubtedly, is the Great Indian Bustard (GIB), a name few among India’s 1.3 billion people are familiar with. Endemic to the Indian subcontinent, the Great Indian Bustard once roamed in the grasslands and semi-arid regions of India and Pakistan. From 1,200 birds in 1969, no more than 250 birds survive today in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. Rajasthan has the largest population, about 150 birds existing in Jaisalmer, Barmer, and Bikaner districts. Less than 30 birds are found in Kutch, Gujarat. In 2011, this species was listed ‘Critically Endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, as it was wiped off from 90 per cent of its former range.
The GIB has suffered due to gross neglect of its habitat by policy makers. In the 1960s, renowned ornithologist Salim Ali had recommended that it be declared the ‘National Bird of India’. His suggestion was turned down for fears that the word ‘Bustard’ may be mispronounced.
Much of its semi-arid grassland habitats have been categorised as ‘wasteland’ in government records, and often given away for developmental projects. Others are diverted for agriculture and infrastructure projects. Its habitat in Rajasthan and Gujarat is also facing threat from high-tension transmission wires, that cause GIB deaths due to collision. Sharing agricultural landscape with the locals has increasingly become unsuitable for GIB due to chemical pesticides and the rapidly changing crop pattern from traditional to cash crops.
The GIB is known as the heaviest flying bird from the grasslands of India. The female lays only one egg during breeding season. The bird is extremely shy and quickly abandons the area if disturbed during the breeding season. Thus, it is necessary to offer utmost protection to ensure that the chick grows to adulthood.
Fortunately, 2016 saw some breeding successes in Rajasthan and Gujarat. The same year, the government also launched the ‘Endangered Species Recovery Programme’ which includes a conservation breeding centre for the GIB. Although funds for the proposed centre set to come up in Rajasthan have been sanctioned, it is caught in political ego-wars and red-tape.
We need to recognise that the GIB today survives in human-dominated landscapes. Besides berries, lizards, small snakes, GIB also feeds on beetles, grasshoppers and other insects, thus helping the farmers. Conservation action plans for GIB need to factor in the needs of the traditional farmers, and protection of pasture lands to ensure a co-existence of humans and GIBs.
(Kedar Gore is Director — The Corbett Foundation, and Member, IUCN SSC Bustard Specialist Group)