It started with wolves. Bilal Habib was working on his Ph.D.
on wolves in 2002 at the Nannaj Bustard Sanctuary in Solapur, Maharashtra, when
he noticed a flock of 25 Great Indian Bustards (GIBs) in a day. Although not
directly involved in studying the bird, he began to collect information on
flock size and movement. He witnessed what is called their “Lek breeding”, a
practice in which three or four males display for females at different places
in the arena. With their neck pouches (gular pouch) hanging out, almost to the
ground, the male calls out with, as Bilal mimics in his office, “hoom,
hoom....” The sound resonates through
the enlarged neck pouch, and can be heard from afar. The female approaches the
display arena and looks for a dominant male. They breed for about three months,
and then go away, nobody knows where. Males linger at the place. He once saw as
many as 10 females nesting in the area.
Even after leaving Nannaj, Habib kept tabs on the birds; daily collection of information on numbers through his friends. An ecologist with interest in large carnivores, specifically “movement ecology”, he was both intrigued and worried about where the bustards had gone. As things turned out the numbers started falling and crashed down to two to three over a period of three to four years.
Questions stared at him: “When they leave the place, are they still in Nannaj or do they go elsewhere? Are all sub-populations in India (Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh,) connected?” Answers to subsequent questions—such as when going from one area to other, do they all get affected—were also needed.
Habib, now at the Wildlife Institute of India for some 10 years, went into these questions with colleagues and researchers. The Great Indian Bustard’s status is perilous, with “probable extinction in the next 15-20 years,” and it consumes him.
“I keep thinking what we should do, our role in saving the species, and keep hammering away at people at different levels to get them to listen.”
“I consider the Great Indian Bustard to be the responsibility of all the citizens of this country,” says Habib.
ustards are grassland birds of the family Otididae. There are 25 species in the world. India is home to four: Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps), Lesser Florican (Sypheotides indica), Bengal Florican (Houbaropsis bengalensis) and Houbara Bustard (Chlamydotis undulate). The Indian bustard is endemic to the subcontinent.
It is listed under Schedule 1 species as per Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, and as an Endangered or Appendix 1 species of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
They’re large—males weigh 12-15 kg and females 4-6 kg—and stout. They have long necks and long legs. Females are half the size of males, who are up to one metre tall; males have a supersilum, touching the eye and females a presilium, a sort of eyebrow not touching the eye. Females make depressions in the grasslands for nesting, quite open, and they breed from March to September. They lay one egg. They seem to have an incubation period of 28 days like hens.
In the breeding season, females usually make for undisturbed, slightly grown grassland patches where they can find cover while males scout for grazed patches where they can display. When the breeding season is over, they prefer wide-open agricultural fields or places with less grass and scrub.
Nomadic in nature, the GIB is a “landscape-dependent” species, a roaming dervish of sparse grasslands, short scrub, and open-space crop fields. It requires a large area for wandering, and was a common sight in the arid and semi-arid grasslands of central and western India. They live 12 to 14 years.
However, India’s development ethic, changing patterns of land use and agriculture and human interventions have pushed it to the edge of extinction. Even the protected areas meant for their survival proved to be their undoing.
The Great Indian Bustard evolved with grazing pressure, explains Habib. When grasslands are over-protected without grazing, the grass grows high, unsuitable for them. Since they are large birds, they need a few steps before taking off. Habib taps their steps on the table and his hand gestures take-off. In high grass they cannot take off when a dog or other threat comes in. “Wherever there were protected areas for them, numbers decreased.”
“You can only protect them with native, associated fauna, like blackbuck, chinkara, and nilgai. The blackbuck is decreasing across the distribution range. They would have grazed the grass and kept it in suitable condition for the Great Indian Bustard. Protected areas do not allow grazing,” he adds.
Also, much of the bird’s habitat outside the protected areas system is under traditional agriculture with “land-sparing”. People leave a patch of land for grass to grow for livestock, and it is rain-fed agriculture. Even a bit of irrigation disrupts the system, with farmers encouraged to plant sugarcane and other cash crops. Cropping patterns with spacing between rows help the bustards roam around freely, rather than those with less space.
The ideal habitat would be “intermittent grassland, with grass neither too low nor too high, abutting open spaces (ideal height of less than 50 cm). In fact, in Marathi, it is called maldhok (mal: grassland; dhok: forehead... forehead of grassland). In the traditional agricultural system, the bird kept the ecosystem in balance by eating grain, bajra, jowar, insects, and small snakes.
low breeding adds to its woes. Since it lays only one egg on relatively open ground, the egg can be picked off by dogs, foxes or wolves, or trampled by livestock. On the other hand, raptors and vultures are repeat layers, they lay eggs more often. That is why vulture conservation is successful.
“When you remove an egg for GIB conservation, you have no idea if the adult is going to come back and lay another egg. The places where they lay eggs should not be disturbed by dogs, foxes, or humans, ” Habib says.
In addition, a chick depends on its mother for so long that she spends 18 months rearing it and teaching it all the ways of foraging. During this period, nearly two years, the female lays no egg.
Rearing them artificially to release in the wild is a slow, time-consuming process. Australian researchers working on bustard conservation found it moves with the rain. Since rain bespeaks productive landscape and food, “you can predict their movements based on the changes in rainfall over the years.”
The bustard’s historical range of north Indian and Deccan grasslands has shifted drastically in the last five decades. According to BirdLife International, Rajasthan has 100-150 GIBs, followed by Gujarat, Maharashtra (less than 8), Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. (Nobody knows if the latter three have the same birds roaming in them or separate sub-populations. Together they might just have 10 individuals.)
A Gazette entry of the 1880s mentions a British hunter killing 40 birds in one day around Nagpur. The area doesn’t have a single bird now. There may be one or two in Warora. There is no trace of them in Madhya Pradesh. A bustard was sighted in the Ballari area of north Karnataka after mining was stopped.
“Since they’re long-lived, you may find them in the wild. In Maharashtra probably, in the next 10 to 15 years, they’ll be gone because no breeding is happening,” says Habib, melancholy writ large on his face.
Born to teacher parents in Kashmir, Habib studied in Srinagar until his bachelor’s degree and went to Aligarh Muslim University for his Master’s. He was interested in plant physiology and wanted to take up botany, but his instinct for wildlife made him choose that.
abib cites two instances of extinction and its after-effects. “Dead as a dodo” is not an idiom signifying wipe-off, but refers to a specific pulse of life vanishing from the planet. It was thought that the seed of a particular tree species (the tambalacoque), after going through the gut of the dodo and other extinct animals, would germinate easily. But after the dodo’s extinction, a decline in the number of tree species was seen.
A second is what followed the extermination of wolves from Yellowstone in the US. The rivers stopped flowing. Habib explains that with wolves around the elk were afraid of staying at one place and thus did not overgraze. With the wolf gone, they ate everything on the river banks and beds, which led to severe erosion. With grass gone, there was no percolation or retention of water, and rivers stopped flowing. After wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone, the rivers started flowing. It took 50 years.
“Do we wait 50 years to understand what will happen? We don’t know what will happen when the bustard is gone,” Habib says, cheeks flushed.
“Since it evolved with traditional agriculture and grazing systems, its extinction indirectly refers to our tradition and culture disappearing.
“It also indicates that blackbuck and other associated fauna and grasslands themselves are not doing well. If the bustard is around, everything is well. If not, these systems are collapsing. Like the tiger; if the tiger is there so is the sambhar. (The Great Indian Bustard and the tiger are keystones species and maintain the ecological balance of grasslands and forests respectively.)
“This is the only bird in our country that probably will be extinct in the next 10-15 years.”
ost of the current extinctions are due to human intervention; if not, many species would still be around,” says Sutirtha Dutta. He did his Ph.D on the GIB in 2013, and is now at the WII and works with his colleagues on bustard conservation under the Endangered Species Recovery Programme of WII. Yadvendradev Jhala, a conservation biologist and senior faculty, heads the team. Humans can make or unmake species survival. “Humans can revive species.”
In terms of ecology, it could go the cheetah way. Jhala calls it “loss of national heritage.” Since it’s an iconic bird “it means we’re going to lose an icon, and also grasslands, already lost to human intervention.”
By restoring the bustard, “we will be restoring grasslands, which benefit pastoralists. Its conservation addresses a lot of livelihood issues as well.”
What the Great Indian Bustard requires is “urgent recovery
action”. When nothing was known about these birds, Asad Rahmani, former
director of the Bombay Natural History Society, started working on its natural
history, in Rolapadu, Andhra Pradesh, in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and
undertook all-India surveys many times.
He saw 35 birds and 24 adult males in Rolapadu in 1984; his
estimate was 60-80 birds. Now, maybe three are left. In Maharashtra, where
there were once 100 birds, maybe two or three are left. Of 30 in Gujarat,
around ten are left.
Keeping in view the possible rapid decline, he suggested measures 30 years ago. They fell on deaf ears. Now, he puts the number at, “150-160 GIBs in the whole world (they are found in India and Pakistan).”
With all the changes over the last 35 years in India, “the bustard has no place,” he says.
On the natural history, he says, “It’s a dry land bird, lives on dry short grass plains, not hilly areas. Never lives in forests. Gentle and undulating plains. Deccan plateau was famous for these birds. Thousands lived there once.”
He once saw dogs waiting throughout the day near a pool where the bustards would come to drink water. “Everything is working against the bird.”
For a bird that was once a candidate for national bird the
situation is critical. People were afraid it could be misspelled
“bastard”. In fact, a reporter did just
that in front of Salim Ali, and he made the reporter spell it correctly.
Another reason could be that these are grasslands birds, not around in other
areas, like the peacock, which won the contest to be the national bird.
“When the bird is feeding, there is the threat of pesticides and insecticides; when it’s nesting, dogs and foxes and other predators; when it’s flying, transmission lines.
In order to find out where they go and how they roam after
the breeding season, and to confirm whether birds outside Nannaj are the same
or new populations, Habib and his colleagues captured two bustards at Nannaj
and one in Warora and fitted them with 70-gram Solar Argos/GPS PTT. One was
lost after seven days, the other slammed into a power transmission line, and
fell down. Before it could recover, dogs pounced on it and killed it.
Visualise the threats the bird faces, Bilal says: “When the bird is feeding, there is the threat of pesticides and insecticides; when it’s nesting, dogs and foxes and other predators; when it’s flying, transmission lines. It has lateral vision and cannot see what is in front. Last year, one bird slammed into a transmission line coming off wind turbines. So, green energy is not green for the bird. In each situation it survives on the edge.”
Notwithstanding the threats, Habib’s third bird continued to roam from April 2015 to July 2016. “Our bird gave us a lot of data. At Nannaj where it was first tagged, it used an area of 10,000 sq. km. From there it flew all the way to Bijapur in Karnataka, where the PTT tag stopped giving signal.”
Bilal’s report (2018) identifies 11 areas suitable as GIB habitats where it has been sighted in the past six months, comprising 12,528 sq km. He suggests continuous monitoring of these areas, removing invasive species, encouraging traditional farming and cropping patterns, reflectors on power lines, predator population control, and land-sparing.
Since it takes time for a breeding programme to bear fruit (coupled with no-breeding in the wild), Habib thinks it should have two components: a breeding programme plus landscape and habitat conservation. So he is working on the economics of conservation. Selecting those areas identified through the tagged individuals, he advocates saving those landscapes by paying farmers to continue with traditional farming and land-sparing.
Governments incur a huge expense on maintaining a protected area, with staff and their salaries, infrastructure and equipment and vehicles. Bustard habitat conservation would cost much less. The plan’s modalities are yet be worked out.
In the 1970s drought-prone area programme, people planted trees all over arid and semi-arid areas. Now, the understanding is that you remove those trees and restore grasslands. It’s happening in Maharashtra. Neem and Glericidia plantations are bing removed and the area turned into grasslands to make it a Great Indian Bustard habitat.
“All this is happening because of the Great Indian Bustard,” Habib says.
Shaheer Khan, who is working on wolves for his PhD, has already been tracking the Great Indian Bustard for two and a half years. “GIBs kept agriculture thriving by eating insects.”
“Conservation breeding primarily serves the purpose of having the bird in hand in case it disappears from the wild, and also, at a later stage, to reintroduce them into the wild."
Now, the tracking is part of the CAMPA project
(Maharashtra’s project merged with the Centre’s initiative to restore
critically endangered species). Khan collects information on GIBs: whether
they’re visiting the same place, what did the bird do, contact local people to know
if they have sighted it; basically to know how they’re moving and using the
area despite the human interference.
he Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change created a task force on the Great Indian Bustard in 2013, which developed the National Bustard Recovery Plan guidelines for both restoring habitat and conservation breeding.
Restoring habitat is a long-term process, given peoples’ attitude to grasslands—in land-use policies it’s a waste of land. The conservation breeding plan is, as Dutta puts it, “an insurance policy” when we don’t have bustards in the wild, and to buy time for restoring habitats.
The Rajasthan government verbally agreed to the conservation breeding plan, with help of the ministry and the Wildlife Institute as partners. But a formal memorandum of understanding has not been signed. Dutta and his colleagues are hoping that will be soon.
“Conservation breeding primarily serves the purpose of having the bird in hand in case it disappears from the wild, and also, at a later stage, to reintroduce them into the wild,” Dutta says.
Dutta and his colleagues are working with the ministry and state forest departments on habitat restoration. They produce annual reports on population status and distribution, conduct threat surveys, understand where the bustard is likely to occur and identify areas for mitigating threats through surveys, tagging and telemetry, and bring together different agencies to coordinate efforts to save the birds. They also have outreach programmes like working with the army and power agencies. Most of the GIB habitat in Rajasthan is army-occupied land and 50 to 60 birds out of 100 in Rajasthan live in those areas.
Bustards, in general, are slow breeders. The maximum clutch is four, but the Great Indian Bustard produces only one egg a year.
The recovery plan thus has two components. The first is to increase the recruitment rate, the number of eggs that turn into adults. The success rate was low because of predators and human intervention.
Following the recommendations of the National Bustard Recovery Plan, forest departments in Rajasthan and Gujarat installed enclosures and are trying to make them predator-proof for about 5-10 sq km, or in some cases larger, within the larger areas where GIB is known to nest. This way they hope to improve nesting success and improve the recruitment rate.
They have observed that nesting families use these enclosures more.
However, “we don’t have robust information on recruitment rate, but we’re seeing more chicks now, and inside the enclosures, than we did previously.”
Dutta points to a stark reality for the birds, even after they successfully nest.
When they get older—they mature sexually at three or four years—and can independently move around across large areas, they will hit power lines in their habitats more often than not.
“Although you’re increasing nesting success within the safe enclosure, you’re not sure how long they’ll survive because of the power lines.”
The second component of the plan is a conservation breeding programme.
Birds, including bustards, can relay eggs if you harvest them. But that has not been observed with the Great Indian Bustard yet. Based on the best possible information, Dutta believes there is a 50 per cent chance of another egg if the earlier one has been harvested, providing conditions like rainfall and food sources are favourable.
According to surveys in Thar 18,000 birds die every month to transmission line hits in the 3,000 sq km habitat of the Great Indian Bustard. The number only refers to transmission lines.
The goal of conservation breeding is to create “an insurance
population.” By taking away the
pressures of the wild, “we can increase the productivity of the birds in
Asked how the young would learn the nuances of foraging, moving and ranging, Dutta says, older females in the wild can be foster mothers at a later stage.” He estimates that can only be 20-30 years from now. The first thing is to have some birds as insurance in case they go extinct in the wild.
he British and to some extent, princely families, hunted the bustard, which reduced their numbers drastically. According to R. S. Dharmakumarsinhji, the late ornithologist, there were only 1,200 in the 1970s. That was before the Wildlife Protection Act was enacted. Poaching has gone down these days.
Since the bird has a slow life-history phase—an indication of the pace of recovery and return to sustainable levels—and slow breeding time, current numbers mean it will take a long time to get back to that level.
“Now,” Dutta says, “the biggest threat is power lines. The bird has poor frontal vision and by the time they recognise a power line they would be slamming into it.”
In the last decade, “We have lost 10 birds. In the last year alone, we lost four to power lines.” According to surveys by his team in Thar 18,000 birds die every month to transmission line hits in the 3,000 sq km habitat of the Great Indian Bustard.
“Imagine what’s happening in the rest of India. It’s a huge mortality rate, and the number only refers to transmission lines.”
So, he and his colleagues are negotiating with power agencies to put the lines underground, or if not that, at least for bird-diverters, a plastic device much like radium bulbs in bicycles which rotates so birds can see and avoid the lines. They conducted two or three pilot studies with diverters, and want power agencies to incorporate that as quickly as possible, given that these lines are the largest source of mortality.
They have identified priority segments for mitigation. They have disseminated this information to power agencies and state forest departments and expect speedy implementation.
“Power agencies can save this species from extinction. But mitigation measures need to be implemented at a much faster rate if we are to succeed.”
Rahmani is optimistic. “Scientists are very dedicated. There are methods to save them. Although it’s late, we can do it if the government agrees,” he says. For the last ten years, discussions have been going on, but action is slow.
“I would say it’s still not late. If the government of India wants, it can save the bustard.” Rahmani consulted with Saudi Arabia on the conservation of Houbara Bustards. The Houbara conservation programme is successful in Morocco and UAE. Birds from China and Mongolia visit the Thar desert and Gujarat in winter. The Houbara Bustard lays more eggs than the Great Indian Bustard, so its conservation is successful.
“Don’t worry about one egg or two eggs. Even three could be destroyed. Three will be more conspicuous on the ground. The GIB is a long-lived bird. One egg is not the issue. The human is the issue.
“These are ancient birds, they survived millennia laying one egg. Smaller birds lay many eggs. Egg numbers depend on mortality factors. We are responsible It’s called the Great Indian Bustard, if Indians don’t save it, then who will?” Rahmani asks.