The Looming Loss of the Great Indian Bustard

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Illustration by Henrik Grönvold from E. C. Stuart Baker's Game-birds of India, Burma and Ceylon (Public Domain)
With less than 200 left, the Great Indian Bustard, India's iconic bird, is near extinction. Will we be able to save it?

In 1979, a royal hunting party from Saudi Arabia cooly passed a sign on their way to the Thar Desert in Rajasthan. It stated, in capital letters, that the hunting of the Great Indian Bustard, among other animals, was banned. The Arabs, accustomed to power, drove past it in their jeeps, carrying falcons, rifles and Persian carpets.

It didn’t help that they had crossed over from Pakistan, or that they carried long-range binoculars in a region near the Pokhran nuclear testing site. A public outcry was raised, and the Indian Foreign Office served an injunction against the Arab hunters. But weeks later, journalists found that the hunt was still on. The power of Arab oil was evidently greater than that of Indian conservationists. Soon, the Arabs were requesting permission to land their Boeing 727 jets in the desert.

The Great Indian Bustard has long been a victim of its times. Once touted to become India’s national bird, it now numbers fewer than 200 in the subcontinent. Where in the past, the state could not protect it against Arab hunters for fear of the clout of oil money, today, the bustard is caught up in the messy debate between ecology and development.

At the same desert the Arabs hunted in, the bird now faces a form of security check as it travels between India and Pakistan. Great Indian Bustards, which fly a migratory route between the two nations, are now fitted with radio-tracking backpacks in India before they take the flight to Pakistan.

This is because the bird’s survival can no longer be left to chance. The collars are to monitor the risk it faces from poaching as it passes from Kutch in Gujarat and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan to Pakistan’s Sindh province. Officials from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) don’t blame Pakistan for this loss, suspecting that the birds are also killed by windmills and transmission lines along the Indian side.

The bustard’s loss has been staggering. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists it as a critically endangered species, having lost 82 percent of its population in 47 years. Once a common sight across the arid and semi-arid grasslands of India, its habitat is now restricted to Rajasthan, with small populations in Gujarat, Maharashtra and a few South Indian states. Sanctuaries set up exclusively for the bustard lie empty, as the birds travel long distances in search of grasslands – contesting for spaces that are already overgrazed.

The tragedy is that the bird might have stood a fighting chance if it had indeed been picked as India’s national bird. In 1960, at the 12th conference of the ‘International Council for Bird Preservation’ in Tokyo, the idea of countries picking their own national bird was gaining steam. India’s foremost ornithologist, Dr. Salim Ali, recommended the Great Indian Bustard.

The purpose was to pinpoint public interest and attention to some particular species that stood in the greatest need of protection in each country, especially where it was threatened with extinction owing to public apathy or direct human persecution. The Great Indian Bustard is a species that merits this distinction. This Bustard is a large and spectacular bird, indigenous to India, whose numbers, in spite of the legislative ban on its killing, are dwindling at an alarming rate due to poaching by vandalistic gunners and also encroachment upon its natural habitats. It needs an urgent nation-wide effort to save the bird from its impending doom.

This was not to be, as the peacock was ultimately chosen as the Government worried about the name – Great Indian Bustard –  being mispronouncing. Lacking media attention and national concern, the bustard flew a slow line towards extinction.

By 1969, there were only 1,260 great bustards in India. Though legally protected by India and by International Law under CITES, the bustard struggles to survive. Its genetic diversity (an indicator of a species’ survivability) is among the lowest in the animal world. It’s what’s termed a genetic bottleneck; with large populations having descent from only ten to a hundred ancestors, the bustard is less able to adapt, survive and thrive in the future. Curiously, these ten to a hundred ancestors date to 20,000-40,000 years ago – suggesting an ancient extinction event that triggered the bustard’s eventual decline.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Indian efforts to establish captive populations of bustards floundered, one after the other. By the 2000s, community goodwill towards the bird was diminishing in its last remaining strongholds.

In the Mardi village in Maharashtra’s Solapur district, an 8,500 sq. km sanctuary was home to a grand total of 25 birds in 2011. But local politicians say these 25 have affected the lives of 2.5 million. The sanctuary, villagers say, was in the way of a proposed canal that could serve that many people in the district. Its protected status caused the canal to be put on hold. Now, villagers who were once helpful guides for wildlife activists looking to locate the bird, resent the creatures they once helped save. Forced to choose between development and ecology, governments in India are at a loss. In Rajasthan, the environment ministry has already been considering de-notifying many protected areas in favour of building more windmills.

Noted ornithologist and founder of the Indian National Congress, A.O. Hume wrote about the bustards in his ‘Game Birds of India‘, where he discusses their flesh as a delicacy. In those days, hunters stalked the bird in open fields with rifles – but could only hope to do so at a distance of 150 yards. The advent of jeeps and vehicles hastened the ease with which people hunted the bustard; even in recent times, forest officials face reports of people in ‘big jeeps’ hunting the bustard.

Now, with extinction a matter of decades, the WII has identified ten locations across the country to set up captive breeding centres. India, on a larger diplomatic level, now works with the United Arab Emirates‘ Bustard Breeding Agency, in hopes to getting it right the second time around. And there is even hope that India and Pakistan will engage on a diplomatic level so NGOs on the ground in both nations can help save the bustard.

Will the world be able to save the Great Indian Bustard before it is lost to history forever?

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