Great Indian Bustard: Meet perhaps the first species to go extinct in independent India

The Great Indian Bustard (GIB) is iconic and deserves a chance at surviving. The challenges it faces today can be tackled too. But that will need serious political will.

 |  5-minute read |   18-03-2019
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This is a bunch of Indians about to vanish off the face of the earth.

The Great Indian Bustard (GIB) — which, at one point, roamed the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent — stares at a bleak fate today of becoming India’s Dodo.

With less than 150 birds left globally, the GIB has a host of odds stacked against it. From nature acting against it to anthropological causes, the GIB has a tough fight ahead. And it is losing the fight with every passing day.

If we go by scientific data, these Bustards — endemic to the Indian subcontinent — might be the first species to become extinct in independent India. As of now, the grassland birds are already extinct from 95% of their original habitat.

The Bustard is found only in the Thar Desert in India. A very small population (of around 10 birds — and not one breeding male amongst them) is found in Kutch, Gujarat. The numbers are virtually extinct in the Deccan Plateau including Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh — less than eight birds were found in Maharashtra, and six in Andhra. No birds were found in MP and Telangana.

“As of our 2017-18 report, there are 128 birds (with an error margin of 19 on either side) in Rajasthan — less than 10 birds in Gujarat, about eight birds in Maharashtra and five or six birds in Andhra Pradesh. Compare this to 745 birds in 1978,” says Dr Sutirtha Dutta, scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India and an expert on GIBs.

The challenges that the bird faces are many.

The bird lays one egg every alternate year on the ground. Its lifespan is about 15 years for a male and 12 years for a female, and it reaches sexual maturity around 3-4 years of age. This averages to five or six years per bird in its entire life. Compare this to a blue rock dove — the common pigeon you see wherever you cast your eyes in the city — that lays about 50 eggs in its lifespan and breeds all year round. 

main_bustard-690_081_022519072350.jpgThe iconic Great Indian Bustard — It can be saved from extinction with political will. But will we see this in action? (Photo: India Today)

Then comes the challenge of poaching — the bird was widely poached until the recent past for its meat and for sport. While poaching has come down sharply, the bird continues to face threats from habitat degradation owing to rapid urbanisation, and more importantly, because of power lines are laid along the bird’s aerial corridors.

The GIBs have a wide lateral vision — this is so that they can detect the threat of preys to their fullest advantage. However, this proves to be to their detriment when it comes to evading power lines. The bird has poor frontal vision and scans the ground while flying — missing the power lines and getting electrocuted.

By the time they realise the threat of power lines, they are already too close to it.

The GIB is a large bird that resembles the ostrich in appearance, and is among the heaviest of flying birds, weighing about 18 kilograms in adulthood. This makes it impossible to manoeuvre across power lines in a close range. The bird collides with the power line, gets electrocuted — and dies.

As many as a lakh birds (not just GIBs) die of electrocution in the Desert National Park alone, say experts.

In fact, the only breeding male in Nannaj Sanctuary — that was radio-tracked by the Wildlife Institute of India — reportedly succumbed to electrocution and/or the impact of a collision. “This is not only about the death of an individual bird but mathematical projections based on the bustards’ demography found that these accidental deaths are sufficient to cause bustards to go extinct,” writes Dutta.

A simple solution — of installing underground power lines — is all it will take to mitigate this threat. However, that needs political will.

Then, there is the problem of feral dogs that scour the ground for GIB eggs. The bird, being a ground-nester, is prone to be hunted by dogs even after hatching. While experts affirm that the dogs in the vicinity of the breeding sites are being neutered, they also aver that the existing population of the predators are bearing down heavily on the handful of birds that do survive.

In a recent conservation measure, the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEFCC) proposed the creation of an eco-sensitive zone of nearly 548.79 sq km around the Great Indian Bustard sanctuary in Solapur, Maharashtra.

So, what stops the ex-situ conservation — breeding it in zoos or in captivity, you may ask.

“In view of the rate of decline of species in the last few decades and the inherent delays in implementing in situ efforts in these multiple-stakeholder landscapes, extinction in the wild is also a distinct possibility,” says Dutta. “Breeding bustards in captivity has been difficult due to their shy nature and peculiar mating systems. Bustard juveniles have a long crucial association with parents, and simulating this in the wild will make the critical difference,” he adds.

Clearly, the GIB is counting its days and the population is taking its last few breaths. However impossible it may seem, there is a slim chance of survival the charismatic species has. As a responsible country, we ought not to deny the bird of that chance.

Also read: PM's ambitious bullet train is set to shoot straight through the flamingos' hearts 

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