The great Indian bustard stands on the brink of extinction

  • The great Indian bustard is close to extinction. Government action is moving at a slow pace despite the urgency of efforts required to ensure the bird’s survival.
  • The main threats to the shrinking habitat of the GIB have been industrialisation, mining, and intensive agricultural practices.
  • Experts feel India needs to act fast and collectively to save the GIB otherwise it will walk into extinction within our lifetime.

Once in the running to become India’s national bird, the great Indian bustard (GIB) is now fluttering for survival. Earlier found across several states of India, it is now on the brink of extinction and in absence of a strong political will to reverse the declining population trend, its revival looks near impossible.

The Indian bustard is considered among the largest flying birds in the world. In the early 1960s, when India was choosing its national bird, the GIB was a top contender with support from the country’s famous ornithologist Salim Ali. But it lost the race to the glamorous peacock due to its name which had the potential for an embarrassing misspelling.

However, in 2018, the bird’s future is in peril. Its population has been on a continuous decline from an estimated 1,260 in 1969 to 300 in 2008 recording a decline of about 75 percent. At present, its population is estimated to be of less than 200 across Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

Population of the great Indian bustard is less than 200 in India. Photo by Madhukar B V/Wikimedia Commons.

Among these states, Rajasthan has the highest population with estimated 100-150 birds while in Maharashtra and Gujarat, the numbers are significantly low. In April 2018, a survey by the scientists of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), India’s top wildlife institute, found only eight GIBs in Maharashtra. In February 2018, a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) pegged their numbers at 20 in Gujarat.

The fall in the population of the GIBs has been consistent over the decades. The biggest threat to their shrinking habitat has been industrialisation, mining, and intensive agricultural practices. The recent WII report noted that data indicated that the “GIB prefers open grasslands and agricultural fields of sorghum, groundnuts, and pigeon pea.”

The Indian government’s focus on welfare and conservation of large mammals like tiger, lion, and elephants has not helped the GIB’s cause either.

“According to me, there are less than 100 of these birds left. But there is nothing being done. This would be the first bird that will go extinct in our lifetime,” said ornithologist Bikram Grewal while stressing how the GIBs lost out on becoming India’s national bird due to its name.

The great Indian bustard lost out to the glamorous peacock to become India’s national bird, one of the reasons being its spelling which had the potential to be misspelt. Photo by Urmi B Ghosh/Wikimedia Commons.

What is threatening the survival of the great Indian bustard?

A critically endangered species, the GIB, is listed under India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 which seeks to ensure the highest possible protection to it but this remained on paper only. Over the past few decades, the GIB has consistently faced threats like industrialisation and mining.

GIBs are large in size and usually take low flights which often result in mortality due to collision with electricity transmission lines. Their survival is also threatened by stray dogs which are known to attack the bustard’s eggs and young ones. Such has been the risk to the bustard from dogs that in 2016, non-governmental organisations and Rajasthan government undertook a dog census with an aim to draw a plan for humane and scientific management of the dog population in the critical great Indian bustard habitat in the Thar region. The shrinking habitat only adds to the other problems.    

The great Indian bustard is the national state bird of Rajasthan. The state has the highest population of GIBs among Indian states. Photo by T.R. Shankar Raman/Wikimedia Commons

Given the threats and the rapidly declining population of the almost-extinct bird, there is a need for urgent action. However, the pace at which the authorities are acting does not reflect the urgency and there is worry that it may be already too late to save the bird.

In June 2013, during a meeting of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), the then member Prerna Singh Bindra stressed on the need for concrete and immediate measures to save the GIBs stating that “with only about a 100 GIBs left, the urgency of the situation could not be stressed enough.”

Following that, in March 2015, the Committee led by the then environment minister Prakash Javadekar, asked the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to expedite the conservation breeding programme and explore additional funding support for the programme.

Subsequently, in July 2015, Javadekar announced assistance of Rs. 200 million (20 crore) for initiating a recovery programme for four endangered species – dugong, Gangetic dolphin, great Indian bustard, Manipur brow antler deer (Sangai) and wild water buffalo.

Yet, extinction of the GIB continues at a rapid pace. “It is almost too late for the great Indian bustard—with about 150 birds— at a stretch. In Gujarat, as per reports from the ground we have just one female, Madhya Pradesh announced a few years back that it was ‘GIB-mukt’ (free). What has the government been doing as a bird goes extinct under our watch?” questioned Bindra, NBWL’s former member and the author of The vanishing: India’s wildlife crisis.

However, the standing committee of the NBWL, headed by the country’s environment minister, over the years has been recommending wildlife clearances for diversion of forest areas from either the GIB’s habitat or adjacent areas for non-forest purposes like a canal, transmission lines or highways.

For instance, in its August 2014 meeting, the standing committee of the NBWL cleared a project related to the widening of national highways 13 and 211 in Maharashtra, even when the proposed site of widening is within 10 kilometres from the great Indian bustard sanctuary.

In the same meeting, the committee cleared the diversion of 134 hectares of forest land from the Kutch Desert Sanctuary in Gujarat for construction of Kutch branch canal. The committee had, however, asked the state government to add another forest patch of 134 hectares to the sanctuary which is a habitat of the bustard.

In July 2015, an expert forest panel of the environment ministry had cleared diversion of about 130 hectares forest land in Naliya (Gujarat) for developing facilities for Indian Air Force’s (IAF) strategic Naliya airbase that is close to India’s border with Pakistan.

The minutes of the committee noted that IAF reported the GIBs presence inside the airbase and areas surrounding the airfield. It even claimed that birds had become used to the disturbance caused by airplanes.

“Even with these critically low numbers, there is no sense of urgency for its conservation. Prime habitats—grasslands are being diverted for energy-including renewable projects, among others.  Bustards are being burnt by transmission lines —we lost two last year in this manner and in such a critically low population, such mortality can be fatal,” said Bindra.

A great Indian bustard walking in Naliya grasslands, Kutch, India. In 2015, an expert forest panel cleared the diversion of about 130 hectares in Naliya for developing an Indian Air Force base. Photo by Prajwalkm/Wikimedia Commons.

The apathy of authorities was not always the case with GIBs. Bindra recounts in her book an instance in the late 1970s when Arab royalty came to India for hunting of the bustard, after being allowed by the Indian government. But public outcry ensued and the matter was taken to court, after which the Arabs were asked to leave. Following that, a GIB postal stamp was released and later, bustard range states established eight wildlife sanctuaries for its protection.

Can the population of GIBs recover?

The great Indian bustard is nomadic in nature and prefers grasslands ecosystem as its habitat. Experts also point out that it is a very shy bird and highlight difficulties in artificial breeding.

“There was this big plan a year-and-a-half ago to do artificial breeding in Rajasthan. An agreement was also to be signed but nothing has happened. Moreover, there has been no successful artificial breeding of this bird. There has been no proven record. I think the chances of artificial breeding are almost zero,” Grewal said.

Explaining further, he said the GIBs “breed once every two years and it is a very shy and delicate bird”.

The great Indian bustard is a very shy and delicate bird. Photo by Chinmayisk/Wikimedia Commons.

“Once every two years it lays one or two eggs … sometimes eggs get eaten up and then infant mortality rate is very high. With all that, at least we can try and say that we didn’t give up without trying or fighting. But even that has not been taking place,” added Grewal.

“We need to act fast, urgently, decisively, collectively if we are to save the endemic great Indian bustard.  Else, it will be the bird most likely to be the first in the subcontinent to slide into extinction in the 21st century,” Bindra warned.

Meanwhile, there are some signs as well indicating that not all hope is lost.

“Developmental projects in the past, across most GIB range states, have carried on at the cost of the habitat. High tension power lines are among the biggest threat for bustards at least in the state of Rajasthan. The government of Rajasthan, owing to the bustard being their state bird, has in the recent past taken up several initiatives and allocated funding specifically for the conservation of this species but one can’t help but wonder if it is too late – especially when we hear of cases such as the recent one of locals killing and eating bustards and the lack of swift action by the concerned agencies,” said Sumanth Bindumadhav, campaign manager-wildlife, Humane Society International-India.

“The true sign of care from the state governments towards this species can only be evident by their will to not support developmental projects that come at the cost of the bustard habitat as was recently demonstrated by the Rajasthan government when they said ‘No’ to an NHAI project that would have further doomed the species. These are good signs for which the government must be lauded and hope they continue on the same path” he added.

Highlighting how government’s conservation efforts have been directed towards mega species like tigers and elephants while ecologically, equally important species such as bustards (birds), amphibians and reptiles have received little to no attention, he said, “if we lose the bustard as a species in our lifetime, it is testimonial to the fact that our approach to conservation needs to be holistic, inclusive, sustainable and not species oriented.”

The threat looms large over other birds too

It is not just the GIB that is facing such risks but birds worldwide are slipping closer to extinction.

A report, “The state of the world’s birds” by Birdlife International in April 2018 noted that there has been a steady and continuing deterioration in the status of the world’s birds since the first comprehensive assessment in 1988.

Vultures are also under threat in the Indian subcontinent. Photo by Francesco Veronesi from Italy/Wikimedia Commons.

“Highly threatened species continue to go extinct, while formerly common and widespread species are in sharp decline. At least 40 percent of bird species worldwide (3,967) have declining populations, compared with 44 percent that are stable (4,393), 7 percent that are increasing (653), and 8 percent with unknown trends,” the report noted.

Highlighting the case of the Indian sub-continent, the report said the collapse of vulture populations across the Indian subcontinent has been one of the most devastating avian tragedies of recent history.

“Vulture conservation breeding centres have been established at five sites in India, as well as at sites in Nepal and Pakistan. The number of captive-bred vultures has risen sharply, and the first successful reintroductions have already taken place in a vulture safe zone in Nepal,” it observed.

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