Birds suffer ‘collateral damage’ as horticulture booms in Kutch

  • Semi-arid lands in Kutch are being turned into fruit orchards and supported by subsidies from the government. Fruit production has gone up by three times in the past decade.
  • The growth in horticultural produce has led to an increase in use of pesticides, depleting the overall insect population and in turn impacting the insectivorous bird population, including the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard.
  • Efforts are being made to introduce farmers to organic farming which could be one of the solutions to reduce the use of pesticides and save the birds. Conservationists also suggest that the government should design a special incentive scheme for farmers to practice organic farming in biodiversity hotspots.

Acres after acres of land, developed into fruit orchards of different kinds, break the wiry brown monotony of the Kutch landscape in Gujarat. This ‘transformation’ of the semi-arid land has been in the making for the last decade and has brought in much cheer to the farmer communities who have replaced their traditional crops with horticultural produce, thereby garnering a good margin of profit. What is almost going unnoticed, however, is the concurrent increase in the use of pesticides for these plantations that is affecting the local bird population, including the endangered Great Indian Bustard.

According to Falgun Modh, deputy director of the Gujarat horticulture department, in the period 2007-2017, the total fruit-growing area has increased from 59,000 acres to 100,000 acres in Kutch. “The total fruit production has trebled to 10 lakh (1 million) tonnes,” he said. With the government offering 70 percent subsidy on drip-irrigation that addresses the problems of water scarcity and saline groundwater, farmers are obviously happy at the profits garnered by making more space for fruit trees such as pomegranate, mango, papaya, even banana. While dates are a part of the local flora, there are more varieties introduced.

This growth in horticultural produce, however, has not spelt good news for the local bird population, according to Kutch-based ornithologist Jugal Tiwari. “The increase in the use of pesticides in fruit farms is depleting the overall insect and bug population, which is in turn affecting the bird population because that is their food source,” he said.  Kutch has nearly 375 species of birds, including raptors, waterfowl, waders and lark. It is also one of the last remaining abodes of the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard (GIB). Most of these bird species are insectivorous.

The original landscape of the Kutch region. Photo by Chinmayi S.K./Wikimedia Commons.

Impact on local and migratory birds

“All the three bustard species are insectivorous. Harriers, which are commonly found here, feed on grasshoppers and locusts; small falcons are also insectivorous and so are the rollers,” Devesh Gadhavi, deputy director of the Kutch Ecological Research Centre, a division of the Corbett Foundation, said while giving some examples of bird species feeding on insects. Gadhavi, who has been working on the conservation of the GIB in Kutch for several years now, went on to add that the effects are also felt by migratory birds like the white-browed bush chat, also known as Stocliczka’s bush chat. Kutch, it must be remembered, falls in the migratory route of many birds who fly south for winter, including the stately common cranes that arrive here by the thousands.

That said, there has been no scientific study on the effect of pesticides on the avian population in Kutch. But experts insist there is no denying the fact — observation of infrequent sightings or declining population of birds breeding at regular sights indicate their worst fear. One of the most visible effects, said Resul Sherasiya, former director of the Gujarat horticulture department, has been on the common house sparrow. “House sparrow nests were earlier commonly spotted in villages here, but are now becoming increasingly rarer. It could be one of the effects of the increase in pesticide usage in the farms,” he said.

While fruit production in Kutch has gone up, so has the use of pesticides which is leading to a depletion in the insect and bug population — a main source of food for many bird species. Photo by Dr. Bertrand.

Similarly, the frequency of sighting of the nocturnal nightjar which is again insectivorous has gone down, “possibly because of depleting insect diversity,” said Gadhavi. On the GIB, a subject close to his heart, this is yet another challenge to the already fragile population.  Official estimates put the number of GIBs in Kutch at 25, although conservationists believe it is barely 10.

“Farmers are moving away from traditional crops of the region, like bajra and jowar, whose by-products served as fodder for the GIB (and other birds). This lowering of the food source, combined with the depleting insect diversity like the beetle, that the GIB feeds on, by pesticides is putting stress on the already dwindling population of the endangered bird,” Gadhavi said.  The estimated global population of the GIB is just 150.

Modh of the Gujarat horticulture department agrees with this collective hypothesis. “Wherever agriculture is intensive, the local bird population goes down. It is collateral damage,” he said. “This is because in intensive farming, pesticides kill the insects that the birds feed on and therefore the birds migrate to a different place in search of food.”

An increase in the use of pesticides for fruit plantations is affecting the local bird population, including the endangered Great Indian Bustard. Photo by Madhukar B V/Wikimedia Commons.

To further dig into the problem, the issue is not just with the usage of pesticides but its indiscriminate use. And climate change has played a role in that.

New pests due to climate change

Over the years, agriculture scientists say there has been an increase in the spurt of new pests on crops — possibly because of climate change. Mealybug, for instance, has emerged as a new pest for horticultural crops like the hollyhock flower and even for cotton. “Mealybug is a sticky insect that doesn’t easily let go; hence pesticide sprays sometimes have to be used multiple times. This however ends up killing even the natural predators of the pests,” Sherasiya explained. The commonly known ladybug beetle, for example, is a natural predator that is killed by these sprays. Chrysoperla or lacewings, he added, are also insect predators whose population has been observed to have gone down. It has been a similar case with butterflies, “as a result of which pollination is also affected”.

One conservationist even went on to say that the population of lesser cats has been observed to have plunged. These cats, he said, feed on birds of prey and with their population going down — since their food source, rodents, are lesser in number — it is a domino effect on the whole cycle.

Additionally, pesticide-treated crops and crop seeds are known to have a direct effect on wildlife as well. In a study published in a research journal on toxicology, the authors, V. Dhanajayan, S. Jayakumar and S. Muralidharan, have said, “The effect of pesticides on birds have been well documented in many European and North American countries. Although we have information on the levels of persistent environmental contaminants in many bird species in India, due to lack of adequate data we are unable to make a direct correlation with the reported population decline. Of all the birds, levels of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), HCH (hexachlorocyclohexane) and dieldrin recorded in some of the species were indicative of poisoning.”

The study states examples from across India — the decline in breeding population of Sarus crane in Bharatpur from 27 pairs in 1973 to just six pairs; aldrin poisoning resulting in the death of 18 Sarus Cranes between 1987-1990; death of 58 aquatic birds in the Okhla Bird Sanctuary, Uttar Pradesh — that are indicative of the adverse effect of pesticides on birds.

Well-known wildlife ecologist Rauf Ali — who died in 2016 — also mentioned the effect of pesticides on birds in his recently released book, Running Away from Elephants. Pesticide accumulation in a bird’s body affects its breeding, he said in the book, adding, “Pesticides are also believed to be responsible for the decline of the once ubiquitous sarus crane, so beloved of Indian epics. These birds pair for life, and are always seen in twos. If one bird dies, the other soon follows.” Rauf was the grandnephew of the legendary ornithologist Salim Ali, and in his book, mentioned his visit to Jakhau in Kutch to study the migratory pattern of larks.

Pesticides ingested by cranes

A few years ago, 23 demoiselle Cranes were found dead in a village in Kutch. Post-mortem of the dead birds revealed pesticide in their blood and vital organs. A villager had said that these migratory birds probably had pesticide-treated wheat seeds — the wheat harvesting season coincides with the time when migratory birds arrive here by thousands.

Farmers are turning to organic farming as a solution to reduce pesticides and eventually conserve the bird population in Kutch. Photo by Koshy Koshy/Wikimedia Commons.

Not all crops, however, even horticultural, require heavy dose of pesticides, V. Vijay Kumar, director of the Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology (GUIDE), said. “Among fruits, for example, papaya and mangoes, both of which are popular in Kutch, require very little pesticide. Pomegranate, however, is more susceptible to pests and hence requires more.” According to the state horticulture department, in 2016-17 the total area in Kutch under pomegranate cultivation was 7965 hectares (ha); its total production was 1,25,687 metric tons (MT).  In 2017-18, these numbers rose dramatically — the total area for pomegranate cultivation in Kutch was 12,886 ha and the production was 2,03,341 MT.

“Not only is pesticide usage on pomegranate and watermelon plantations very high, but they hardly contribute towards bird diversity. Nests, for example, cannot be built on pomegranate trees,” Gadhavi added.

And while Kumar says that the effect of pesticides in agricultural farms has affected birds only “partially”, since they source their food from other forms of vegetation too, it should also be remembered that large parcels of ‘wasteland’ — a misnomer, say conservationists, for grassland — continue to get converted to agricultural land in Kutch. Either way, it is a growing concern.

So what is the solution?

Organic farming is the solution, said Manoj Solanki, a farmer in Madhapur village near Bhuj. “I have been practicing organic farming for the last 17 years and fiercely advocate it to my fellow farmers,” he said, one of the few to strongly believe that herein lies the road ahead. He grows vegetables, groundnut, and castor on his 80-acre land; he also has 300 cows, “for the bio-manure”, which also aids a thriving dairy business. “Crops have two enemies — disease or pest. Disease usually happens due to some deficiency in the soil. In organic farming, through compost, we give micronutrients to the soil, making it more resilient. Pests, we understand, come for a temporary phase, maybe 15-20 days, and it’s a part of nature’s plan. We don’t kill them but try to repel through strong odour, like spraying cow urine, or burning neem leaves,” Solanki explained in detail. He also conducts workshops for farmers in his and the surrounding villages, and has even made a movie on compost making and the benefits of organic farming in Gujarati.

The only drawback is that organic farming requires time to show results and the crop is more susceptible to pests. “There is a lot of hard work initially and there are no quick results which draws farmers towards using chemicals,” Solanki said. If one is patient, however, this barrier can lead to great benefits considering the “market demand for organic produce” – “and the soil doesn’t lose its fertility too.”

The good news is that concerted efforts are made by various quarters to encourage farmers towards organic farming and as Modh said, “Kutch, as compared to other places, has more organic farmers.” Gadhavi and his team from the Kutch Ecological Research Centre, for instance, trained a small group of farmers to grow green gram free of pesticides. It was then sold in the market at Rs. 80 per kg. “Considering green gram (moong) is otherwise available at Rs. 70 per kg, people were happy to get organic version at a similar price. Hence this year we had 60 farmers signing up to do the same,” he said. In addition to these efforts, conservationists also suggest that the government should design a special incentive scheme for farmers to practice organic farming in biodiversity hotspots.

To treat nature’s wounds, it seems it is best to turn to her for help.


Banner image: Sunset in Little Rann of Kutch. Photo by Koshy Koshy/Wikimedia Commons.

[Editor’s note: In the story that was originally published, there was a mention of death of 23 Siberian cranes. This has been corrected to demoiselle cranes].

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