- Bengal floricans are a little known bustard species found in the grasslands of the Ganga and Brahmaputra river basin in India and Nepal. The species is being considered for protection under the upcoming 13th Conference of Parties of the Convention for Migratory Species (CMS), underway in Gandhinagar, Gujarat.
- Scientists believe that Bengal floricans could act as flagship species for riverine grasslands in North and Northeast India, but the species is facing threats on several fronts
- National and local conservation organisations are attempting to spread awareness and implement measures to protect the species from hunting and habitat loss, but funds and resources from the government are scarce.
- On February 20, the CMS unanimously voted for accepting the proposal to include the Bengal Florican in the Appendix 1 of the CMS. Scientists believe efforts to protect the species will receive a boost in the form of increased attention and financial resources.
[This article has been updated after the CMS accepted the proposal about the Bengal Florican. Scroll to the end to read more.]
Starting late last week on the 15th of February, government officials, scientists and conservationists from 130 countries gathered at Gandhinagar, Gujarat for the 13th Conference of Parties (CoP) for the Convention for Migratory Species (CMS).
The CoP will review the state of migratory birds and animals around the world and will decide which birds and animals will need enhanced protection and collaboration between countries to ensure that they can move freely as they migrate between breeding grounds and wintering grounds.
Among the proposals that will be reviewed is one for the protection of an unusual species: the Bengal florican. Bengal floricans are a type of bustard that lives in dry riverine grasslands in India and Nepal in South Asia and Cambodia and Vietnam in Southeast Asia.
The way conservationists see it, bustards in India could be flagship species making the case for the protection of our grassland ecosystems. “Bengal Florican is a representative or an indicator species of dry grasslands in the Brahmaputra, as well as Ganga,” said Girish Jathar, a scientist and assistant director at Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).
The presence of the species, according to Jathar, indicates a good healthy grassland ecosystem. Tragically, the grasslands that these birds depend on are disappearing, pushing them closer to extinction.
Yet, the Bengal florican has received very little attention compared to other bustards like the Great Indian Bustard, in part because very little is known about this species. But a recently renewed effort to the study the species and the threats it face,s coupled with the upcoming CMS proposal are making researchers hopeful for its future.
Bengal floricans are large terrestrial birds (about 55 centimetres in height) that spend most of their time on the ground in dense grasslands, feeding on insects like grasshoppers and beetles, seeds, shoots of grass and frogs for food. In India, the species’ habitat lies in the floodplains of the country’s two largest rivers, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra.
In the Ganga floodplains, Bengal floricans are only known from the state of Uttar Pradesh, and in places like the Dudhwa and Pilibhit Tiger Reserve. In the Brahmaputra delta, the species is known from Jaldapara National Park in West Bengal, Kaziranga and Manas National Parks in Assam and the D’Ering Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh.
These floricans also occur in several unprotected landscapes, such as islands in the Brahmaputra river and agricultural fields adjacent to protected grasslands both in Northeast India and UP. New research suggests that more populations, so far undetected, may exist in these landscapes.
Part of the reason for this uncertainty about populations, is that the species is simply quite difficult to study, explained Rohit Jha, a researcher from the Wildlife Institute of India. For most of the year, the birds are solitary and territorial in nature and easily stay hidden in the dense grasslands of these landscapes.
“It is extremely difficult to see the bird, thereby requiring many hours of patience and practice,” said Jha. It is only in the breeding season when the males of the species put up spectacular aerial displays to woo females, that the birds become somewhat visible.
The landscape adds to researchers’ difficulties according to Jha. Both Ganga and Brahmaputra are prone to flooding, inundating grasslands and making travel across rivers extremely risky, he explained.
New populations and old threats
Despite these difficulties, research advances have been made. Ornithologists like Asad Rahmani and the late Ravi Sankaran from BNHS studied Bengal floricans on and off for nearly 30 years starting in 1991, describing their behaviour, particularly breeding behaviour, habitats and threats. But surveys were restricted to a few known protected areas and typically only carried out in the breeding season when the males could be easily spotted courting females.
A study conducted from 2013 to 2016 added further information. Thirteen researchers from India, Nepal and the UK, including Jha and Rahmani, collaborated to study the species’ movement pattern and habitat use across its range in India and Nepal. Field surveys in Assam, Uttar Pradesh and adjoining Nepal in both protected and non-protected areas, revealed that Bengal floricans were essentially surviving in pockets of grasslands surrounded by agriculture, human habitation and tree plantations.
Using satellite data, the researchers also identified several potential habitats where Bengal floricans could be present, particularly in small riverine islands and grasslands outside protected areas in the Brahmaputra delta.
Some of these habitats are already revealing previously unknown populations, according to Jha. In a 2018 survey, researchers from the Wildlife Institute of India spotted four male Bengal floricans on two river islands in the Lohit river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra in Arunachal Pradesh.
“That sighting fell within the modelled distribution in our 2018 paper,” noted Jha.
Many of these sites, including the two islands in Lohit River are outside protected areas, creating several problems. Both Ganga and Brahmaputra delta are extremely fertile regions. Grasslands here are often converted into agricultural fields. While floricans can tolerate some level of cultivation, intensive farming, with heavy pesticide use can decimate insect populations the species depends on.
Jathar, who primarily works in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, also points out other threats like hunting add to the problem.
“Those birds that go outside the D’Ering Wildlife Sanctuary, they are likely to get hunted by the local people,” he said. “And if you go to another place like Amarpur [a seasonal island in Assam] which is not a PA, a good population is there, but there it’s grazing and burning of grass and that is the issue.”
Koklabari agricultural farms
However, not all non-protected areas are faring badly. Koklabari agricultural farms is a nine square kilometre farmland adjacent to the Manas Tiger Reserve. Formerly a seed research farm owned by the Central Government, Koklabari is now held by the Bodo Territorial Council and leased to local residents from nine villages for paddy cultivation.
Namita Brahma, a scientist formerly with the conservation NGO Aranyak, studied Bengal floricans in the landscape for her doctoral work. “This landscape is very important from the Bengal florican conservation point of view as it holds 8 Bengal florican territories and around 16 individuals in total,” she explained.
“The scientific study that I had carried out in Koklabari reveals that vegetation height is the prime importance for the species,” Brahma added. Like other bustards, Bengal Floricans prefer living in short grass where they can forage and nest easily, but need some tall grass surrounding their territory for cover and protection.
“I believe that the spots where the Bengal florican territories are present, there the vegetation height is being maintained due to paddy cultivation or agriculture activities,” she said.
Jathar speculates that people in Koklabari may also be more compassionate towards the species. “Though they [people] hunt other species, Bengal florican is not hunted that extensively. Otherwise, this bird wouldn’t have been there,” he said.
Bengal florican based bird tourism
Another factor protecting the species is a greater awareness of wildlife thanks to the presence of local conservation organisations and a niche but growing bird tourism industry. Until 2003, Manas and adjoining regions including Koklabari was in the midst of the Bodo agitation. At this point, Brahma notes that the entire management system of the Manas National Park had broken down. Poaching and logging was rampant.
When the agitation ended in 2003, local residents and the newly formed Bodo Territorial Council (BTC), which governs the region began to take an interest in reviving Manas. “Some of us felt it was important to protect the area,” said Rustom Basumatary, a bird guide from the Khamarbisha village near Koklabari.
Basumatary and a few others formed a local conservation organisation called the Manas Maozigendri Ecotourism Society. “We began to train former poachers into forest guards, rebuild abandoned anti-poaching camps and started awareness campaigns to talk about the ill effects of hunting and tree felling.” The BTC partially supports the salaries for the guards.
As tourists started trickling into the region, Basumatary took an interest in birdwatching and trained as a bird guide. The Maozigendri Society began to offer accommodation and services of bird guides to tourists. Today the area, particularly Koklabari, is a popular destination for bird tourists from around the world.
“Earlier we mainly had birders coming from foreign countries like Germany, UK, and Spain, but now Indian birders from Calcutta, Bombay, Bangalore and Guwahati have also started coming to watch birds,” Basumatary explained.
Several grassland birds attract birders, but Koklabari’s floricans are of course a huge draw. “Our people know Bengal Floricans well, but because of tourists showing interest [in watching the species] they are especially aware not to hunt it or disturb it,” he explained. “Sometimes people hunt other animals, but floricans are spared,” he added. Tourism also helps pay for the Society’s conservation activities, he pointed out.
Jathar believes that Koklabari’s tourism economy has lessons to offer to other florican landscapes such as D’Ering in Arunachal. “We’re trying to identify communities that are living close to the Bengal Florican habitat in Arunachal,” he said. “We are trying to see how we can facilitate the community to protect the Bengal Florican and how they can get revenue out of it.”
Attention from state governments
Not everybody believes that tourism is important. “The Bengal florican is a sensitive species, so we need not focus on mass bird tourism (good birdwatchers would like to see this species anyway), but we have to focus more on habitat management on a sound scientific basis,” said Rahmani.
The senior ornithologist bemoaned the lack of attention by state governments towards the species. “No state government has given any attention to the Bengal florican specifically – they are surviving in some protected areas as their habitat is protected for mega-vertebrates such as tiger, elephant, rhino, wild buffalo, swamp deer, hog deer,” he pointed out.
The local forest departments were, however, taking an interest in the species according to Jathar. “Active management is required, and we are working with the Arunachal Pradesh State Forest Department to do certain management interventions,” he said.
For instance, in D’Ering National Park in Arunachal, Jathar pointed out that invasive shrubs like Lantana camara and Chromolaena odorata are threatening to take over native short grass species that floricans love. “They [Arunachal Pradesh Forest Department] are taking a serious note of this,” said Jathar, adding that BNHS and the FD were planning to take steps for removing the invasive plants.
“But their main concern is the funds. So, we are requesting the State of Arunachal Pradesh [that] they should provide some extra funds to the D’Ering National Park to manage the species.”
Rahmani and Brahma also stressed the need for more studies to understand the specific nature of different threats. In areas like Koklabari, Brahma stressed the need to study the impacts of pesticides and fertilisers on the species, while Rahmani felt that more studies were needed on the impacts of hunting powerline collisions.
The senior ornithologist also underlined the importance of studying the movement of Bengal Floricans during non- breeding seasons. “We need to find out where do they go for almost six months and why do they go,” said Rahmani. Movement studies have indeed been crucial in making a case for protecting the species under the CMS.
CMS and the Bengal Florican
The 2013-2016 study that Jha and Rahmani were part of examined florican movements by attaching tracking devices on 11 individual floricans, four in India and seven in Nepal. The study revealed that in non-breeding seasons the birds moved out of the protected areas to agricultural fields and grasslands up to 80 kilometres away. Some of the individuals moved between Nepal and India during the non-breeding season, but always returned to the same breeding territories.
It was this movement across international borders, that led to the proposal to include the Bengal Florican in the CMS list of protected species. According to the definitions of the CMS, to be considered a migratory species the concerned animal must make regular seasonal movements across two or more national borders.
If the proposal is passed, researchers and conservationists hope that the species will increase in status with the Indian government and more funds will pour in for research and grassland management activities. But will the proposal muster enough support at the CoP?
Rahmani is confident that the proposal will be accepted as the species clearly moves across national borders. Jathar is cautiously optimistic. “We think that it is also present in part of Bhutan, which is adjacent to Manas. That is why we’re pushing for this. Maybe something good will happen for this species at the coming CMS,” he said.
CMS accepts proposal on Bengal Florican
On February 20, the 13th Conference of Parties at the Convention for Migratory Species (CMS) has unanimously accepted the Indian government’s proposal to include the Bengal Florican in the Appendix 1 of the CMS. The Indian delegation urged the member states to accept the proposal based on recent information that Bengal Floricans moved between the India, Nepal and Bhutan during the non- breeding season.
Girish Jathar, from Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), one of several people involved in helping the Indian government prepare the proposal expressed happiness. “It will be extremely beneficial for the Bengal Florican and increase collaboration with Nepal and Bhutan,” he said. Jathar also believes that the move would help conservationists and managers raise more funds, from the Government of India as well as other international bodies, for studying and managing the Bengal Florican.
The COP also accepted the proposal to include the Great Indian Bustard in CMS Appendix 1.
Banner image: A Bengal florican in the grass. Photo by Nejib Ahmed.