Overhead electricity wires prove death traps for Sarus cranes

sarus cranes are threatened by electricity wires
  • Sarus cranes frequent wetlands or agricultural fields marked by adequate water presence. But when an area dries up, the birds move to another, and in the process, hit electricity wires.
  • The birds use roads as the edge of their territories. Since electricity wires are laid out along roads, the birds are constantly threatened.
  • Identification of wetlands for Sarus crane conservation and the absence of wires in high density habitats may be helpful, experts suggest.

The graceful Sarus crane (Antigone antigone), the state bird of Uttar Pradesh is classified as vulnerable in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. While conservation measures for the bird are on, overhead high tension electricity wires are a threat to the species.

Being the tallest flying bird, the Sarus crane gets entangled in wires. According to B.C. Choudhury, senior scientific adviser at Wildlife Trust of India, most birds frequent wetlands or agricultural fields marked by adequate water presence. But when an area dries up, the birds move to another, and in the process, hit the wires.

Across various time periods, Sarus crane deaths due to electrocution have been recorded in parts of Uttar Pradesh. During 2016-19, 19 birds died due to electrocution in Maharajganj district of eastern Uttar Pradesh, according to data shared by the WTI.

In the two years, 2017-19, Astha Chaudhary, who was involved in a research project for the Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, told Mongabay-India that about 20 Sarus cranes died due to electrocution during her field work in Uttar Pradesh. “The number may be high. Approximately, 14 biological samples were collected by me and my team for research from Etawah, Mainpuri and Auraiya districts, but in many cases the carcasses were either not found or were not in a condition for lab test.”

Data supplied by the Etawah divisional forest office of Uttar Pradesh Forest Department mentions that in Mainpuri, there has been one death due to electrocution in the past four-five years, while in Etawah, out of 13 deaths (2015-2020), three birds were electrocuted. Besides Etawah and Mainpuri, the bird population is mainly concentrated in the western part of the state in Etah, Auraiya and Aligarh.

sarus cranes are threatened by electricity wires
Sarus cranes usually frequent wetlands or agricultural fields marked by adequate water presence. Photo by Rajeev Chauhan.

Death traps

Almost one percent of the local population of Sarus cranes in western Uttar Pradesh meets with death due to electricity wires, according to K. S. Gopi Sundar, scientist, Nature Conservation Foundation, and the global co-chair of the IUCN Stork, Ibis and Spoonbill Specialist Group. “This number is not trivial, but is being made up by the breeding success of Sarus cranes in western Uttar Pradesh. There are no detailed observations from other locations in the state to know the rate of death or whether breeding rates match mortality rates.”

Sundar said several pairs of Sarus cranes use roads as the edge of their territories. Since electricity wires are laid out along roads, the birds are constantly under threat. The scientist said that in case of a Sarus crane’s death due to wires, it is important to immediately remove the carcass because the partner of the dead bird and its family (in case there are chicks), continually investigate it. In the process, several additional cranes can be killed.

During his research in Etawah, Sundar observed that Sarus crane pairs teach their chicks to avoid wires, in case these criss-cross over their territories. “They give a specific call when approaching wires in flight. This lets the younger birds know that they should either move upwards or downwards to avoid the wires.”

Vivek Sengar, a resident of Auraiya district adjoining Etawah works with the non-profit, Society for Conservation of Nature, headed by Rajeev Chauhan, as a project manager. He said the network of wires is expanding due to modernisation and currently there are no measures to protect the birds. During his research, Sengar has recorded four deaths from June 2008 to January 2012 in Auraiya.

Sarus cranes use roads as the edge of their territories. Since electricity wires are laid out along roads, the birds are constantly under threat. Photo by Gopi Sundar.

Other threats

According to Choudhury of WTI, stray dogs are another cause of deaths of Sarus crane chicks. “Vultures used to eat carcasses thrown all over. But as their population has declined, dogs have started eating them. It is a big threat to ground nesting birds. After chicks hatch, dogs predate on them,” he said.

As a measure, WTI has trained local communities in eastern Uttar Pradesh to monitor Sarus crane nests and annually 150 nests are looked after. From an earlier count of 650-700 birds, the latest count revealed about 1,800 Sarus cranes, said Choudhury. “The last counting was conducted in the 2019 monsoon season,” Choudhury, who is also the principal operator of the WTI conservation project involving 10 districts in eastern Uttar Pradesh, said.

Sarus cranes make nests and lay eggs in agricultural fields. But small-scale farmers do not like encroachment on their paddy fields and are often intolerant towards the birds. In many areas, farmers have started growing sugarcane. “It is unsuitable as no water is present in the fields. Sugarcane is taller than the Sarus crane, and so, the birds do not stay. Thus, habitat loss is occurring. In wetlands, where farmers grow singhara (water chestnuts), they do not tolerate the birds either,” Choudhury pointed out.

He explained that the use of pesticides is also a problem. Sarus cranes eat grains. So, grains laced with pesticides kill the birds. In the summer, they congregate together, but sometimes water shortage and reduction in food availability may also contribute to mortality at that stage. During monsoon, floods inundate nests. Eggs are also removed by locals.

Sarus cranes eat grains, which, when laced with pesticides pose a threat to the birds. Photo by Rajeev Chauhan.

Read more: There are Sarus cranes in my paddy field

Are solutions feasible?

Chaudhary said there should be a different conservation plan to save the Sarus crane from electrocution. “As the birds practise local migration (they fly for short distances), we should keep this in mind and consider removal of wires or avoid them at some places.”

Sundar prescribes that before putting new wires, checking should be done to find out whether these will pass over wetlands where a lot of birds reside in high densities. The solution is to route the wires away from such habitats. But, he said, that unfortunately electricity wires are under the jurisdiction of a department that does not consult the department responsible for wildlife. Sundar feels perhaps a permanent solution is putting underground wires. But while this is expensive for the first time, it may be cheaper in terms of long-term maintenance.

According to Sundar, the most important problem is the absence of long-term work on wildlife in agricultural landscapes and areas lying outside protected areas. “As a lot of animals live here, many electricity wire-related deaths happen. So, we need to think about India’s countryside differently and not make a false dichotomy of ‘wildlife areas’ being only inside protected reserves,” he added.

Maharajganj resident Yogendra Kumar Kanojia, who works with WTI, mentioned that plastic covering of wires helps to a certain extent, but Sundar pointed out that it can help prevent electrocutions if birds come into contact with such wires. Birds like the Sarus crane fly at a speed of 40-70 km per hour. If they hit a wire, any wire, at that speed, they die or become severely injured and are preyed upon by dogs and jackals.

Citing an interesting observation, Sundar told Mongabay-India that chicks which fledge in territories dominated by wires are aware of the threat. This is likely to increase their chance of survival after they leave their birth territories. “All the (colour-banded) young birds I found dead due to wires were after they had dispersed from their territories which originally did not have wires.”

Saving Sarus cranes through wetland protection

The Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules came out in 2017. The Uttar Pradesh government identified 1.23 lakh wetlands for protection.

Choudhury explained that in whichever wetland areas, Sarus cranes are found nesting in large numbers, such areas are being identified as important Sarus wetland sites. About 51 such wetlands have been identified in eastern Uttar Pradesh and these will soon be declared as state protected sites with management plans, involving village protection committees.

Vinay Kumar Upadhyay, a retired officer working as the coordinator in the Uttar Pradesh State Wetlands Authority, said the WTI has given a proposal for working on these wetlands, so that we can notify these and prepare management plans.All wetlands come under the forest department and are vital for Sarus habitats. In Uttar Pradesh, wetlands are well identified. We have directed the district wetland committees to prepare brief documentation for those wetlands measuring more than 2.25 hectares. However, it is a time-consuming process.”

Etawah divisional forest officer Rajesh Singh Verma said Sarsai Nawar, a designated Ramsar site in the district, has been selected for protection and management. It is managed by the forest department.

sarus cranes are usually found in wetlands
Conservation of wetlands is important to protect the Sarus crane. Photo by Rajeev Chauhan.

Spreading awareness

While wetland protection plan is on in eastern Uttar Pradesh, Chauhan, from the Society for Conservation of Nature, explained that to stabilise the sarus crane population in the western part of the state, his organisation is continually working with local communities, school children and the forest department for sensitisation and mass awareness.

“There are resident birds in this belt (Etawah and Mainpuri) numbering 2,500-3,000. They congregate in February and disperse by May. Though wetlands are threatened due to reclamation and encroachment, there are many canals and rivers crisscrossing this region. As it is a lowland area, there is no water shortage and so the birds have a good time,” he added. Sohini Singh, who works with Chauhan, said taking out rallies and conducting field visits by school children have helped a lot. It is important as children sometimes steal eggs.

Sengar, who also works with Chauhan, said, in many seasons, surveys show increased population. Still, the western part of Uttar Pradesh has a rich sarus crane population. Last year, 3,000 birds were found through area wise road transects used for counting in June.

electricity wires threaten sarus cranes
Scientists suggest routing wires away from habitats with high density of Sarus cranes as one option of protecting the birds. Photo by Gopi Sundar.

“The earlier estimates of 6,000 sarus cranes are clearly underestimates. The population of this species is now suspected to be at least twice that, if not more,” added Sundar.

According to Sundar, the population estimates of omnivore species that are spread across vast countrysides can be challenging to arrive at. The previous estimates were based on available knowledge at that point, with work on the species carried out only in two districts in great detail. Today, the work is being carried out in many more locations across Uttar Pradesh which allows an understanding that the population of the species is much higher. This is not a reflection of changing land use or any individual aspect, but a reflection of how much area of the state has been covered looking for this iconic species in much greater detail.

WTI data (of sarus crane population in the 10 districts of eastern Uttar Pradesh) says from 1,310 birds in 2016, the number stood at 1,070 in 2017. It mentioned that unexpected early rains inundated many low-lying areas and the population got dispersed that year. In 2018, the count stood at 1,653 and last year it was 2,087.

Read more: Is it time yet? Climate change disturbs breeding and nesting season in birds


Banner image: Almost one percent of the local population of Sarus cranes in western Uttar Pradesh meets with death due to electricity wires. Photo by Gopi Sundar.

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