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Have you ever seen a Great Indian Bustard? Chances are you never will

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 6:18 IST

The issue

  • The Great Indian Bustard could have been our national bird; they face extinction today
  • From over a thousand in 1980 to just 200 today - threat looms large on the species
  • Birds are not considered glamorous enough to be conserved, unlike mammals such as tigers
  • We spend Rs 160 cr/year on tigers; until recently we spent nothing on the Great Indian Bustard

More in the story

  • How much time do we have to save the Great Indian Bustard?
  • What are the ways the government can really help?

How does a bird go from almost getting chosen as India's national bird after independence to almost going extinct today? The Great Indian Bustard (GIB) has found itself on the wrong side of wildlife conservation in India. Where sustained attention and high-decibel campaigns have helped save the tiger, conservation has come too little and too late for the Bustard.

The one-metre tall bird is among the few heavy birds in the world that can fly and is found commonly in grasslands. As such areas have been overgrazed or taken over by agriculture, the GIB population has been driven nearly to extinction. Numbers have dropped from over a thousand in 1980 to just under 200 GIBs today.

That's the upper end of the estimate. At the lower end, the numbers are shocking - in Rajasthan, where about three-fourths of the country's Bustards were usually live, only 11 were found in a July 2015 survey. Maharashtra and Gujarat have 15 and 40, respectively.

Besides a tiny population in Pakistan, GIBs live mostly in India. It is Rajasthan's state bird and was considered for the position of India's national bird. It could not make the cut ostensibly due to concerns that 'bustard' would either be misspelled or mispronounced.

For decades afterward, that was about all the attention the GIB ever got. As its population dropped year after year, there was no conservation policy from the government. This was despite it being listed as 'Schedule I' in Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The International Union for Conservation of Nature classified it as 'threatened' in 1988, then 'endangered' in 1994. It was only after it became 'critically endangered' (one step before 'extinct in the wild') in 2011 that the government swung into action.

'We have to act NOW to save the Great Indian Bustard'. Are the governments listening?

In 2012, the environment ministry issued guidelines to states to take measures to conserve the Bustards. But unlike the tiger, for which the government spends over Rs 160 crore annually and a national authority was set up, the Bustard has been given the short shrift. A recent announcement to start artificial breeding for the GIB -- to be conducted by the centre and the three states hosting GIB population -- received an annual budget of Rs 9 crore.

Rajasthan, which in 2013 became the first state to start a project dedicated to conserving the GIB, began spending Rs 12 crore annually. Following this, the Maharashtra government in 2014 finally came up with a five-year plan to protect the GIB.

But these measures may have come too late as the already lower numbers make it that much harder to recover the population, according to Rahul Kaul, chief ecologist at Wildlife Trust of India.

"Had [the government] done enough, the Bustard would not have been in such a state as you find it today," he said. This reflects a bias in India's conservation policies against non-mammals, which are perceived to be glamorous.

"There seems to be more emphasis on mammals than any group of animals at least nationally. Internationally, such biases are lesser and efforts are on to conserve animals across the animal kingdom," Kaul said.

the great indian bustard

Photo: Conservation India

Indeed, recent efforts at GIB conservation expose how little the government knows about the bird. Rajasthan forest officials seem unable to conclude just how many GIBs actually exist. While the survey quoted earlier found 11 birds, another survey conducted a month before that found 28, according to a Times of India report.

In 2014, the state government estimated 103 bustards with an error range of 69 - which meant it was equally likely that there were either 172 or 34 of the birds.

1,000+ in 1980 to just 200 today. Very soon there may not be any Great Indian Bustard left

Now, the state government has announced a new census of the birds conducted by the central government's Zoological Survey of India.

Knowledge about the GIB's movements is also scant. In April 2015, the Maharashtra forest department radio-collared a GIB named 'chotu'. By July, the bird was learnt to have travelled nearly 103 km to Karnataka - which came as a great surprise to forest officials.

While governments scramble to make plans to save the GIB, they haven't walked the talk when it comes to stopping development harmful to it. The environment ministry allowed the expansion of an Air Force base at Gujarat's Naliya, which is one of the two sanctuaries designated specifically for the GIB. In both Rajasthan and Gujarat, the government has promoted setting up windmills, which are harmful to the Bustard.

So, will the Great Indian Bustard survive? Chances are slim. These rest on the existing conservation projects moving fast enough. The government has gone ahead with its plan to breed the Bustards in its laboratory facilities (known as ex situ conservation).

But many scientists have argued that its best that the species is instead protected in the wild (in situ conservation). There are several reasons for this, but more urgently, there may not be enough time to build such facilities.

"It is blindingly obvious that this in situ conservation cannot wait another year," wrote NJ Collar, Pramod Patil and GS Bhardwaj, three experts on the GIBs, in an article published in June. Patil recently won the prestigious Whitley Award for his work on the GIBs in Rajasthan.

"(The conservation) cannot wait until the complex machinery of local and national government has decided on how and where to build the ex situ facilities. It has to start now, and its impact has to be immediate."

A failure will fly in the face of wildlife conservation in India.

First published: 19 October 2015, 7:44 IST
Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale

Nihar is a reporter with Catch, writing about the environment, water, and other public policy matters. He wrote about stock markets for a business daily before pursuing an interdisciplinary Master's degree in environmental and ecological economics. He likes listening to classical, folk and jazz music and dreams of learning to play the saxophone.