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The Great Indian Bustard
|by Dr. Jaipal Singh|
The Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps) or Indian Bustard is a magnificent large bird with crane like appearance due to its long legs and horizontal body. This heavy bodied flying bird is a native of India and surrounding regions in Pakistan.
I recall I came to know about the bird more than three decades back in March 1979 as a student pursuing pre-doctoral research work in Biological Sciences when a news item was published in many national dailies about a party of Arab nobles led by Prince Bandar camping in the Great Thar Desert of western India on a hunting mission of the Great Indian Bustard and other rare bird species in the region. Arab hunters were equipped with the trained falcons specifically for finding and hunting the bird. There was a lot of protest from the wildlife lovers and protection societies, particularly the local Vishnoi community against the tacit Indian Government permission to this foreign guests’adventure. Vishnoi people have religious faith in protecting trees and wildlife and are traditionally known for sentiments to give up own life to protect environment. Even the Rajasthan High Court had to intervene by imposing a temporary ban on the Saudi Prince’s falconry party to save the endangered bird species from hunting.
The Great Indian Bustard is a large ground bird with rather poor flying skills of a height of about one metre with a long neck and long legs. It can be easily distinguished by its black crown on the forehead in contrast to the pale head and neck. The dorsal side of the body is brownish with a black patch spotted in white. The male is often deep sandy buff coloured and during the breeding season has a black breast band. Males also have a well-developed gular pouch which is inflated to produce the deep resonant calls in the mating season during display. The female bustard is smaller in size compared to the male, the head and neck are pale white and the breast band is rudimentary or at times absent.
In the past, the bird was wide spread in India and found in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamilnadu. It was considered a game bird and was hunted by the kings and nawabs, and latter even by British putting it almost on the verge of extinction. The Great Indian Bustard is now listed in Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 as critically endangered bird species. Currently, the bustard is found only in isolated pockets in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
Their behavior and ecology is fairly well known. Great Indian Bustards known to make local movements within a radius of about fifty to hundred kilometers. Male birds are known to be solitary during the breeding season but form small flocks during the winter. The male is believed to be polygamous using a mating system that has been termed as an "exploded or dispersed. The bird is omnivorous and feeds on the insects, beetles, rodents, lizards and, occasionally, even small snakes. They are also known to feed on grass seeds and berries etc. When threatened, female birds carry young chicks under their wings.
They are found in open grasslands, usually arid and semi-arid areas with thorn scrub, tall grass interspersed with cultivation. The bird avoids irrigated areas. Over the years, the birds have exterminated mainly on account of the loss of habitat and poaching. For example, the dry semi-desert regions in Rajasthan where it was found in abundance earlier, has been altered by irrigation canals into an intensively farmed area rendering it unsuitable habitat for the bird. Mining and other industrial and infrastructure development activities are also responsible for destruction of their habitat.
Months of March to September are considered to be their breeding season during which males inflate and display their fluffy white feathers to attract females. Territorial fight between males have been reported during which they strut next to each other, leap against the rival with legs against each other and often land down to lock the rival’s head under the neck. During courtship display to attract the female, the male also inflates the gular sac so that a large wobbly bag hangs down from the neck. The tail is held cocked up on its back. Besides, the male produces a resonant deep call at intervals that could be heard for nearly a half-kilometre. The female bustard lays a single egg at a time at a safe place on the ground and only the female is involved in incubation and care of the young.
Bird sanctuaries in various states support some population of the Great Indian Bustard. As per IUCN portal, the total population of the bird across India was about 300 during the year 2008, out of which only about 250 were left by 2011. Prospects become further bleak, considering this small number too is found into small populations across many Indian states, making the bird even more prone to extinction. For the wildlife conservationists, the identification, ecology, precautionary measures, threat perception and conservation of the bird continue to be challenging issues.
As mentioned earlier, historically widespread killing of the bird for sport and flesh was responsible for its decline, further accelerated by vehicular access to even remote areas. But the current threats are mainly on account of the habitat loss and degradation, caused by the widespread agricultural expansion and mechanization of farming, infrastructural development such as irrigation, roads, electric poles, wind turbines, constructions, and mining and industrialization besides a bad habitat management.
This species is already listed as critically endangered because of an extremely small population owing to a multiple threats including habitat loss and degradation, hunting and direct disturbance. It now requires an urgent attention and acceleration for conservation in order to prevent it from becoming extinct within a few years or at best decade. With less than 250 birds left, it is a million dollar question if we humans will gear up to save this magnificent bird or it will be another significant species to extinct in India ever since the cheetah?
Some of the steps taken by the governments in the recent past are briefly indicated here. The Ministry of Environment and Forest in the Central Government had prepared a recovery programme in 2012 for three species of bustard i.e. the Great Indian Bustard, the Bengal Florican and the Lesser Florican. These programmes are to be finalized and executed by the state wildlife and forest departments.
Rajasthan government has started its own Project Great Indian Bustard on the World Environment day in 2013 for identification and fencing off bustard breeding grounds in the already protected areas. In future, they also intend to extend the programme of secure breeding grounds beyond protected areas. The Gujarat government too had recently announced to undertake the census of the endangered bird in early 2014 to ascertain exact population in the state so as to undertake needful measures to save the bird from extinction in the state.
Urgent steps needed by the state governments inter alia involve securing and protecting bustard’s ‘lekking’ sites i.e. the places where males gather to display and attract females. If these sites are disturbed, bustards may not be able to breed. As there are multiple threats such as mining, industrial development, agriculture, irrigation and highways, the step needs strong political will and cooperation of NGOs and local communities. Every state also needs to undertake their own dedicated conservation programme by associating biologists and conservationists for the systematic protection and conservation of the bustard species. The possibilities of the captive breeding should also be explored. State advisory must be issued at appropriate level to effectively ensure that wildlife lovers and photographers stay away from breeding sites during the breeding season.
Image (c) Gettyimages.com
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