The article was first published in The Hindu Magazine on 26 August 2018.
Spread before me was a grassland — golden grasses gently swaying in the wind, looking not unlike waves rising and falling to the rhythm of the wind. I scanned the seemingly desolate grassland, in vain for the bird I was here for. Just as I had given up hope a chicken-sized sized bird shot up in the air, descended, and then rose again — shimmering black body, silvery white wings, that opened to reveal dazzling colour before floating to the ground.
There was a repeat performance every few minutes. The male lesser florican would burst into the horizon, display his fine plumage in a flurry of wing beats and rapidly descend, doing this about 500-600 times a day in an effort to attract a mate!
This was about a decade back in Gujarat’s Velavadar, a tiny 34 sq km National Park three hours from Ahmedabad, Gujarat. The florican flies in at the onset of the monsoon for breeding and takes off post the wet season to its non-breeding habitats, presumably to peninsular and northern Indian grasslands, though where it goes — and why — is one of nature’s unsolved mysteries.
It was a rare sight then. Today, it is feared that this remarkable mating ritual could soon be history with fewer than 300 lesser floricans in India, plummeting from the earlier 3,500 in the year 2000 as per a 2017-18 Wildlife Institute of India (WII) report. Lead author of the study, and scientist at the institute, Sutirtha Dutta finds this plunge alarming and stresses the urgency for conservation action if we are to save the bird. “A species is considered critically endangered if it sees a 75-80 per cent population decline in the last 3–4 generations as might be the case of the Lesser Florican,” he states.
Prior to independence and legal protection in the 1970s, hunting annihilated the bird in large numbers, though the main reason for its abysmal status remains loss of habitat.
The lesser florican (Sypheotides indicus) is the smallest bustard in the world, barely weighing 500-750 gms, and is endemic to India. The other two resident species, great Indian bustard (GIB) and the Bengal florican are equally imperilled, classified as ‘Critically Endangered’ as per the IUCN’s (World Conservation Union) Red List. Fewer than 150 GIB survive. There has been no recent robust survey for the Bengal florican, and its population in India is estimated to be lesser than 350, scattered in small fragmented populations in a few PAs in the Terai, Dooars and Brahmaputra floodplains region.
The situation of the lesser florican is as precarious. Historically, it’s range spanned from Gujarat and Rajasthan to West Bengal and Orissa in the east, from eastern UP in the north to Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala) in south. It also occurred in the Nepal Terai and there were occasional records from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Currently, its viable population is mainly restricted to just two locations: Velavadar which has 96–115 territorial males and Shokaliya-Bhinai (Ajmer, Rajasthan) with 110–136 territorial males.
Grasslands, not wastelands
The florican is a flagship species of a healthy grassland. Its dramatic decline — indeed of all three bustard species — is tied to the rapid annihilation of grasslands, the most undervalued, ill-managed and endangered of India’s ecosystems.
Generally relegated as ‘wastelands’, grasslands are diverted for infrastructure, real estate, roads, power projects — including renewable energy projects, mines, etc., destroying florican habitat. Misled efforts to ‘green wastelands’ have also transformed grasslands into monoculture woodlands with disastrous impacts on the species they sustain.
Grasslands are the most vibrant eco-systems and crucial to our food security. We derive nearly 75 per cent of our diet from grasses. Most of our cereals — wheat, rice, corn, barley, millets, and other foods like sugarcane are all derived from grass that has been selectively bred, developed and cultivated for over thousands of years.
Recognising this, India’s erstwhile Planning Commission-appointed Task Force for Grasslands and Deserts calls Protected Areas of grasslands “gene banks — an important genetic resource crucial for ecological and food security of the country.” Grasslands also support some of India’s rarest wildlife — pygmy hogs, wild buffalo, Nilgiri Tahr, wolves, caracals, swamp deer, hog deer, to name a few.
Yet, less than one per cent of the grasslands come under the Protected Area (PA) network. And even that minuscule one per cent is under duress.
Sardarpur in Dhar (Madhya Pradesh) is a case in point. I visited it in 2013, and was deeply disappointed to find that no lesser florican had visited that monsoon, and only one in the past year. What a fall for a sanctuary that was created in 1983 at the urging of India’s ‘Birdman’ Salim Ali as it flourished with floricans.
At the time, the kharmor, as it is locally known, was present in all its 340 sq km (the sanctuary is now about 200 sq km), including in fields and 14 villages that it encompassed.
There are many reasons for its near extinction. Less than one per cent of the sanctuary is classified as ‘forest’ land, the rest is either revenue or private lands, making management and protection difficult in most of the area. Restrictions in the sanctuary meant that the villagers could not sell their own land, or raise loans from banks using their land as collateral, festering resentment.
The other threat that emerged was the changing crop pattern and agricultural practices. The florican frequents croplands to feed on the caterpillars, worms, centipedes, flying ants, small lizards and frogs found in the traditional crops. It also feeds on seeds, herbs, berries and shoots. The shift from traditional crops like lentils and legumes to cash crops like soya and cotton has led to intensive use of pesticides, killing off the insects that dominated the bird’s diet.
The Way forward
Measures to save the bird have to be flexible, multi-layered and site specific. A sensitive and inclusive approach that takes into account the difficulties that locals face is important to win their support. For instance, sale of private land could be allowed, albeit with traditional land use practices preserved.
Core breeding areas must be inviolate, and protected from over grazing and anthropogenic pressures. Other potential breeding site areas need to be protected, restored, and rewilded.
Florican habitats must be declared as Eco Sensitive Zones, regulating land use and development.
The landscape in Shokaliya is extensively mined for quartz, mica, marble, masonry stone, etc and has gouged and fragmented the grasslands. Velavadar’s future is also at stake, with a Special Investment Region proposed on its edge. The SIR is proposed as a hub of industry, manufacturing, luxury hotels, golf courses and theme parks offering connectivity with expressways, highways, airports, sea ports, etc. The consequent construction, industrial activity, disturbance and pollution will have massive impacts on natural habitats, agriculture and local livelihoods.
I remember my visits to Bharatpur (Rajasthan), and feeling a devastating sense of loss at the absence of Siberian cranes, who wintered in this famous wetland. Their flyways and the destination are too hostile now and this tall, graceful bird is but an aching memory.
Will the florican too fade into a bittersweet memory? Sorrow for its doomed fate is even more acute. The lesser florican is found only in India, emblematic of our country. Instead of a sense of pride, this apathy to our natural heritage is shameful.
Yet, there is hope, and it has winged its way to Sardarpur. Last week, a forest official shared a video of a breeding pair from the sanctuary which had not seen any kharmor for nearly five years. Intense protection, and no disturbance to the 500 odd hectares of grassland that is under the forest department over the last two years has paid off…