On the afternoon of 15th September, a farmer in the Karamba village in Solapur, Maharashtra was grazing his cattle when he noticed a large, severely injured bird on the ground, its wings singed. Hovering by, helping death to strike were a few feral dogs. As he edged closer, he saw a black mobile like device on the prone creature. He knew the bird, a frequent visitor to his fields from the adjacent Nanaj sanctuary, and immediately informed the forest department. Within minutes, a rescue team reached the spot, gathered the inert bird and rushed it to the veterinary hospital at Solpaur. But it was too late, ‘Alpha’ was dead.
Who was Alpha, and why such a hullaballoo about a bird?
Alpha was the rarest of the rare—a Great Indian Bustard, that unfortunate bird usurped of the National Bird status by the glamorous peacock as babus fretted that ‘bustard’ would be likely misspelt, causing considerable embarrassment!
The GIB, as it is a called, is listed as Critically Endangered with a global population of about 150 , almost exclusively in India. Once found in the dry bush and grassland sweeping across the Indian subcontinent from Pakistan in the west upto West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu in the south, it’s now been wiped out from 97 per cent of its range—even in sanctuaries created for its protection, like Gaga-Bhatiya in Gujarat, Rannibenur in Karnataka, Sorsan in Rajasthan, Son Chiraiya (Karera) and Ghatigaon in Madhya Pradesh. Its two most viable populations are in and around Desert National Park in Rajasthan at about 100, while Naliya in Kutch counts about 30. The rest are sparsely scattered in a few other pockets in erstwhile Andhra, Maharashtra, Karnataka.
Alpha was special. As his name suggests, he was the dominant male, ‘productive’ and had successfully mated this April. In fact, so enthusiastic was he about this whole affair that the forest staff (devoted to their task and the birds) nicknamed him ‘Vicky donor’!
Alpha was one among the three GIBs in Maharashtra (besides the odd transient ones). The other male was younger, and imaginatively called Chotu. Both had been tagged by wildlife researchers, to understand the mystery that surrounds the birds, like where they migrate to during the non-breeding seasons. Interestingly, Chotu, who was fitted with a GPS transmitter in April 2015, revealed the great distances these birds fly, and the large areas they use. Writes Vaijayanti Vijayaraghavan, a researcher with the Wildlife Institute of India, working in Nanaj, “As the monsoon commenced and the breeding season set in, Alpha drove Chotu, out of Nanaj, propelling his journey across the landscape.” Chotu was to fly over 1,200 km, across districts, and to the Karnataka border in the three months he was monitored.
Now, Alpha is dead, electrocuted on 15th September. The same morning Alpha was seen displaying, strutting his feathers, in a bid to impress the lady. He then took wing, flying for about 15 km around Nanaj before he hit a power transmission line. The post mortem indicated charring due to electric line collusion.
GIBs are tall, standing upto four feet, and amongst the heaviest of flying birds, and so fly at low heights. Coupled with their relatively small binocular field, they are more prone to such collisions. In the past decade, six GIB have died as a consequence of collision or electrocution by electric lines. Alpha is the seventh.
With so few remaining, the loss of every bird is catastrophic—pushing the species closer to the brink. It’s imperative that transmission lines in, and around, atleast 10 km of bustard areas simply must go, and be replaced with underground cables.
Transmission lines, though, are just one among a medley of threats. Historically, widespread hunting, accelerated by vehicular access to hitherto remote areas, for sport and food precipitated the bustard’s decline. The rampant hunting (and the abundance) is indicated by records in The Oriental Sports Magazine of one Robert Mansfield who bagged no less than 961 GIBs in Ahmednagar district, where none exist now. Poaching appears to be a serious threat in Pakistan’s Cholistan desert–birds fly across the two countries, irrespective of hostile borders, and Pakistan has a small resident or transient population. According to a report, 49 of the 63 GIBS sighted in four years between 2001-4, were hunted (Khan et al, 2008). But the key cause of the near-extinction is the steady annihilation of its habitat, grasslands, a vital, vibrant ecosystem harbouring rare and endemic wildlife such as wolves, caracals, blackbucks, rhinos, pygmy hogs and, of course, bustards. Yet, grasslands and deserts are the most neglected ecosystems, as per a report of the Task Force on Grasslands and Deserts appointed by the Planning Commission. Officially, grasslands are designated wastelands; and therefore degraded, diverted, destroyed for real estate, industry, roads, mining, canals, agriculture. ‘Greening’ deserts by planting exotic trees, and well-intended schemes like the Indira Gandhi Canal in the Thar, change the ecology of the region, rendering them hostile for its xeric biodiversity.
Pesticides and changing crop patterns—a shift to mechanised farming and cash crops—have taken a toll too. Bustards are ground nesting birds, and hence very vulnerable to predators, and any other disturbance.
A relatively new threat comes in the form of wind farms, which have taken over swathes of bustard habitat in both Thar and Kutch, further crunching its nesting areas, besides causing bird mortality. Renewable energy is critical in an era of Climate Change, but its placement must undergo scrutiny for biodiversity impacts.
It is almost too late for the Great Indian Bustard. Alpha’s death serves as a grim reminder of the extreme vulnerability of the species. Former Additional Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests & Director of Wildlife Preservation, MK Ranjitsinh fears its imminent extinction, “Were this tragedy to occur, the GIB would be the first species in the history of India to have been allowed to go extinct,” he says.
I am reminded of this book I read ‘Witness to Extinction’. It’s about the baiji, the Yangtze river dolphin, a species as old as 25 million years, extinct in 2002. Writes the author Samuel Turvey, “All that’s left on stage are the commemorative baiji statues. As for the baiji itself, it looks like it is the only thing not made in China anymore. Poor old Baiji. You deserved better.” ‘Our’ Great Indian Bustard deserves better too. RIP Alpha. Here is hoping that your death is not in vain, and stirs urgent action to save your kin.
To save the GIB:
- Designate well-protected core breeding areas, with a landscape conservation strategy where the bustards’ ecological needs are factored in with low-intensity livelihood concerns. Enlist support of local communities and other relevant departments.
- Conserve grasslands. Curtail detrimental infrastructure and other projects in GIB priority areas.
- Policy changes regarding land use and prioritisation of ‘Bustard-friendly grazing’ and cropping policies. Controlling feral dog populations in and around critical GIB areas.
This article was first published in the Outlook magazine (2, October 2015).