Great Indian Bustard: The bird that “almost” became our national bird

When India was a newly formed country, just free from the clutches of the British Raj, decisions had to be made about what animals would be the symbol of our country. The Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps) was a strong contender for being claimed as the National Bird of India. But, considering a possible national embarrassment because the name of the bird is similar to a particular abuse, the bird that eventually got the honor was the peacock (source).

Today, this bird species has a total population of 150-200 in the world. It is critically endangered and is going to become extinct in all likelihood in the next decade. How did this bird reach a sorry state, and why isn’t there more hue and cry about this?

Where is this bird found, and how does it live?

The GIB is found in grasslands of India, and there are major populations of the species in Gurjrat, Thar region of Rajasthan and the central Deccan plateau. The population in Maharastra is more or less extinct, because there are no recorded breeding males left. Some birds remain in Karnataka, and Thar is the last major stronghold on this bird in the country.

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The family of bustards coevolved with ungulates and wild grazers to maintain a stable ecosystem for them (source).

GIB has a very high infant mortality rate, and very few of the young ones survive to adulthood. Studies on the great bustard (Otis tarda) show that there are 0.14 offsprings per female per year (source) and therefore, a female is replaced by one or two offsprings in the entire lifespan (Morales et al. 2002). This makes the survival of an entire population a very slow and painstaking process, and with humans involved, this is almost impossible.

The dangers the Great Indian Bustard faces…

The bird’s natural habitat is grasslands, a land type that is often categorized as “Waste Land” by the government. These habitats are rich and varied around the country, and provide key ecosystem services. But the overemphasis on forests as the habitat for all animals and birds has led to the neglect of such a precious ecosystem. Consequently, these lands are very easily acquired for development activites, all of which fragment the habitat and degrade that ecosystem.

The GIB is a particularly non-intrusive and simple bird species that has shy habits. Therefore, it has very little defense against the march of human development.

The bird is also in extreme danger of collision with power lines. Since the Wildlife Institute of India began studying these birds in an effort to conserve them, they have found no less than 9 individuals that have died under power lines. To put this in perspective, during that period only 1 other bird was supposed to have died through natural causes.

Image result for great indian bustard collision with power linesCollision with power lines are mostly inevitable for the birds that lack tunnel vision and find it difficult to focus on objects straight ahead. It’s not just the GIB, almost all birds found in grassland habitats are in danger of this.

Conservation efforts for this bird have proven difficult because it is not exactly a bird people would call charismatic. So, funds and attention is hard to find. However, that hasn’t held conservationists back.

In small parts of the country, the bird is hunted as game bird. Poaching will not help the pitiful situation this species is in, when studies have shown that even the removal of one adult bird from a population can significantly affect the population in a negative way.  The western Rajasthan and Kachchh populations are probably shared with Cholistan desert and Sindh of Pakistan, where 49 birds were hunted out of 63 that were sighted over a period of 4 years (Khan et al., 2008).

Conservation efforts renew

In the last couple of years, efforts are being doubled to ensure that the remaining population of this bird does not die out. In Karnataka, the forest officials have taken it upon themselves to protect the few tens of birds remaining in their state. The bird festivals being organized by them is largely to draw attention to rare and beautiful species of birds, while simultaneously decreasing tourist pressure on wildlife sanctuaries and national parks (source).

Wildlife Institute of India continues to study the habits and lifestyle of the GIB and devise conservation strategies under their Great Indian Bustard Conservation Project. It was their work that discovered the great danger that these birds face in the form of power lines.

What can be done about power lines? The local population of the great bustard in Spain recovered after the threat from power lines were neutralized (Raab et al. 2012). Similar efforts need to be made in India with active involvement of the central government. Power lines interfere with the flight of the birds, or they get electrocuted with the complete two separate conducting lines. Power lines in grasslands, if placed underground, would go a long way in protecting these birds. The covering of these power lines also need to be efficient and strong, so that the birds don’t come in their way unknowingly.

More importantly, the habitats of the GIB need to come under the “protected” category. These protected landscapes need to be extremely protected especially during the breeding season and for a few months after it. While overgrazing by cattle in GIB landscapes can cause a lot of harm, controlled grazing can be beneficial, as they have coevolved into this strategy with grazers.

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Nannaj: A GIB sanctuary in Solapur.

Ex-situ conservation is being heavily relied on today, to ensure the birds are bred and grown in captivity to ensure their survival. However, due to the life-cycle of this bird, the results do not seem to be as effective as it has been for other species (source). The removal of eggs and birds from the wild should be done only when there is high chance of survival in captivity, which does not seem to be the case for GIB. In addition, precious individuals are lost from the wild species.

Is it too late?

Probably. But the efforts to protect this species are being renewed with greater vigor. The wild population can regenerate even now if the most favorable conditions are provided for it, and the birds will live to see another decade.

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References-

  1. Morales, M.B., Alonso, J.C. & Alonso, J.A. 2002. Annual productivity and individual female reproductive success in a Great Bustard Otis tarda population. Ibis, 144 (2): 293-300.
  2. Raab, R., Schutz, C., Spakovszky, P., Julius, E. & Schulze, H. 2012. Underground cabling and marking of power lines, conservation measures rapidly reduce mortality of West-Pannonian Great Bustards Otis tarda. Bird Conservation International 22: 299-306.
  3. Khan AA, Khaliq I, Choudhry MJI, Farooq A, Hussain N (2008) Status, threats and conservation of the Great Indian Bustard Ardeotis nigriceps (Vigors) in Pakistan. Curr Sci 95(8):1079–1082. 
  4. All images from Google Images.
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