The deteriorating status of the Indian Bustard
by Asad R. Rahmani, Chairman, IUCN Bustard Specialist Group and Director, Bombay Natural History Society, OBC Bulletin 35, June 2002
Within Asia, India is third among countries having the most threatened species of birds. Only Indonesia and the Philippines have greater numbers of threatened species. With 85 bird species listed as critical, endangered and vulnerable, and further 52 as near-threatened (1) in India, it is a big challenge for conservationists to prevent their extinction. The Bustards and Floricans comprise a group with which I have been intimately connected for the past 20 years.
Four members of the Bustard family are found in India: the Indian Bustard Ardeotis nigriceps of the short grass plains and deserts; MacQueen's Bustard Chlamydotis macqueeni, a winter migrant to the desert regions of Rajasthan and Gujarat; the Lesser Florican Sypheotides indica found in the short grass plains in western and central India; and the Bengal Florican Houbaropsis bengalensis of the tall, wet grasslands of the Terai and the Brahmaputra valley. All the resident bustards have been classified as endangered (1) but the Indian Bustard is approaching critical. In this short article I will restrict myself to the latter species only.
Poaching of tigers and threats of de-notification of protected areas have dominated the Indian media so much that the slow disappearance of other endangered wildlife has been overlooked. Not many people know that the Indian Bustard is now on the brink of extinction with an estimated population possibly as low as 600-700.(1) Although its present range largely coincides with its historic range, there has been a massive decline in numbers. It has become locally extinct in almost 90% of its former range and, ironically, it has disappeared from two sanctuaries created especially to protect the species. In other sanctuaries it is declining rapidly. Previously, it was mainly poaching and habitat destruction that resulted in such a pitiful situation, but now mismanagement of the habitat, sentimental protection of certain problem animals, and apathy are creating havoc.
In the early 1980s, the five states of India where the Indian Bustard was still found adopted conservation measures, and eight protected areas were declared.(2,3) Despite these conservation measures, the status of the Indian Bustard has sharply deteriorated during the last 10 years. This raises the question of whether the sanctuary approach is appropriate for the protection of species that live at low densities in scattered grasslands and marginal crop fields. The sanctuary approach certainly helps in curtailing poaching but, unless appropriate habitat protection measures are taken, declaring a sanctuary for bustards does not help in the long run. Each bustard area has its own problems, a full description of which is beyond the scope of this article, but the major problems can be summarised as:
Habitat destruction and habitat deterioration: Too many domestic animals, disturbance during breeding, conversion of grasslands and so-called 'wastelands' into crop fields.
Poaching: Still widespread in parts of the Thar desert in Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh.
Increase in Blackbuck Antelope cervicapra and Nilgai Boselephus tragocamelus numbers resulting in crop damage and resentment by villagers against the conservation movement in general, and bustard conservation in particular.
Corruption in, and mismanagement of, bustard sanctuaries.
No clear cut land-use policy and domestic animal grazing policies in India.
The Indian Bustard is still found in many parts of the Thar desert, especially in Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Barmer and Bikaner districts, but in most areas it is declining due to various factors. Perhaps the total number of bustards in the Thar desert is fewer than 500. It is likely that some unknown populations are surviving in the vast Deccan plains in south India, such as the two populations 'discovered' in 1998 in Nasikh.
The need for Project Bustard
In India, Project Tiger and Project Elephant have shown that by identifying an umbrella species and focusing attention on it and its habitat, a substantial part of the natural ecosystems which benefit an array of threatened species can be protected. Bustards and Floricans can be considered as umbrella species of the grassland ecosystems. By conserving them and their habitats a very large number of species of the Indian grasslands can be protected. Protection and proper management of these grasslands would also benefit the local communities. India has nearly 550 protected areas but grasslands are under-represented.(2,4) Some of the bustard sanctuaries have been destroyed by misguided management practices (e.g. Karera, Sorsan, Ghatigaon). There is no coordination between Indian states nor among the managers within the states. India has nearly 20% of the world's livestock, but no consideration is given to protecting the grasslands on which this livestock feeds.(5) There is no long-term research on bustards, and at present we do not even know the basic biology of these highly endangered and declining species. Taking into consideration all these factors, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) recommends that the Government of India should start 'Project Bustard' along the lines of Project Tiger, with the following objectives:
To conserve all four species of bustards in India.
To conserve the range of habitats of the Indian bustards and their associated species.
To establish, with the cooperation of the state government and local people, more bustard conservation areas.
To supervise and coordinate management of bustard conservation areas.
To coordinate long-term studies on bustards and their habitats in different states.
To produce educational material for publicity for decisions makers, stakeholders, students etc.
To integrate bustard habitat conservation with national grazing policy and overall land use pattern
In the 1980s, we conducted extensive studies on three resident species of bustards (5,6) through the funds provided by the U.S. Fisheries & Wildlife Service. After these projects were over, some follow-up funding provided by OBC, BirdLife International and WWF-India allowed further study on the Indian Bustard and Lesser Florican to be carried out. During the last five years we have been carrying out an environmental education campaign in the Thar desert of India where a major population of the Indian Bustard occurs, and tremendous support has been received from local communities. The BNHS has also started intensive media and government-level campaigns. No government, especially in a democracy, acts unless the general public show concern. This intensive campaign is planned for one year and we need national and international support from individuals and organisations.
We therefore request that readers of the OBC Bulletin write polite letters to the following persons asking them to save the Indian Bustard by helping to start Project Bustard;
Hon'ble Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Prime Minister of India, South Block, New Delhi 110 011, India. Fax: 091-11-3016857/9817
Mr. T. R. Balu, Minister of Environment and Forests, Government of India, Paryavaran Bhawan, C. G. O. Complex, Lodhi Road, New Delhi 110 003, India.
Mr. S. C. Sharma, Addl. Director (Wildlife), Minister of Environment and Forests, Government of India, Paryavaran Bhawan, C. G. O. Complex, Lodhi Road, New Delhi 110 003, India. Fax: 91-011-4363918
We would also request that copies of any letters sent to the authors are copied to BNHS for our records.
BirdLife International (2001) Threatened Birds of Asia: The BirdLife International Red Data Book. Cambridge, UK: BirdLife International.
Rahmani, A. R. & Manakadan, R. (1988) Bustard Sanctuaries of India. Technical Report No. 18. pp. 40. Bombay Natural History Society, Bombay.
Rahmani, A. R. (1989) The Great Indian Bustard: Final Report. pp. 234. Bombay Natural History Society, Bombay.
Rodgers, W. A. & Panwar, H. S. (1988) Planning a Protected Area Network In India. 2 vols. Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun.
Rahmani, A. R. (1987) Endangered birds of the Indian grasslands: Their conservation requirements. In Rangelands: Resources and Management (eds. P. Singh & P. S. Pathak): pp. 421-427. Indian Grassland and Fodder Research Institute, Jhansi.
Anonymous. (1990) Status and Ecology of the Lesser and Bengal Floricans: Final Report. pp. 155. Bombay Natural History Society, Bombay.