Karnataka’s Great Indian Bustard in Peril

By: Seema Sharma
The sudden disappearance of the Great Indian Bustard, India’s critically endangered bird species, from Siruguppa Taluka in the Bellary district of Karnataka has raised the ire of wildlife conservationists. The construction of tall tower like structures in the name of anti-poaching measures by the wildlife department has also not gone down well.
Life Wildlife

The Great Indian Bustard (GIB) has been placed in the category of critically endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list and is listed under the Schedule One species in the India’s Wildlife Protection Act of  1972. The breeding population of this avian species is found only at two sites in the entire world — one in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan and the other at the Siruguppa Taluka, Bellary, Karnataka.

In a population estimation conducted in 2017-2018, there are about 150 GIBs in India, plus or minus 19, according to Sutirtha Dutta, scientist with Wildlife Institute of India (WII) (Azad 2018).

Santosh Martin, a wildlife conservationist says, “The officials have not stopped construction in the GIB breeding area despite the widespread condemnation of their action by wildlife activists and birders.”

Martin is the co-petitioner along with M K Ranjitsinh, one of India’s renowned wildlife conservationists and former director of Wildlife Preservation of India, in a case filed on the issue of bolstering GIB conservation in India in the Supreme Court in 2019. In response,  a high powered committee headed by chairman, Asad Rahmani, former director, Bombay Natural History Society, was constituted on July 15 to frame and implement an emergency response plan for GIB protection.

Experts allege that Karnataka wildlife department’s newly built structures—two watch towers and two anti-poaching cells, all in three storey tall are detrimental to the conservation of the GIB.

S K Arun, honorary wildlife warden of Bellary and a member of the expert committee constituted by the wildlife department to investigate the matter admitted that, “Most of the members of expert committee recommended dismantling the watch-towers, anti-poaching cells and electric poles built in the middle of the breeding area.”

Multi-story watch towers being constructed in Siruguppa for vigilance. (Photo credit-SK Arun)

WII’s Dutta explains that mortalities among GIBs are mostly caused by obstructions such as tall structures, power lines and windmills. Even plantations are not suitable for their habitat, as an intensification of tree cover leads to a decline in their natural grassland habitat. He said that GIBs prefer open habitat, escaping into the tall grasses in case of a threat. Further, due to poor frontal vision, GIBs easily collide with tall structures resulting in injury and death in many instances. Being a shy creature, GIBs avoid human presence and tend to abandon any disturbed area.

Chief wildlife warden Ajay Mishra however justifies the construction work, adding that “The wildlife department has installed watch-towers and anti-poaching cells to protect wildlife from poaching.”

Dutta feels that though surveillance through watch-towers is effective to contain anti-poaching activities, such tall structures could have been  avoided in the small breeding area of GIBs. Patrolling through cycles instead could have been a safer and effective option, he advised. Dutta hopes that if the habitat is restored after the removal of these obstructions, then the GIB’s are likely to come back, as they bear a traditional linkage to their habitats.

Ranjitsinh reacting sharply added, “There are thousands of breeding  areas for black buck, jackal and other animals found in the region, but only three breeding sites for GIB in the entire world of which Sirguguppa is one. If the wild officials do not know what [topmost  preference to] to GIBs means, then they do not deserve to be where they are.”

Ranjitsinh also points out that, “none of the GIBs’ were seen in their breeding area of Siruguppa ever since the tall structures have been built here by the wildlife department. They have disappeared from the region. This shows that there will not be any breeding in the region this year.”

Survival in Siruguppa is not going to be easy for GIBs, as the grasslands are shrinking rapidly and the traditional sunflower and cotton crops too are being replaced. Arun explains, “Though grassland, the ideal habitat of GIB has almost vanished, these birds have survived well in the farm lands of sunflower and black cotton crops grown over the revenue land in Siruguppa across Bellary. However now the farmers have begun changing the cropping pattern opting for paddy and other cash crops for better profits. They are getting piped water from the nearby rivers and this causes concern over the survival of GIBs.” To tackle this, Arun adds that an area of approximately 1000 acres is being arranged in Siruguppa to create a viable habitat for the GIBs.

Photo credit-SK Arun
Multi-story Anti-poaching cell built to control anti-poaching activities. (Photo credit-SK Arun)

A prominent industrial group is providing 246 acres of scattered land parcels to the forest department under compensatory afforestation provision in lieu of forest land for mining. The same group is likely to also provide an additional 400 acres of land. It is hoped that with more funding from MoEF&CC for GIB conservation and inviolate land for the birds can be set aside.

Arun adds that the ignorance of the local community about the significance of GIBs has been a boon for their survival. “No awareness campaign or activity was ever undertaken to awaken the local people. It was done deliberately to not arouse their curiosity which might have propelled some to chase the birds or tamper with their eggs laid on the ground. They simply ignore the GIBs around.”

Indrajit Ghorpade, wildlife conservationist however has yet another take. He feels that,  “we must adopt a community centric and a strategic partnership approach where locals are involved in the GIB conservation. This way they become the custodians along with other conservationists and birders. There is still time for us to protect these rare and critically endangered that are endemic to our Deccan from extinction.”

 

Way Forward

Dutta expressed hope that if the habitat of GIBs is restored by removing all the newly created obstructions, then there are chances that  these birds may return to Siruguppa. “Great Indian Bustards have historical connection with their breeding habitats,” he added.

 

Reference

Azad S. 2018. Only 150 Great Indian Bustards Left in India, The Times of India, September 19. Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/dehradun/only-150-great-indian-bustards-left-in-india/articleshow/65862553.cms

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