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The Great Indian Bustard: Once Our Almost National Bird, Today It Is Almost Extinct

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Hugely supported by ornithologist Salim Ali, the Great Indian Bustard (GIB) was once in the running to be crowned India’s national bird. It lost the title to the Indian Peacock, largely due to the potential of its name being misspelt. This was, however, not the bird’s last chance at fame.

Once found abundantly across 11 states in the country and an estimated population of 1,260 individuals in 1969, the bird now finds itself listed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act (1972), Appendix I of CITES, the CMS convention, the National Wildlife Action Plan (2002-2016) and as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Perhaps, the crown jewel of emphasising the threat to the GIB came in the form of a species recovery plan proposed by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in 2012.

However, following inaction on the plan, a much more lucrative, Rs 12 crore “Project Great Indian Bustard” was announced by the Rajasthan Forest Department in 2013. With an estimated population of just 122 individuals, Rajasthan holds the largest number of the remaining GIB population in the country. Project GIB and its aim to ensure successful breeding of the bird in the Desert National Park painted a promising picture of its future.

Still, it wasn’t until the posting of Chief Wildlife Warren Arindam Tomar in 2019, that the 10-year breeding programme began taking shape. Partnering with the National Aviation Research Centre based in Abu Dhabi, the state Forest Department collected eggs from the National Park and sent them to a captive breeding facility in Sam, Jaisalmer.

Image credit: Radheshyam Pemani Bishnoi/Mongabay India

As of today, 16 GIB chicks have hatched at the facility, creating a world record for the conservation of the species.

Even so, a meticulous plan to preserve the new generation of these magnificent birds remains crucial. Historically, poachers, hungry predators and habitat loss have remained the top threats to the GIB. Today, it appears that renewable energy projects — the messiah of the climate crisis — lead in the cause for GIB deaths. By the end of 2017, at least nine birds were reportedly killed by wind power transmission lines.

Taking cognisance of the report, the National Green Tribunal in April 2019 directed the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to showcase a time bound action plan for conserving the GIB. The MoEFCC, in response, constituted a six-member committee of representatives of the Centre and the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan. The committee held six meetings till December 2020 with various stakeholders from wildlife and energy sectors. The meetings were condensed into a detailed report and put forth to the NGT. A few of the highlights from the committee’s discussions include:

  • The Rajasthan Forest Department will explore the possibility of converting the GIB arc in the state (about 9800 km sq.), into a Protected Area.
  • Consider under-grounding of transmission lines for renewable energy projects
  • Installation of indigenously designed bird diverters around the Desert National Park (105 have been installed in a pilot step)
  • Capacity training of forest staff led by Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and Wildlife Crime Control Bureau
  • Constitution of a Breeding Action Plan by WII for the GIB

Following the submission of the report, a bench headed by NGT Chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel has directed the Centre and states to install bird diverters on all existing power lines within four months and ensure under-grounding of all transmission lines in the area henceforth. The WII has been asked to conduct monitoring of compliance in the region twice a year.  It has been a little over a month since the directive. It’s effectiveness, only time can tell.

The Great Indian Bustard once lost the race to be crowned the National Bird of India. Today, preserving it as part of our nation’s tapestry of biodiversity is a race against time.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons
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