Once the frontrunner to be named India’s national bird, the Great Indian Bustard has long been on the brink of extinction. The Great Indian Bustard (GIB), is one of the heaviest flying birds, and is found mainly in the Indian subcontinent. Barely 150 of these birds are estimated to be surviving now globally. However, a major conservation effort launched about four years ago is bringing a ray of hope.
Since June last year, nine GIB eggs collected from the Desert National Park in Jaisalmer where a conservation centre has been set up, have hatched, and the chicks are reported to be doing well. This is the largest number of hatchings reported within a six-month frame by any GIB conservation programme in the world, say officials.
Forest officials have identified seven females and one male among the GIB chicks; the sex of the ninth and youngest chick, which hatched a couple of months ago, is not yet known.
Giving the chicks the right diet is a challenge, the officials said. “Very little is known about their food habitat. With inputs provided by our counterparts in Gujarat, scientists have identified bird feed that is rich in proteins and calcium,” Arindam Tomar, Chief Wildlife Warden of the Rajasthan Wildlife Department, told The Indian Express over the phone.
The GIB is known to eat insects, harvested foodgrains, and fruit. “The uncontrolled use of pesticides and insecticides in farms has badly hit their food habitat,” said Tomar, who took over as the project head in early 2019. Vanishing grasslands, and attacks by dogs and foxes have contributed to the threat to the GIB’s survival.
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, are working to save the GIB. The Ministry has allotted special funds to the tune of Rs 33 crore, a part of which was used to set up the incubation and chick-rearing centre in Jaisalmer.
In a report submitted to the Ministry in November 2018, the WII said extensive land surveys have been carried out to locate suitable habitats for the chicks.
Officials have zeroed in on 14 spots, based rainfall, accessibility, proximity to wild source, habitat and topographic suitability, availability of water, temperature, etc., and identified Sorsan as the site most conducive for their rearing.
“Sorsan would allow the birds to breed more frequently, unlike Jaisalmer, which sees frequent droughts. Also, with access via road and suitable flat grassland habitat is available,” the WII report said. The centre will be the birds’ home for a few years — a safe habitat would have to be readied before they can be released into the wild.
Male birds reach sexual maturity between the ages of 4 and 5; females at age 3-4. Generally, the GIB lives up to age 15 or 16, experts said. A female lays an egg once in 1-2 years, and the chicks’ survival rate is 60%-70%. “Being such long-lived and slow reproducing species, adult mortality remains high,” the WII report said.
Tomar said: “Once these birds mature and can produce offspring, there must be enough habitats to support their growth. Readying the necessary habitat will be key in the coming months and years.”
According to the WII report, the bird was once abundant in Kutch, Nagpur, Amravati, Solapur, Bellary, and Koppal districts in the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Karnataka. “Karnataka has expressed interest in working with us, but there is nothing concrete from Maharashtra so far,” the officer said.
Globally and in India, high voltage power lines are a major threat to the GIB, the WII report says. The bird has poor frontal vision, which restricts it from spotting power lines early. “…About 15% of the population (dies) due to the power lines in Jaisalmer alone. This, in comparison to the natural cause of deaths contributed only 4% to 5% cases,” the report says.
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