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While people argue, the endangered Great Indian Bustard bird walks to its doom

Shrinking space for one of the world's rarest birds: A male Great Indian Bustard with a scorpion in its beak, walks the remaining grasslands of Kutch in western India.
Shrinking space for one of the world's rarest birds: A male Great Indian Bustard with a scorpion in its beak, walks the remaining grasslands of Kutch in western India.ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
The Indian government and the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan, where the birds are found in the wild, are considering a captive breeding programme, but there is no real agreement on what is to be done.
The Indian government and the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan, where the birds are found in the wild, are considering a captive breeding programme, but there is no real agreement on what is to be done. PHOTO: DEVESH GADHVI

TERA, KUTCH, India - One-metre tall and weighing up to 15kg, it is the Robocop of big birds, steadily stalking the vast grasslands, its head swivelling rhythmically as it sweeps the surroundings and scans the ground.

It seems to never break stride, its long legs walking almost as fast as a man's. I saw one last week with a big scorpion; it had the formidable 13cm-long black insect clamped in its beak, helplessly dangling by one of its pincers.

The only problem is the grasslands, its natural habitat, are now not so vast. The Great Indian Bustard is in deep trouble, and nearing the end of its days.

Today its population, in just three Indian states and a handful in Pakistan, is estimated at about 200 to 300. Experts put the number lower, at around 150.

This makes the GIB, as it is sometimes referred to, one of the rarest birds in the world.

"Population estimates... suggest that the species has undergone a decline equivalent to around 82 per cent over 47 years," says BirdLife International, a non-profit group.

A confluence of factors is against the big bird. And while people dither about what to do to save it, the GIB is striding, seemingly inexorably, towards its own extinction - and in our lifetime.

The Great Indian Bustard was once plentiful, but hunting drove it to low numbers. After being protected from hunting since the 1970s, it is newly beleaguered. 

For one thing, it has a slow reproduction rate, nesting on open ground, laying only one egg, and in rare cases two, just once a year. 

For another, the grasslands, often classified as wasteland in government records and thus vulnerable to exploitation from mining, industry and agriculture, have shrunk dramatically.

In the Kutch district of Gujarat state, where I saw the bird with the scorpion, farmers from as far away as Punjab are ploughing the grasslands to grow crops like cotton and castor. This destroys an entire ecosystem. Roads crisscross the habitat; giant wind turbines, their blades slicing the air around them, punctuate it. The low-flying bird has collided with high tension wires and died.

Chicks have a hard time surviving not just natural predators but also packs of free-ranging stray dogs from nearby villages. And there remains occasional poaching. "The Great Indian Bustard is the only bird species in India which has nine protected areas designated for its conservation," writes scientist Dr Pramod Patil, who has won a Whitley Award for his work for the species. "Unfortunately, we have lost the bustard from four of those. At all these places community resentment seems to be the major reason."  

Wildlife scientists Sutirtha Dutta, Asad R. Rahmani and Y.V. Jhala wrote in a 2010 paper: "The declining rate of GIB populations calls for immediate commencement of ex situ conservation breeding programmes." In other words, breeding the birds in a captive facility. 

Five years on, the federal government in New Delhi, and the governments of the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan, where the birds are found in the wild, are still edging towards a captive breeding programme. But there remains no real agreement on what is to be done. 

Conservationists are divided over a breeding programme, which would mean taking eggs from the wild and hatching them in a special facility.  

Studies say a captive breeding programme would need around eight to 10 eggs a year to be removed from the wild - for a gain that is at best uncertain and at worst could turn into a disaster for the species if the breeding fails. Some say with so few GIBs, a failed programme would drive the bird faster into extinction. Focus on restoring and securing the GIB's natural habitat should be uppermost, they argue. 

In a paper published in the journal Applied Ecology in June 2015 titled "Ark or Park" that specifically modelled captive breeding scenarios for the GIB, scientists Paul M. Dolma, Nigel J. Collar, Keith M. Scotland and Robert. J. Burnside wrote: "When species face extinction, captive breeding may be appropriate."

But it added: "However, captive breeding may be unsuccessful, while reducing motivation and resources for in situ conservation. For the great Indian bustard… rapid implementation of in situ conservation offers a better chance to avoid extinction."

The pro-breeding lobby argues that Saudi Arabia has had success breeding Houbara bustards, and that Britain has a captive-bred great bustard programme that has released some birds into the wild. In a classic example involving the California condor, the few remaining birds were taken from the wild in 1987and put into a captive breeding programme. At first controversial because of the risk, the programme has been successful; there are roughly 150 birds in the wild now.

On one thing the experts on both sides of the divide are agreed: It is imperative to preserve and better still restore some of the bird's habitat, and ensure the support of local communities by still giving them their rights, to grazing for instance. 

Saving the bird in the wild is the preferable option, the experts agree. At the very worst, cynics say, that may ensure there is some habitat left for any the captive stocks to be introduced into.

"Most if not all grasslands (whatever is left) are open to people where overgrazing is a huge issue," says Dr Asad Rahmani, former principal and director of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) - who has been studying bustards for 30 years.

"We need many totally protected grasslands where GIBs can breed successfully; and after the breeding season is over these grasslands can be open for grazing by livestock of nearby villages."

"There are only two options for us - the GIB is extinct, or is extinct in the wild," he says. But a captive breeding programme could not afford to be a failure, he added. 

Setting up a breeding programme from scratch is a complicated business, requiring resources and specialised training. Much depends on the governments of the two main GIB states - Rajasthan and Gujarat. Both do want to save the Great Indian Bustard ; it is Rajasthan's state bird. But Rajasthan has said it will not allow any eggs to be taken for artificial incubation in Gujarat. 

Both states may end up going it alone if they cannot overcome their differences and mutual scepticism. That is not necessarily a bad thing. "The rate of decline of grasslands, and with them now GIBs, is so fast now that we should encourage out-of-the-box thinking, and try multiple approaches in different areas," says Dr K.S. Gopi Sundar, a scientist with the Cranes and Wetlands Programme of the Nature Conservation Foundation in Bangalore, India. 

Thus to ensure there are birds - and habitat - left to save by the time any captive breeding gets started, it is critical to protect the last of the GIB's habitat, and do it now. 

"Habitat conservation and restoration are very urgently needed," underlines Dr Gopi Sundar. "The classification of grasslands as 'wastelands' by the Indian government is fuelling conversion to agriculture and other uses. This must stop."

The state forest departments and conservationists are already taking measures to protect the Great Indian Bustards. In Kutch, the department bans vehicle movement through the birds' habitat in the breeding months, employs men on motorbikes to watch over the birds, and has built fences to keep agricultural encroachment at bay from the little protected grassland that is left.

But it is currently a holding battle spread across sporadic and in some cases only tenuously connected and shrinking islands of habitat. 

The money is available for more to be done; it just needs the political will. 

Gujarat, for instance, is building a statue which will be the tallest in the world at 182m, of independence hero and native son Vallabhbhai Patel, at a cost of over US$250 million (S$352.7 million). A small fraction of that kind of money could buy back the iconic GIB's habitat in Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state.

Not saving the Great Indian Bustard will be a particularly dreadful failure. 

It would be the first species in India since the pink-headed duck in the 1950s to pass into permanent oblivion. 

nirmal@sph.com.sg