An avian world record by India
Jaipur: Known for following the overseas research and having not fared brilliantly so far in its wildlife conservation centric research, India enters the 2020 with a successful word record – having succeeded in breeding of Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps), whose global population had plummeted to 150, according to officials and they were less than 75 as per the private sector experts.
Nine eggs were collected from the wilderness in the Desert National Park in Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan in India during summer of 2019. They were artificially incubated and chicks were hand-reared at a work station near Sam in the vast stretch of habitat, which had faced increasing threats from poaching, predators (feral dogs, fox, eagles, hawks, snakes etc), power lines, and above all lack of appropriate priority at government level, both in Jaipur and New Delhi.
All nine chicks are doing well. Interestingly, seven are females, one male and the sex of the ninth is yet to be ascertained. So it has provided us with the “foundation captive stock” which can enable experts to breed the birds ex situ, and save the species from extinction, so to say. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) had categorised the species as critically endangered. Grave concerns were voiced by experts all over the world over delay in conservation for decades.
It is a ten year long project piloted by Rajasthan’s Forest Department, led by Arindam Tomar, Chief Wildlife Warden. He issued permissions in a fast track and scientific manner soon after taking over in January 2019. The Wildlife Institute of India, based at Dehradun, was invited as Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) sanctioned funds to go ahead with the challenging project. None of them had previous experience to breed such a species.
Abu Dhabi based National Avian Research Centre, initiated by some progressive Arab Sheikhs, was roped in to help. It has proven track record in breeding Houbara, a cousin of Great Indian Bustard, which is bred in thousands almost each month and released in the wild. The objective is to re-stock Houbara bustard population which had declined. The Sheikhs are noted for love of falconry and Houbara is their favourite quarry.
One of the reason for the decline in bustard population is attributed to the sport Arab Sheikhs used to indulge in 1978-79. The Sheikhs came to do falconry in Jaisalmer district as guests of the central government. Harsh Vardhan, Jaipur based conservationist, found it to be a violation of the Wildlife Protection Act and mobilised demonstrations against what he called a wanton act. The Rajasthan High Court at Jodhpur issued a stay order against this sport on January 2, 1979 which caused the royal guest to abandon safari mid way.
Harsh Vardhan organised International Symposium on Bustards in 1980 to take forward cause of conserving the rare species. Its recommendations were loud and clear – set up an Indian Bustard Study Group and initiate breeding of the species which was on decline. None of them were taken up by experts and Government. However, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) took up a long term study programme on Bustards so as to study different aspects of the birds’ ecology. Asad R. Rahmani remained in charge of this study for nearly three decades.
How many threatened or endangered avian species have been bred in captivity in India? The answer is not easy to be given by Ministry or Forest authorities. It was Pygmy Hog breeding that attained success in Assam for the past couple of decades. The Margh Crocodile and Gavial had attained growth following breeding priority accorded during seventies. A hoard of non government organisations are in service on conservation and ironically most appear maintaining distance from breeding biology periphery, Harsh remarked.
The hand reared Great Indian Bustards will not be the total answer in the desert. They are human impacted birds. Next phase may involve non-human impacted stock, not easy task. However, their breeding success in wild is still dogged with massive challenges. A tagged feral dog was found consuming ten gazelles in a year in desert park. About 15 per cent of bustard population dies by hitting electric lines that are on the rise around their breeding habitat. It is estimated that about one lakh birds die due to electric-current shock annually across 4200 sq. km area in Jaisalmer.
Most solutions are with the Government, said R.N. Mehrotra, former Chief Wildlife Warden, Rajasthan, who had succeeded in translocating tigers from Ranthambhore to Sariska, to set a world records for the apex predator. Shortage of employees, lack of training opportunities, inadequate facilities for scientific pursuits, intent to experiment found missing, senior forest officers maintaining distance from taking timely decisions and apathy at secretary level are cited as prime reasons for the country’s low productivity on endangered species, bemoaned Harsh and Mehrotra almost in same tone.