Course:CONS200/2023WT1/Great Indian Bustard: Status and conservation challenges

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Great Indian Bustard: Status and conservation challenges


The Great Indian Bustard (GIB), scientifically known as Ardeotis nigriceps, is the heaviest flying bird species native to India and bordering Pakistan [1][2]. It was most abundant in the 19th century, favouring habitats like dry grasslands, scrublands, and semi-arid landscapes [1][3]. Due to several factors like habitat loss, hunting, natural predators, and collisions with power lines, GIB is now considered as the most critically endangered bird in India with the population fragmented across the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka [2][4]. The GIB is endemic to India [2] and is commemorated as the state bird of Rajasthan [5]. Even though conservation efforts have been underway to protect and preserve this iconic species, it is still most effective to have governmental agencies and local communities collaborating and addressing the conservation challenges.

The Great Indian Bustard Ardeotis nigriceps, photographed at Desert National Park, Rajasthan, India

Current Status

Distribution of the Great Indian Bustard Across India

In the past, the Great Indian Bustard had an extensive habitat over the arid and semi-arid regions of India and bordering regions of Pakistan [2]. Today, there are 8 fragmented populations found in the Indian states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh [2]. The largest population is found in Rajasthan, accounting for 100-120 of the estimated 150 individuals [4]. The geographical range of the GIB has declined by 75% in the last 30 years [2]. The average flock size decreased from 10-12 birds in the early 1900s to 1-3 birds in the 1950s [6].

Preferred Habitat

The GIBs are found in semi-arid environments such as grasslands and open scrublands [6]. The GIB are dependent only on grasslands [5] and are therefore extremely sensitive to habitat loss and impacts on their geographic range. GIB thrive in 4 different habitat types: nesting, display, feeding, and roosting [7]. During the day, the GIB prefers to roost under shrubs or trees in the grasslands [6]. At night, the GIB roosts in open areas with greater vegetation [6]. GIB have been known to inhabit lands with a wide range of substrates from stony ground to sparse or no cover [6]. The GIB also poses as an indicator species for grasslands in India [5].

Declining Population

According to the Rajasthan Forest Department, the bustard population shrunk from more than 1000 individuals a few decades back, to 745 in 1978, then 600 in 2001, followed by 300 in 2008 and eventually not more than 125 in the current year [8]. The Great Indian Bustard has faced a 90% decline in distribution and population in the past 50 years, mainly because of increasing human activities [2][3]. Habitat loss due to land use changes for agriculture, urbanization, and human infrastructure greatly impacts the species [7].Hunting, egg collection, power line collisions, and nest and chick predation by dogs and other predators also pose a large threat to the GIB population [1][2]. After being listed as an endangered species in 1994, GIB was reclassified as critically endangered in the 2011 l Red List [9], with an estimated population of approximately 150 birds, ∼128 of which are concentrated in the state of Rajasthan [1][2]. Legal protections have also been applied to GIB as it has also been listed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, as well as in Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) [10][7]. With the current legal status, any exploitation acts of GIB, such as hunting or poaching, are prohibited by the law.

Factors Threatening the Great Indian Bustard Population

Habitat Loss

The GIB has been subjected to habitat loss due to India's increased urbanization and land use change [5]. Land that was once expansive for the GIB has been converted for agricultural purposes, the creation of roads and mining activities [1]. The expansion of farmland threatens the GIB population as certain cultivation and irrigation methods degrade the environment that the GIB requires [6]. Landscapes with low intensity cultivation meet the ecological requirements for the species [4]. Changes in agricultural practices from monsoonal crops such as Sorghum to crops like sugarcane affected GIB populations as these crops convert the habitat into one that is not suitable for the GIB [4]. Instances of conflict between the increasing number of livestock and GIB populations [6] can drive GIBs out of their habitat.

Ranebennur Blackbuck Sanctuary in Karnataka State covers 119 km2 of open grassland and undulating scrub forest was one of the core habitats of GIB [11]. Before 1972, Ranibennur provided large open areas that were suitable for the Great Indian Bustard to inhabit. From 1972 onwards, there was mechanized afforestation of eucalyptus plants [11]. Eucalyptus plants with a height of 7-8 meters were closely planted together . The loss of open habitat in Ranebennur forced the GIB to shift their resting and breeding grounds to other open grasslands. With the habitat loss, GIB has not been sighted in the sanctuary since 2002 and was considered locally extinct in that area [12].

Hunting and Poaching

The habitat for the Great Indian Bustard is close to local communities [13]. Historically, this proximity had been known to help farmers as the GIB fed on pests [13]. However, stricter conservation strategies in order to protect GIB populations around local communities backfired such as the limiting use of GIB on private farms [13]. GIB populations were seen as an impediment to development and agriculture which resulted in poaching [4]. The GIB were also targeted by professional trappers [7].

Power Line Collisions

Power lines pose a serious threat to the GIB population. Due to their poor vision, the GIB is often unable to detect the power lines from afar, and fail to maneuver their weight before collision [13]. Over the past decade, there have been 10 known instances of fatal GIB collisions with power lines [13]. The overhead power lines yielded 16% population-level mortality of GIB each year. According to population viability analysis, it is estimated that 4 power lines induced mortality could cause meta-population extinction within 20 years [14].

Biotic Pressures

GIB reproductive rate is dependent on rainfall and insect abundance with a low birth rate of one egg every 1 or 2 years [13]. The young are dependent on their mothers, and remain with them until the next breeding season [6]. The eggs face predation by stray or community-owned dogs [13]. Other natural predators include wolves, foxes and jungle cats which pose a serious threat to their extinction [13].

Noise Pollution

During the breeding season, male GIBs have to produce a large deep sound that reverberates across the area to attract and inform female GIBs of their exact location in the vast expanse of grassland [15]. The noise generated by human activities such as heavy vehicles, tractors used in sowing season and firecrackers may drown out and interfere with the GIBs’ mating call [15]. Given that the birth rate of GIB is extremely low, noise pollution further reduces the chance for GIB to successfully mate with each other.

Current Conservation Strategies

Entrance to Nannaj Bustard Sanctuary in Solapur, Maharashtra

Declaration of Protected Areas/Sanctuaries:

Recognizing the significance of Protected Areas (PAs) in preserving GIB’s habitat in the 1980s, several state governments in India declared 8 Bustard Sanctuaries in places where GIB was commonly seen [4]. From then, the number of declared sanctuaries increased to 13 [7]. Not only GIB, but the surrounding wildlife also benefited from the establishment of these PAs, namely Desert National Park in Rajasthan, Velavadar National Park, Naliya Sanctuary in Gujarat, the Bustard Sanctuary in Maharashtra, Ghatigaon and Karera in Madhya Pradesh, Rannibennur in Karnataka, and Rollapadu in Andhra Pradesh [5]. However, these PAs are not entirely exclusive and either cover privately owned properties or agro-pastoral areas of local communities [4].

Conservation Breeding Center:

Scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India and the Rajasthan Forest Department, with technical support from the International Fund for Houbara Conservation and Reneco, Abu Dhabi, are co-managing a breeding center that is already established in Sam, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, equipped with incubators, hatcheries, chick-rearing facilities, and housing for captive birds [16]. The facility is raising sixteen GIB hatchlings from eggs found in the wild to a certain age for eventual release [16]. This collaborative conservation breeding program, supported by the Government of India, Rajasthan, and the Wildlife Institute of India, aims to protect the species from total extinction, prepare for future reintroductions, and support declining populations [2].

Mitigation of Power Line Collisions:

In key GIB conservation areas, it is best to avoid power lines altogether to prevent collisions and alternate centralized grid-connected power with microgeneration technologies from renewable sources like solar and wind for independent energy production [17]. However, when this is not the case, optimal route planning in building power lines far away from GIB's occupied areas or underground cabling in GIB's habitats is considered the next most effective way to avoid collisions [17]. Parts of the United States and some European countries have made underground cabling their standard measure to potentially conserve nature and mitigate wildfires [17]. In 2021, The Supreme Court of India ordered the construction of underground transmission lines in GIB's habitats of Gujarat and Rajasthan, thus most power companies found undergrounding technically infeasible and cost-ineffective [18]. A more common approach among power companies is marking overhead lines with Bird Flight Diverters (BFDs) for GIB to detect and avoid obstructions [17]. BFDs are sets of devices with different shapes, sizes, colors, and reflective components that can be wrapped around (static) or hung from the wires and moved by the wind [17]. According to several studies, the implementation of BFDs indeed reduced the overall collision rates of birds by half on average, including GIB [17]. However, due to some studies showing contradictory results with no perceived effect, future monitoring projects with more advanced BFDs are encouraged [17].

Attention to Community Awareness:

Various community-level initiatives have been launched to garner support and awareness for the conservation of GIB. With the active publicity releases and media coverages, meetings and processions with local communities have been organized, alongside events like the establishment of a GIB statue in a Rajasthan temple [19]. In 2011, a large meeting involving around 600 villagers was held by the Great Indian Bustard Foundation to discuss local issues and threats to GIB [19]. School and community awareness programs, conservation workshops, and outreach activities with the pastoralists have been increasingly implemented [19]. In order to further alleviate community resentment towards the protection of GIB, conservation opportunities that benefit local communities are also considered. Financial support, craft businesses, and training sessions have been initiated in collaboration with local communities, NGOs, and government departments [19]. The encouragement of local guards and local youth recruitment in monitoring species activities in Desert National Park Sanctuary have also been part of the comprehensive community-based conservation strategy for the GIB [19].

Conservation Challenges

Mismanagement of Protected Areas:

Despite the establishment of many protected areas, the GIB population continues to shrink with an estimated 29% decline in density and 90% in range [5]. Government action to prevent poaching and habitat protection has been lackluster [7]. This lack of maintenance and enforcement of policy has resulted in a lack of progress in the conservation of GIB as their populations have not risen in wild populations with limited success in captivity via breeding centers [5]. Government support and implementation of conservation efforts have not been entire and robust. “Project Bustard” which is a nationwide conservation effort following in the footsteps of Project Elephant and Project Tiger, has not been implemented and recognized by the combined state government [7]. Without unanimous support from government bodies, conservation efforts are far less likely to be successful.

Failure in Declaring Eco-Sensitive Zone:

In September 2016, the National Green Tribunal ordered a ban on installation of windmills near Desert National Park (DNP) to protect GIB population [20]. They had asked the state to declare 3,162 km2 around DNP as an eco-sensitive zone [20]. However, as the eco-sensitive zone has not been notified, the installation of windmills continues and threatens GIB populations [20]. The delayed response in declaring a clear eco-sensitive zone reduces GIB conservation success.

Conflicts With Local Communities:

Community support plays a pivotal role in the success of conservation projects [5]. Locals that live, farm, and work in regions critical to GIB habitats must be incorporated into management practices rather than excluded. Restrictive barriers to protective areas can create rifts between conservationists and local communities. Currently populations in and surrounding GIB habitats are not included in conservation projects [5]. This lack of inclusions leads these communities to feel disconnected to the conservation efforts of this species. This disconnect can allow for more poaching to occur as individuals are more economically and morally incentivized to poach than to protect the GIBs they come in contact with [5]. GIB conservation is contingent on the halting of poaching and the cooperation between local farmers, communities, and conservation programs.

Current State of Great Indian Bustard Populations:

The current population of 150 GIB individuals coupled with their low birthrate poses a serious issue to their regeneration. There has only been a marginal increase in GIB populations in recent years, indicating that current conservation efforts have been insufficient . The IUCN Red List currently identifies the GIB’s status as critically endangered with their population trend observed to be decreasing [9]. Without the radical protection and increase in their population, GIB is likely to become functionally extinct increasingly soon. The GIBs dwindling population is a challenge in and of itself, making the situation more dire and difficult to remedy than ever.

Future Recommendations

Development of Core Areas:

Core areas where GIB breeding grounds can be protected should be created and maintained to aid in increasing their population and habitat [5]. These areas must be strictly supervised with proper enforcement. Increasing funding and subsidization to create and reinforcing breeding centres such as those run by the Wildlife Institute of India can help increase successful offspring and increase offspring frequency. The Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change has constructed a task force to synthesize eco-friendly solutions to avoid power-line collisions [16]. If these methods are actualized through government sponsorship, especially in core areas for GIB, the untimely deaths of many GIBs can be avoided. This dedication to creating and preserving habitat is integral to the survival of the GIB species in the face of habitat loss and fragmentation.

Working With Local Communities:

GIB preferred habitat is that of grasslands but as many of these lands have been turned into agricultural lands, GIB mostly populates marginal agricultural areas. This means that there is increased interactions between GIB and humans and it is important to keep these interactions positive to increase support. GIB can benefit the farmers of these communities as their presence can minimize agricultural pests [13]. Including local communities in conservation efforts such as Project Bustard, especially when they are in proximity to GIB habitats can bolster support and greatly increase their efficacy. Community reserves have been proposed by the amended Wildlife Protection Act to be an ideal conservation method for GIB [5]. This strategy will marry the needs of local communities to those of the GIB populations by creating and conserving critical GIB habitat while also recognizing the important ecological role they play that benefits humans. In order for GIB conservation efforts to be sustainable and successful they require the active support, participation, and endorsement from local communities.

Regulations on Noise Pollution Level:

Stringent restriction on vehicles entry and complete banning of the use of noisy sound equipment in the sanctuary might cause public dissatisfaction and opposition to GIB conservation [15]. Conservation methods that can better motivate and coordinate with people should be used. For instance, coordinating with local leaders that no noisy sound equipment would be used in ceremony and procession during the pre-monsoon and monsoon period, when GIBs are in their mating or breeding season [15]. The government can also encourage citizens to retrofit vehicles or tractors with advanced “super-quiet” silencers through education or subsidy [15]. This strategy will help to meet both the needs of the communities as well as the GIB.

Prioritizing Conservation of the GIB populations:

In the ongoing GIB conservation breeding program, a diverse founding population representative of the extant gene pool is needed [2]. Among all of the populations, Rajasthan has the highest genetic diversity, largest population size and availability of breeders, which is the ideal choice for sourcing founders for conservation breeding [2]. Moreover, there are private alleles only present in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat populations. There are currenyly less than 5 individuals in these two populations, with no breeding age male in the Gujarat population [2]. Regarding their significance in harboring GIB genetic diversity, urgent mitigation of threats and conservation breeding program sourcing on the largest Rajasthan population supplemented by the two unique populations are required to save GIB from imminent extinction [2].


Great Indian Bustard included in stone sculpture from the 17th/18th century in Kishori Mahal Fort in Bharatpur, Rajasthan

The conservation of the Great Indian Bustard is of great importance. The endemic species was once abundant across the Indian grasslands and Pakistan, but is now fragmented across select states. The species has become an iconic species of the Indian grasslands and holds cultural significance in certain states such as Rajasthan [5].

However, there are many factors that challenge this objective. Habitat loss and fragmentation is the leading contributor for the population decline of the GIB [2]. Land changes for agriculture and urbanization all impacted the natural habitat of the GIB [2]. Additional factors such as poaching and collisions with human made structures, further diminish the population size. The GIB remains critically endangered in the global IUCN Red List as well as being listed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act [7]. Their own biotic traits such as low reproductive rates and high dependency of chick to mother also slows down the repopulation of the species.

Current conservation strategies do reveal some promising outcomes. Both ex-situ and in-situ conservation strategies have been implemented. Ex-situ conservation includes breeding centres to increase the birth rate that are equipped with proper facilities to take care of the chicks before being released to the wild [16]. In-situ conservation strategies include the establishment of multiple protected areas and sanctuaries. Having a range of conservation mechanisms to ensure the survival of the GIB is important as it attempts to address the different factors that impact the population.

While many conservation strategies have already been implemented, there are still many recommendations for the future. Working with local communities is of vital importance as the GIB habitat neighbours many rural communities. This encourages a bottom up approach to conservation that includes various perspectives. Increased funding and prioritization is of utmost importance as it leads to improved technology, expansion of protected areas and increases in research and monitoring of GIB populations. Additionally, spreading awareness is important as it gets more people involved. Since the GIB is endemic to India, many are unaware of the struggles that the species is facing. Although there are many conservation strategies in place, more can be done to ensure the survival of the Great Indian Bustard as the species still faces the imminent threat of extinction.


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