A pair of Great Indian Bustards in the desert. | Harsh Vardhan
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New Delhi: In the blistering semi-arid region of Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer, dotted with sand dunes and home to snakes, desert foxes and various birds of prey, a team of experts from Abu Dhabi is desperately looking for eggs that might have survived the predators.

Also involved in the frantic search are scientists from the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII). Together, they are racing against time to pull back the Great Indian Bustard from the edge of extinction, its worldwide population having collapsed to just 135 in recent months.

“We are, of course, hoping for the best. This is the last chance for the Great Indian Bustard,” Rajasthan chief wildlife warden Arindam Tomar told The Print. “As such, we are leaving no stone unturned for the mission’s success.”

It is perhaps the most ambitious project of its kind, involving a complex but synchronised co-ordination among the Union Environment Ministry in New Delhi, the Forest Department of Rajasthan, the WII, and the International Fund for Houbara Conservation, Abu Dhabi.

The Great Indian Bustard is no ordinary bird. The state bird of Rajasthan, it’s among the heaviest flying birds on the planet with a wing span of over seven feet.

Just as the tiger’s presence reflects the health of the forest it resides in, the bustard’s presence in the grassland is a big indicator of its quality.

As things stand now, the Great Indian Bustard is at least 30 times closer to extinction than the tiger — against 135 bustards left in the world, the tiger population in India currently stands at roughly 4,000.

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A little foreign help

Project Bustard, launched earlier this month, entails artificial incubation of the bird’s eggs. A hatchery has already been constructed in Jaisalmer for the purpose.

But for the project to take off, it’s important to first procure the endangered bird’s eggs from the wild. This is where the experts from Abu Dhabi step in.

Houbara, a bird quite like the bustard that was on the verge of being wiped out from the Middle-East some time ago, got a second lease of life through artificial breeding conducted by the International Fund for Houbara Conservation.

Encouraged by the remarkable achievement, the Rajasthan authorities got in touch with the organisation to replicate its success with the Great Indian Bustard. Three of its members are now stationed in Jaisalmer, and have been working in tandem with WII field staff.

‘On the right track’

The search for the eggs of the Great Indian Bustard has gathered steam in the Desert National Park region of Jaisalmer. The birds are usually spotted here in small groups.

Senior WII scientist Dr Y.V. Jhala, who is overseeing Project Bustard in Jaisalmer, is quite optimistic about its success.

“For many years, Project Bustard just did not take off, for a number of reasons,” he said. “But now it’s on the right track. Things have changed miraculously in the past few weeks. We are hoping for a breakthrough soon.”

If the project succeeds, it would be one of the the biggest conservation success stories anywhere in the world. If not, India will lose a second mega species within a short span, the first being the Asiatic cheetah in 1952.

Rajasthan, the last stronghold of the bustard, accounts for almost all of the birds found globally. The count hovers around 15 in the fast-diminishing grasslands of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. But with not a single male bustard reported in these four states, the scattered females here are doomed to disappear forever.

The rest of the 120-odd bustards, their last remaining viable population on Earth, are found at two places in the Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan.
The ‘real test’

Captive breeding of the Great Indian Bustard by artificially incubating its eggs is the crucial first step for its survival, but a lot more needs to be done on the ground, Jhala warned.

“The bustard has to survive in the wild. That would be the litmus test of the project’s success,” he said.

According to Tomar, the road ahead is bumpy. Public support for the bustard is still not forthcoming, at least not in the way it has poured in for the tiger, the poster-child of India’s endangered wildlife.

“Without public support,” said Tomar, “no conservation project, whether for the tiger or the bustard, can succeed. People have to somehow gain from our conservation efforts.”

“We are conscious of it and are having regular interactions with well-meaning individuals and organisations in the Jaisalmer area,” Tomar added.

One of the biggest threats to the Great Indian Bustard, as underlined by the WII, comes in the form of high-tension electricity wires that run along its flying route.

For many years now, Jhala said, the environment ministry has been asking the power ministry and other government agencies to take steps to mitigate the danger of wires. “But unfortunately, nothing has been done,” he added.

Dinesh Durani, a wildlife enthusiast who has been fighting for the cause of the bustard, said Project Bustard had started just in the nick of time.

“For years, it was languishing in the files of the state government. By putting it on track now, the authorities have at least shown a renewed resolve,” he said. “A delay of a few more months would have led to the bustard’s imminent doom.”

When the sheikhs came in

It was in the mid-1970s that the threat to the Great Indian Bustard hit the public’s consciousness in a big way — all thanks to the well-publicised exploits of a group of Arab sheikhs who drove into Jaisalmer and started butchering the birds in the garb of falconry, which involves hunting small animals and birds with falcons.

The ensuing nationwide outcry led to the creation of the Tourism and Wildlife Society of India, a pressure group that has had among its members the late Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, naturalist Salim Ali, and cricketer Raj Singh Dungarpur.

Harsh Vardhan, who was appointed the secretary of the society, has over the years emerged as the loudest voice for the Great Indian Bustard.

Speaking to ThePrint, Vardhan said captive breeding of the Great Indian Bustard was recommended way back in 1980, at the first-ever Indian Symposium for Bustards held in Jaipur.

“We are over three decades late. But at least the work on the bustard front has started finally,” he said. “I hope things will take a turn for the better.”

Over the years, a number of high-profile individuals have lent their support to the cause, including the late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

In 1978 , even after the Jodhpur High Court put a ban on falconry — essentially to stop the sheikhs’ hunting spree in Jaisalmer — a hurdle still remained in the form of Jaisalmer’s prince, who supported the sheikhs and whose word carried considerable weight with people.

Vajpayee, then the External Affairs Minister, flew down to Jodhpur and persuaded the prince to let the court writ be accepted in spirit by the people of Jaisalmer. He agreed.

The author is a senior journalist and film-maker who writes on environment and wildlife.

Also read: On World Environment Day, how a Rajasthan village is saving the smallest cranes in the world


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