The great Indian bustard | Photo credit: special arrangement
The story so far: On November 30, the Supreme Court asked the government if a targeted approach, something like Project Tiger, could be taken to save the critically endangered Indian bustard (GIB).
What endangers birds?
Hearing petitions highlighting the death of GIBs due to power lines, a special bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud ordered the Chief Secretaries of Gujarat and Rajasthan to undertake and to complete a full exercise within four weeks to find out the total length of transmission lines in question and the number of bird deflectors required. This is not the first time that the Supreme Court has intervened in the conservation of the GIB. In an earlier order from April 2021, the Supreme Court ordered authorities to convert overhead cables to underground power lines, (if possible) within a year and that until then diverters should be suspended from lines existing electrics. .
Why are power lines a threat?
Several threats have led to the decline of GIB populations; however, the power lines seem to be the most important. There have been studies in different parts of the world where bustard populations have shown high mortality from power lines such as Denham’s bustards in South Africa and the great bustard in Spain. Like other bustard species, GIBs are large birds standing around one meter tall and weighing around 15-18 kg. GIBs do not fly very well and have wide side vision to maximize predator detection, but the species’ frontal vision is narrow. These birds cannot detect power lines from afar and because they fly heavily, they are unable to maneuver over power lines at close range. The combination of these characteristics makes them vulnerable to collisions with power lines. In most cases, death is due to collision rather than electrocution. A 2020 Wildlife Institute of India (WII) study recorded six cases of GIB fatalities due to collisions with power lines in the Thar from 2017 to 2020.
What measures have been taken?
Listed under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, CITES Schedule I, as Critically Endangered species on the IUCN Red List, GIBs enjoy of the highest protection in India and in the world. Early estimates show the population was around 1,260 in 1969, but has declined by 75% over the past 30 years.
Historically, the GIB population was distributed among 11 states in western India, but today the population is mostly confined to Rajasthan and Gujarat. Small populations are found in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The overall population of the GIB stands at 150 across the country, with about 128 birds in Rajasthan. Along with attempts to mitigate the impacts of power lines on the GIB, measures have been taken for conservation breeding of the species. A total of 16 GIB chicks, born artificially from wild-collected eggs, are reared at Sam’s satellite conservation breeding facility in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. The goal of “Greated Bustard Habitat Improvement and Rearing Conservation – An Integrated Approach” is to build up the captive population of the GIBs and release the chicks into the wild. The initiative should take 20 to 25 years. Experts, including WII scientists, have called for the removal of all overhead power lines passing through GIB priority/critical areas in Rajasthan; the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has also set up a working group. Questions arise, however, about the slow pace of implementation.
Are there other threats to the GIB?
According to scientists, GIBs reproduce slowly and build their nests on the ground. The species has also been subject to hunting and egg collection in the past. There has also been a decrease in habitat loss, as dry grasslands have been diverted to other uses. Experts also warn of pesticide contamination and increasing populations of free-roaming dogs and pigs as well as native predators (fox, mongoose and cat), putting pressure on nests and chicks. While most of the species’ population is confined to Jaisalmer Desert National Park (DNP), wildlife enthusiasts believe that more areas outside the protected area should be suitable for the species. A conservation effort like “Project Tiger” may not work for a large bird from an arid region that can still fly outside the protected area. Experts call for community-centered conservation of critically endangered species.
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