April 30, 2021

Great Indian Bustard Conservation: An Argus-eyed, All-inclusive Approach

The inherent respect and tolerance that people in India foster for wildlife is at the heart of many a conservation story. Wildlife is worshipped by numerous tribes and is a part of several cultures, mythologies and folklore. In rural areas fraught with frequent human-wildlife interaction that sometimes leads to conflict, it is almost discordant how this acceptance manifests even in the face of loss and misfortune, save a very few cases of retaliation. However, in places where humans aren’t at the receiving end of such conflict, conservation efforts can focus immediately on land-use change, critical habitat protection, ensuing in the protection of breeding populations of local wildlife. Our Great Indian Bustard (GIB) Program in the Thar Desert landscape of Rajasthan is one such conservation effort.

A community-led conservation model with the goal of saving this bird from the brink of extinction, our GIB program engages with local communities and local NGOs, and actively collaborates with the Rajasthan Forest Department, Government of Rajasthan; Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change; and Wildlife Institute of India; and other government agencies including Animal Husbandry, Agriculture and Rural Development departments, all made possible with the generous support of Rural India Supporting Trust.

Today, in the entire country, the Desert National Park in Jaisalmer and Pokhran  restricted area are the two principal breeding populations of the GIB remaining in the wild where fewer than 100 individuals are known to exist. One of the main goals of our conservation strategy in protecting critical GIB habitats in these landscapes is supporting community leaders in local villages who will steer the conservation attempts with the support of our various stakeholders. We interact with the local communities through our frequent capacity-building workshops; livestock management and fodder development training; supporting school education in villages by donating basic infrastructure such as tables, chairs and floor mats; and regular livestock health camps among other activities.

Our endeavors are coupled with the proactive willingness of local communities, playing a vital role in our sustained success despite these unprecedented times of the COVID-19 pandemic. And there are numerous motivational stories that mirror an all-inclusive approach in saving this avian wonder. The GIB population in the PFFR area moves across large tracts of grassland around the firing range, a restricted area for people’s movements. This poses a challenge to keep track of their presence, behavior and movement patterns. On the other hand, these grasslands enable the herder community to maintain large populations of livestock.

Karan Singh receiving medicine

Mr. Karan Singh Bhati is a herder who lives in Nath ji ka Tanka, a hamlet of Loharki village near the PFFR area. He owns a herd of sheep and goats, and frequents the grasslands around the restricted area to graze his livestock. He is a daily witness to the presence of great Indian bustards among other wildlife. Karan, who leaves home with his livestock  by 7 am and returns by 7 pm makes note of the presence and movement of wildlife based on his daily sightings. But because he is unschooled, his sister Karuna Kanwar, studying in the 9th grade at Government Girls’ School, Chayand, helps him daily to document his sightings in a notebook at home. His tryst with wildlife began with GIBs but with constant encouragement and support from our team, Karan has also been tracking and documenting movements of other species in the area.

Pawan Sharma (ex-conservation assistant) and Hemant Parihar from our GIB team  guided Karan on watching relevant YouTube videos on wildlife, especially those available in the local language, in the hope that the latter can broaden the horizon of his understanding of animal behavior. To keep both Karan and his sister, Karuna, motivated, and to keep up the spirit with which they are voluntarily helping us, we have also been supporting them with utility materials – notebooks, water bottles, mobile phone recharge and livestock medicines.

The coming together of two generations – out of their own will and affection for wildlife – has been adding immense value to our own team’s hard work. Karan is one of the many examples of the local community being included by our very vigilant team striving to protect the critically endangered GIB. With their relentless dedication and continual support from our partners, we continue to stay resolute in our conservation efforts of a bird which is a stunning emblem of India’s vanishing grasslands.

Author: Sourabha Rao, WCS-India