An Indian Icon: The Great Indian Bustard

Indian Bustard2
Photo/Mohib Uddin

The Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps)  is a magnificent  ground bird with a height of about one metre. It is unmistakable, as it sports a black cap of feathers which contrast with a pale head and neck. The entire body is a tan colour, with a black patch which is spotted with white.

The Great Indian Bustard according to the WWF site, stands at about 1 m (3.3 ft) tall, having a long neck and rather long legs. The female as in most members of the bustard family are typically considerably smaller.

Males have a well-developed gular pouch or a bag of featherless skin below their beak, which is inflated when calling during display and helps produce the deep resonant calls which can be heard as far as 500 metres.

This species was formerly widespread in India and Pakistan according to the IUCN site is is on the critically endangered list. The bustard is critically endangered in Pakistan especially, primarily due to lack of protection and rampant hunting. A few birds were detected in a September 2013 survey of the Cholistan Desert in Pakistan.

In India, the bird was historically found in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu according to the net. However, today the bustard is restricted to isolated pockets in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, in the area shared with Pakistan.

The habitat where it is most often found is arid and semi-arid grasslands, open country with thorn scrub, and tall grass interspersed with cultivation. They avoid irrigated areas and the areas where they are known to breed are in central and western India and eastern Pakistan. Today the dry semi-desert regions where it was found in parts of Rajasthan, has been altered by irrigation canals, that have transformed the region into an intensively farmed area.

Indian Bustard1
Photo/Mohib Uddin

According to the WWF site, they drink water if it is available and  follow the action by raising their heads at an angle. When threatened, hens are said to carry young chicks under the wing to safety. Bustards generally favour flat open landscapes with minimal visual obstruction and disturbance, and therefore adapt well to grasslands. In the non-breeding season they frequent wide agricultural and grass scrub landscapes. While in the breeding season which is the summer and monsoon, they congregate in traditional undisturbed grassland patches characterized by a mosaic of scantily grazed tall grass. They avoid grasses taller than themselves and dense scrub like thickets. Their diet ranges widely depending on the seasonal availability of food. They feed on grass seeds, insects like grasshoppers and beetles, and sometimes even small rodents and reptiles.

They breed mostly during the monsoon season, when females lay a single egg on open ground. Males play no role in the incubation and care of the young, which remain with the mother till the next breeding season.

The biggest threat to this species is hunting, which is still prevalent in Pakistan. This is followed by occasional poaching outside Protected Areas, collisions with high tension electric wires, fast moving vehicles and free-ranging dogs in villages. Other threats include habitat loss and alteration as a result of widespread agricultural expansion and mechanized farming, infrastructural development such as irrigation, roads, electric poles, as well as mining and industrialization.

Once common on the dry plains of the Indian subcontinent, there are hardly 150 birds were estimated to survive in 2018, reduced from an estimated 250 birds in 2011 and the species is critically endangered by hunting and loss of its habitat It is protected under Wildlife Protection Act 1972 of India.

According to the BHNS, the Wildlife Institute of India organized a workshop at the WWF-India headquarters with partners and stakeholders to sensitize power agencies and the media on Great Indian Bustard conservation. The immediate need to mitigate powerline caused bustard collisions and deaths, and the necessity of conservation breeding were highlighted. The outcome of this workshop was to create awareness about the plight of the bustard, develop a branding strategy to communicate to the public and all stakeholders in one language about the bustard, and to communicate to power agencies (both government and private) the integral role they serve in saving this iconic species of the Indian grasslands.

Dr. Sejal Worah (Director Programs-WWF India) described the importance of the GIB and that the Bustard Recovery Programme will set an example for the conservation of all other threatened species. While Dr. Jhala (Scientist, WII) highlighted the main steps to secure the survival of the GIB.

  • First, to satellite tag birds through which we can monitor their movements and behaviors to harvest their eggs, subsequently, sending some to the International Fund for Houbara Conservation in Abu Dhabi and the rest to our own breeding centers here in India.

  • Second, to underground powerlines that are up to 66Kv and for the rest to be fitted with bird diverter devices that have a proven track record of reducing the collisions and mortality of birds.

*Third, reducing young bustard deaths by addressing the issue of stray dogs as predators. These stray dogs have become a menace that threaten many other species in addition to the GIB.

  • Fourth, that we must begin a positive dialogue and long-term relationship with Pakistan and Pakistani conservationists to prevent poaching of GIB that visit our neighbouring country.

  • Finally, the protection of historic bustard habitats across the Indian subcontinent must be enforced so that when the birds that are bred in captivity are reintroduced back to the wild they have a restored habitat to populate and flourish in.

Other senior officials, scientists, and conservationists such as Shri MS Negi (ADG, Wildlife), Dr. VB Mathur (Director, WII), Dr. Ranjitsinhji (renowned conservationist), Dr. Asad Rahmani (Former President, BNHS) echoed Dr. Worah and Dr. Jhala’s sentiments and ideas. Additionally, Dr. Juan Carlos Alonso (Great Bustard Expert) showcased through examples, and drew from his 30+ years of experience in the conservation of Great Bustards (a cousin of our GIB) in Spain. An example was made of Germany and Austria where the mitigation of power-lines, in addition to breeding and translocation of wild birds, the numbers of Great Bustards have nearly doubled in the last 20 years.

Dr. Sutirtha Dutta (Scientist, WII) gave an interesting talk on the “tragedy of the wastelands” and emphasized the effect conservation of bustards have on restoring grassland habitats, which several hundred other species depend on for their survival. He reiterated that the success of India’s conservation efforts can only be possible through public support and awareness.

The historic tripartite MoA to conserve the GIB between Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change, Rajasthan Forest Department, and WII showcases how political will and positive collaboration can make the impossible possible. saving the GIB for us to enjoy in our lifetime and in the lifetime of generations after us.

Dr. Marianne Furtado de Nazareth – Former Assistant Editor, The Deccan Herald, Adjunct faculty, St. Joseph’s PG College, Bangalore, Freelance Science and Environment Journalist)


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