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Wildlife diaries: Rajasthan plans to save Great Indian Bustard, bring back Siberian cranes

By Ragini Shree

Jaipur: The arrest of three persons on charges of poaching Rajasthan’s state bird – the Great India Bustard (GIB) – has once again highlighted ignorance among people about the endangered status of the bird and the need for strengthening measures to save it. The manner in which the accused killed the birds and videotaped it, even cooking the meat, also exposes a lack of monitoring by the forest authorities.

A CD containing the footage was sent to the forest officials in Jaisalmer district but no action was initiated for two weeks. The matter was reported to higher authorities who formed a team, identified the culprits and nabbed three of them on Thursday from Sriganganagar district. The team also seized a four wheeler and cartridges used for poaching.

According to Chief conservator of forests GS Bhardwaj, the accused poached a GIB, locally known as Godawan, and a few other birds too. They cooked the meat and recorded the whole process with impunity. The department arrested Abhayjeet Singh, Bhajan Singh and Sita Ram while a search for the other accused is on.

In fact, a widespread poaching of the bird has landed it in the category of most endangered species facing threat of extinction from India.

Rising to the need of conserving the bird, the state government has announced Project Great Indian Bustard (GIB) — something on lines of Project Tiger — to conserve the GIB. After the successful relocation of tigers to Sariska tiger reserve in Alwar district, Rajasthan's forest department has now shifted its focus towards the conservation of birds.

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More than 200 Siberian cranes were sighted in Keoladeo in the year 1965. However, the bird has not been sighted in Keoladeo and any other place in India since 2001. Getty Images

The government has announced immediate release of Rs 12.90 crore for the project while more funds would be released every year. They've also prepared a ‘Recovery Plan for critically endangered species’ under Integrated development of wildlife habitat for conservation of GIB. The plan has been sent to the Union ministry of Forest and environment. Till the clearance is received from the ministry, the forest department would work for execution of Project GIB.

Alarm bells rang when recent wildlife census figures recorded only 200 GIBs in six states namely Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Half of this population is found in western Rajasthan. Once a contender for being selected as the national bird, the GIB is now listed in Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act of India, 1972. The bird has already disappeared from more than 90% of its former range.

Under the project, a task force would be set up comprising of local public representatives and wildlife experts. The forest department has already constructed enclosures in an area of about 2500 hectares at Ramdeora and Saunkhalia areas of Desert national park in Jaisalmer district. Forest and environment minister Bina Kak has ordered deployment of two range officers and regular monitoring of the areas where GIBs are found. Besides the desert national park, a small number of GIBs are also found in Ajmer district.

"These steps will lead to a series of efforts towards conservation of GIB. Rajasthan is probably the first state to have launched Project Great Indian Bustard to save this endanger species," said Kak. Apart from enclosure construction, the department would also develop "inviolate space" on 2000 hectares area and focus on water spots and security infrastructure.

And for regular monitoring to check poaching, extra vehicles would be provided to the staff: "If urgent and targeted conservation actions are not taken, the bird will certainly go extinct within the next decade or two. The meager remaining number is fragmented into small populations across several Indian states making the bird even more vulnerable to extinction. It may be already extinct in Madhya Pradesh — there are no reliable current estimates from the state," believes Ramki Sreenivasan, co-founder of Conservation India, a non-commercial wildlife conservation portal.

Poaching and cattle grazing, shrinking arid and grassland habitat, lack of protection to nesting sites, missing support from local communities and the lack of coordination between various departments in GIB habitats are considered some of the main reasons leading to extinction of the bird.

Siberian crane captive centre

In another milestone, the forest department is going to reintroduce Siberian cranes in Keoladeo national park in Bharatpur district. The plan is to set up a semi captive Siberian crane centre at the national park for visitors to see cranes which once flocked to the park in large numbers. Now, Siberian cranes do not visit a single location in India. The plan has been held up for the past year but now the department has finally sent it to the National Wildlife Board for clearance.

As per the plan, six captive bred Siberian cranes from Belgium will be brought to Keoladeo park and kept there in semi-captive conditions for display in natural surroundings. A meeting for the draft proposal and site selection was held in February this year at Keoladeo — once the only regular wintering area for Siberian cranes in India.

It was decided in the meeting that the Siberian cranes should be quarantined for at least 45 days for which a quarantine facility in the nursery area of the park would have to be developed. A facility of 100x100 feet and six feet high was proposed. Dr Vibhu Prakash of Bombay Natural History Society was assigned the job of providing a detailed plan for the same.

The proposal has been approved by the state wildlife advisory board and sent to the National wildlife board for a final nod.

More than 200 Siberian cranes were sighted in Keoladeo in the year 1965. However, the bird has not been sighted in Keoladeo and any other place in India since 2001. In 1993, five Siberian cranes were reported in Keoladeo and only one pair was sighted for last time in 2001. These new plans may bring a change to these numbers.

"The effort would be good for the park if executed properly," feels Jaipur based orthinologist, Harsh Vardhan.

Ranthambhore to host a tiger conclave

Following the successful relocation of tigers to Sariska tiger reserve, the state forest department is planning a national level tiger conclave in the month of August. The department initially planned to invite all tiger range countries to participate in the event, but due to a fund-crunch the level has been scaled down and now only speakers and conservationists from foreign countries would be invited.

State’s Forest and Environment Minister Bina Kak has directed the officials to prepare an agenda for the conclave which would be focused on tiger conservation issues including tiger relocation in Sariska tiger reserve and Panna tiger reserve, overpopulation of tigers, tourism in tiger reserves and human-animal conflict.

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