No umbrella big enough


The promise that tiger conservation will take care of all species down the pyramid is flawed. Any little bird can tell us why

Last flight The stately Great Indian Bustard has disappeared from almost 90 percent of its former range
Last flight The stately Great Indian Bustard has disappeared from almost 90 percent of its former range
Photo: Pramod Patil

THE CENTRE has finally asked the bustard range states to prepare species recovery action plans for the three critically endangered birds following its guidelines. The population of Great Indian Bustards (GIB) has fallen below 300 and the bird’s last stand is in a few pockets of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The terai of Uttar Pradesh, duars of West Bengal, parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh foothills are critical for the survival of the remaining 350-odd Bengal Floricans. Lesser Floricans are relatively better off and their range overlaps broadly with that of the GIB’s.

It is perhaps already too late to revive the GIB without conservation breeding programmes. The government watched silently for over two decades as the endangered species reached the brink of extinction. The stately GIB would have been anointed India’s national bird but for our first prime minister’s not-entirely-unfounded scepticism about our spelling prowess. The bird never fell off the radar and yet the decade-old demand for a Project Bustard failed to move the government. When things finally moved in 2011, the recovery plans of all three bustards, which require very different habitat management, were eventually clubbed together to save funds.

Unless we are talking tigers, funding is a serious constraint. The Centre’s Rs 800 crore Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitat (IDWH) initiative earmarks only Rs 100 crore for the recovery of 16 critically endangered species. While the IDWH is supposed to look after the protection of all wildlife outside protected forests across the country with just Rs 250 crore, the allocation for India’s 600-odd protected areas is only Rs 450 crore, which breaks down to a daily budget of less than Rs 100 per sq km.

Project Tiger, of course, was allotted more than Rs 600 crore under the Eleventh Plan. Even Project Elephant, the only other species recovery plan run in a project mode, did not merit more than Rs 82 crore during the same plan period. This lopsided funding would have made some sense if the benefit of conserving tigers, an umbrella species, reached all other species in its ecosystem. It has not.

Let’s consider birds. The GIB is not found in any tiger reserve. Neither is the enigmatic Jerdon’s Courser. While Bombay Natural History Society’s (BNHS) Project Bustard document has no takers, the Andhra Pradesh government’s plan to recover Jerdon’s Courser is still awaiting funding support from the Centre. Of the 15 critically endangered bird species of India, points out BNHS director Asad Rahmani in his recent book Threatened Birds of India, eight are not found in any tiger reserve. The poor quality of data on birds from tiger reserves in itself highlights a blinkered conservation approach.

Nevertheless, four species of vultures have benefited substantially from Project Tiger as reserves provide diclofenac-free wild carcasses ( just like species such as the Pallid Harrier benefits from pesticide-free grassland areas inside reserves). Namdapha and Manas are good habitat for the White-bellied Heron. Bengal Florican got lucky when much of its grassland habitat came under protection in Dudhwa, Kaziranga, Manas, Dibru-Saikhowa and Orang.

However, Project Tiger never factored in the needs of Florican conservation. For example, the Ghola grassland in Lakhimpur-Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh was not included in Dudhwa simply because the area did not have any tree cover. Today, this important habitat of Bengal Florican and many other bird species such as Swamp Francolin has become cropland.

Significantly, other than the GIB and the Jerdon’s Courser, four bird species — Himalayan Quail, Pink-headed Duck, Sociable Lapwing and Spoon-billed Sandpiper — near-extinct in India do not benefit from Project Tiger. And let’s not even talk about the vagrant Christmas Frigatebird or the migratory Siberian Crane.

The pattern holds when Rahmani examines the distribution of the endangered bird species. Of the 16, only eight have been spotted in tiger reserves. The only one to have truly benefited from Project Tiger is the White-winged Duck, which is found in Manas, Nameri, Namdapha and Pakke. Greater Adjutant mostly breeds outside protected areas but has small breeding populations in Kaziranga and Manas.

‘With all the focus on the tiger, no one has the time and money for birds,’ says Bikram Grewal

Tiger reserves that have recorded other endangered species are Kaziranga (Baer’s Pochard), Sunderbans (Baer’s Pochard, Masked Finfoot and Spotted greenshank), Periyar and Kalakkad-Mundanthurai (White-bellied Blue Robin) and Bhadra (Nilgiri Blue Robin). The Egyptian Vulture is found in many tiger reserves but its primary habitat is in open countryside.

In the fringe The Green Munia (top) is found mostly outside tiger reserves; while the Whitenaped Tit of thorn forests does not benefit from Project Tiger
In the fringe The Green Munia (top) is found mostly outside tiger reserves; while the Whitenaped Tit of thorn forests does not benefit from Project Tiger
Photos: Rajat Bhargava, Jugal Tiwari

Project Tiger has no impact on the fate of the other eight endangered species. The Lesser Florican could have a good chance to flourish in many tiger reserves if grassland areas were included or not converted into woodlands. The Narcondam Hornbill is endemic to the Andamans and the Green Peafowl is restricted to Myanmar borders. The other species absent from tiger reserves are the Nilgiri Laughingthrush, the Red-breasted Goose, the Oriental Stork, the White-headed Duck and the Barau’s Petrel.

These nearly-lost causes apart, 20 out of 54 vulnerable bird species cannot be revived under the tiger umbrella. The Sarus Crane is found in 16 tiger reserves but breeds occasionally only in Dudhwa. As their large nests in shallow waters are vulnerable to predation, most Sarus birds are found in agricultural fields and small wetlands free of wild predators. Similarly, the Indian Skimmer nests in mega rivers and does not breed in any of the tiger reserves, such as Kaziranga, Nagarjunasagar, Valmiki, Dudhwa, Ranthambore and Satkosia, where it is spotted.

ALL FOREST types are not covered under Project Tiger, resulting in the exclusion of many bird species such as the White-naped Tit (old-growth thorn forests) and the Yellow-throated Bulbul (peninsular forests). The endemic Green Munia prefers dry scrub forests, breeding and foraging mostly outside reserves. Occasionally found in a few tiger forests, the Lesser Flamingo’s main breeding tract is the Great Rann of Kutch where a proposed road may soon come up close to the grand Flamingo City, affecting the water regime and the breeding of this magnificent species.

A number of small grassland birds such as the Bristled Grassbird, the Broad-tailed Grassbird, the Marsh Babbler, the Jerdon’s Babbler and the Slender-billed Babbler have benefited from the lowland grassland habitat of Manas, Kaziranga, Corbett, Dudhwa and Namdapha. But these species breed during summer when grassland is set afire as part of tiger habitat management and to increase wildlife visibility for tourists.

Sums up renowned bird author Bikram Grewal: “With all the focus on the tiger, nobody has time and money for birds. Even those who care mostly talk about the GIB. Our obsession for size draws us towards the mega fauna. In the process, too many critical bird species are disappearing too fast.”

This does not mean Project Tiger can be compromised with. “Tiger con servation has far-reaching benefits and anyway we cannot financially weaken the existing projects. But there is a serious need for additional funds and species-specific focus to cover non-tiger areas such as deserts, grasslands, coasts, marine ecosystems, wetlands, high altitude areas and islands,” says Rahmani. Or India can give up the pretension of pursuing the zero-extinction goal by 2020.

Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist.
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