Species

Is the Great Indian Bustard the modern Dodo?

If someone calls you a dodo, you shouldn’t be flattered. You’ve just been called dumb, as someone who does not heed warnings.

The Great Indian Bustard, whose last viable population is in India, is now declared extinct in the Central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. This adventurous bird does not ‘heed’ conservation plans made for it, flying outside protected areas. (But really, is that the bird’s fault?) With its steep local extinction curve, are we looking at the modern dodo? Leave your comments below.

This is a follow up to my previous piece.

There was once an Indian bird It asked us for a word,

Or two: “do grant me grass and do save me the farce”.

The Great Indian Bustard has gone extinct in Madhya Pradesh. Let’s take a step back: I won’t blame you if you have no idea what I’m talking about. Let’s look at the name again. This is a bustard, presumably some sort of bird, or perhaps just a misspelling of a favourite English abuse used in old Hindi movies.

Well, it is a bird, it’s obviously Indian, and it’s also “Great”.

Yes, and no.

Impressed by its large size — it’s one metre tall, up to 14 kilos in weight, ornithologists of yore called the Indian Bustard “Great”. But really, there is nothing great about being the Great Indian Bustard. Critically endangered, the GIB is down to the last 150 birds in India, and this is possibly the last viable population on earth. For the past two years, GIB have disappeared from Madhya Pradesh, after going extinct from Uttar Pradesh and other states.

Why, you ask?

Well imagine there is a classroom of naughty animals. Some are wilder, and more unpredictable than others.

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There are birds such as crows and animals such as Nilgai, which eat a whole range of things, and can exist in a whole bunch of places. They are doing fine, going forward and proliferating. Then there are birds like the GIB, which is found in a place no one really cares about: grasslands and scrub forests. They fly long distances, secretively, and unpredictably. They don’t stay in the protected areas which have been made for them. Crazy, did I hear you say? Dodo, do I hear another person say?

It’s ironic that among people, “disruptive” thought is sought after for the best fellowships on earth. People who think out of the box are the leaders of tomorrow, the mad geniuses, the chosen ones. Not true for a big bird that flies out of the box of protected areas.

Consider this. The GIB inhabits grasslands and scrub forests, which look bone-dry and not even green, very different from the lush emerald forests Indian wildlife and wilds are associated with. Grasslands and scrub forests are often classified as “wasteland” in governmental record, which goes to show that they are considered productive only if they are annexed and changed. The GIB was in the running for national bird of India, but anecdotes say that it lost out, because its name was considered too reminiscent of “bastard”.

Apart from linguistics, the GIB also presents a pulsating conservation challenge. It really combats the box, and asks for the box to be kicked at and utterly dismantled. The GIB doesn’t stay in protected areas: it flies outside designated reserves like Karera (Madhya Pradesh) and Great Indian Bustard (Maharashtra) sanctuaries, foraging in private fields, meeting real people who may or may not care about a harmless, rather hefty bird. This presents a defiance to the forest department: protecting this bird is a classic conservation challenge.

For any GIB conservation plan will have to consider private land, many players, people’s fancies, and the bird’s whims. And that’s why GIB conservation has failed absurdly. In some places such as the Great Indian Bustard sanctuary in Solapur, people’s needs — such as building bigger houses — have been curtailed so ridiculously that they have begun to hate anything to do with the Bustard.

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In Karera, protection of wild animals has been so successful, that swiftly breeding Blackbuck have destroyed adjacent crops. Even while there is no increase in GIB numbers. Here as in elsewhere, non-traditional management decisions have to be taken.

So there you have it: an elusive bird, which defies plans. No half-hearted, just-on-paper attempts will do for it. It asks instead for smart and adaptive management, something we are just not good at.

But again, consider this: if we learn how to conserve the GIB, then we would be able to tackle many multi-faceted and multi-tailed, sweaty and sticky environmental problems. The forest department will need to engage outside its constituency, ie start talking to the farmer as priority. Conservationists will have to stitch together plans with goals that are not fixed, but constantly appraised and updated adaptively.

There is a thing known as generational amnesia. It’s where the new generation forgets what the earlier one knew as truth. For instance, children from the USA think milk comes from cartons (whose heard of cows?); and children in Delhi think house sparrows are rare species (even though their parents grew up with the ubiquitous, charming sparrows).

The dodo is used as a euphemism for a stupid creature. But was the dodo, not-shy of humans and thus readily hunted — stupid, or were the people who hunted it, wanton and indiscriminate? There may be a time wherein the GIB will remain a pretty picture on an Indian stamp; permanently elusive and permanently extinct. And will the GIB, in its defiance of neatly-set out conservation plans, be known as the modern dodo?

Once upon a time, there was an Indian bird.

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2 thoughts on “Is the Great Indian Bustard the modern Dodo?

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