By Vaishali Rawat
Attempting to balance my data sheets, my field equipment, and myself while standing on the back of a moving vehicle, I once again try to use my binoculars to scan the landscape for signs of wildlife. It’s a rough ride under the scorching sun in the Thar desert grasslands, when our driver suddenly steps on the brakes, halts and jumps out. He points animatedly towards a red-crowned Ker tree a few hundred metres to our left. “Godavan hai udhar!” (The bustard is over there!). Sure enough, I see two distant white stalks (their necks) purposefully bobbing through the shrublands of Desert National Park.
It’s the last day of the survey of the Thar landscape for the Great Indian Bustard (GIB), and this is my very first sighting. We’ve spotted other denizens of the desert – a desert fox with its pups, a staggering array of raptors, a few Indian foxes and antelopes, but this is a precious sighting – two Great Indian Bustards proudly patrolling their savannah. The endangered birds stand out, with their proud gait, long white necks and brown crowns. One suddenly dips down into the grasses and reappears with lunch (a spiny-tailed lizard Saara hardwickii) struggling in its beak. We watch them move in and out of our vision through the bushes for a few minutes then, contented, we move on in the hope of sighting more.
In March 2017, I participated as a field volunteer for the annual survey of the Great Indian Bustard (GIB), a project conducted jointly by the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, and the Rajasthan Forest Department. The survey (based on occupancy and distance sampling) involved simultaneously surveying around 20,000 sq. km. of the Thar landscape to collect data on the GIB and its associated fauna. Selected volunteers were chosen to assist the forest staff. Now in its fourth year, the project also explores citizen science by engaging volunteers from across the country, training them in scientific data collection methods and facilitating interaction between local conservationists and forest staff.
Mukesh Meena, the forest guard with me in the four-wheel drive had seen the GIB several times, and one might have expected a mechanical reaction from him to this sighting. Yet, keenly watching the bustards striding in the distance as I noted down GPS readings, he didn’t seem to take the moment lightly. Perhaps it is just as well, for this is an incredibly rare bird; once widespread among the arid rural landscapes of India, the GIB has now been wiped out from 90 per cent of its previous range. With its global population hovering around 150 individuals, this ground-dwelling grassland avian has sadly been marked as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Thar landscapes of Rajasthan, which support roughly 75 per cent of the remaining population, are without doubt the last hope of survival for these birds.
The Thar that I saw over the course of the survey is lined by wind turbines, power transmission lines, and paved to the remotest corners with metalled roads and sundry urban infrastructure. Having been briefed on the ecology and habitat of the GIB before the project, it wasn’t hard to understand why the bird is dangerously close to extinction. We were surveying a bird that needs large swathes of undisturbed grasslands and yet much of the area we surveyed, which once supported decent populations of GIBs, had been converted to agricultural fields or was now barren wasteland. Everywhere we looked, the birds had to run a gauntlet of metalled roads, wind turbines, power transmission lines and human settlements, which intruded into the once-undisturbed scrublands and grasslands that has sustained GIBs and a host of other arid zone species for eons.
But that is another story.
Before being allotted our field-sites and equipment and heading to separate districts, we were trained by way of field exercises and workshops to familiarise us with the flora and fauna of the landscape. This gave us a chance to learn from the frontline forest staff of the Thar, post which we clambered aboard the vehicles and moved towards the range of Damodara.
I was paired with Hamir Singh, a sprightly and knowledgeable forest guard from the Ramdeora Range, which happens to be one of the best GIB grassland habitats. As our group paced behind him, he would declare: “You are walking on sevan grasses. On your side is the bui, it’s soft like rui (cotton). Up ahead, the big bush is the ker and next to it is Euphorbia.” I fumbled with the local plant names, but discovered to my delight that Hamir was well-versed with the scientific names of the grasses, shrubs and trees that surrounded us.
Later, we were briefed on survey ‘distance and occupancy’ sampling methodologies, and trained in handling field equipment. We went through intensive training exercises over the next couple of days, picking up information on the significance and use of equipment that we soon learned to handle on our own for the entirety of the survey.
The vague notion I held of deserts being bleak, austere landscapes with minimal human presence was soon shattered by the sheer extent of infrastructure that has reached the remotest rural grasslands and arid zones of Rajasthan. What were once vast golden expanses of arid desert grassland and scrubland were lined by transmission lines, settlements, fences and dotted by wind turbines on a scale that had to be seen to be believed.
Yet, some pockets of fragmented shrublands occasionally came into view, revealing the character of the diverse, extraordinary grasslands that once were. The undisturbed kind in which bustards are known to display, nest, and bring up their chicks. We spoke little, but with every move deeper into the Thar, the impact of the anthropogenic threats that had driven the GIB into ever-receding pockets hit me. How could anyone possibly be surprised at the steep decline in their population given the purposeful conversion of land use in this fragile ecological wonderland?
After extensive surveys in the allotted grids of different districts, it was time for intensive surveys in grids where bustard sightings had taken place. After a week of independent surveying, all the teams were reunited.
Back at a forest chowki inside the Desert National Park, volunteers and forest staff eagerly discussed their GIB sightings over the previous week: “I saw nine today”, “I only saw two”, “Just a desert cat and nothing else.” Our survey coordinator Bipin put things in perspective and reminded us to not take any sighting lightly. “Two? That means you’ve seen one per cent of its global population.”
Indeed, every bird lost is a critical blow to the species’ chances for survival and clearly the birds have a host of severe threats to contend with. Ironically enough, one of the most critical threats comes under the guise of ‘green’ energy.
GIBs are heavy birds that fly closer to the ground and possess relatively narrow fields of vision. This makes them very susceptible to collision with power lines, an all-too-frequent tragedy. In an effort to make ‘development’ accessible to remote rural populations whose unique cultures have been born and developed by their apparently harsh homelands for generations, a steady influx of power line and wind turbine networks had been laid in the Thar. We already know without any doubt that the intrusions have been at a steep cost to wildlife. Over the past decade, eight of the handful of GIBs have been lost to power line collisions in Rajasthan and Gujarat alone, plus a much larger number of cranes and other more populous species.
What all this has meant is that once-vast Thar expanses have been sliced up. The GIB consequently exists in pockets of remaining habitat. This transformation is being palpably accelerated, a fact that emerged from the observation of several volunteers conducting transects in GIB-occupied areas, where dusty paths that existed as recently as 2016 have been converted into metalled roads for vehicles to speed on.
How did we get to this point, one wonders? Why are deserts – intricate and fascinating ecosystems in themselves – so undervalued?
The reality is that deserts and semi-arid grasslands are complex ecosystems, but have been marginalised even in conservation studies and thus are data-deficient. The lack of long-term data collection on species trends, vegetation and habitat disturbances require to be remedied, and programmes such as the one in which I was engaged are vital to the task of generating data to understand spatio-temporal changes in arid and semi-arid landscapes. Such databases are often taken for granted for forest ecosystems, but they are desperately needed for desert ecosystems today if we are to have any chance of impressing upon planners the value of such ecosystems in a world where climate change is already throwing survival challenges at all living creatures including Homo sapiens.
The project which I was fortunate to be a part of, played a small but crucial role in generating scientific data required to secure endangered species through appropriate management interventions, particularly since citizen science was a part of the data collection and interpretation blueprint.
Enabling such interfaces between the state’s Forest Department, amateur wildlifers, field biologists and students from across India is a small step, but it is my hope that through conversations like these, deserts will someday feature prominently in the national dialogue about the diverse landscapes and wildlife of the Indian subcontinent.
That said, the truth is that citizen science is still a nascent concept, which is fortunately growing and which promises to offer exciting dividends in India. The process positively helps to build awareness about marginalised ecosystems and critically endangered species. I would also wager that involving individuals from diverse backgrounds to come together to understand the fate of a species that nears extinction, training them in wildlife studies and involving them actively is a major step in the right direction.
A week spent spotting and noting wildlife sightings with a forest guard in the grasslands that they strive to protect daily is an experience beyond compare and will go a long way in encouraging citizens to lend a voice to conservation.
I think of my time in the Thar as a collection of fleeting memories, held together by a thread. Drifting in and out of a nap after a long, hot day in the field as we drive back, half-listening to Mukesh, our assigned forest guard, speak of his fondness for the GIB – of how he earned his Masters’ degree in History, but feels fulfilled working for the country’s wildlife as a forest guard; watching the largest raptors I had ever seen – stunning King, Cinerous, Egyptian and Long-billed Vultures, settle comfortably in the distance on a sand dune under the blazing sun… a distant chinkara moving slowly through wavy desert thermals; contemplating how more of the Thar continues to transform into metal roads, electricity lines and wind turbines impinging on critical Bustard habitat - wondering if we will be able to save the ambassador of the grasslands from extinction before it is too late.