POV: BUSTARDS IN DIRE STRAITS

The Great In­dian Bus­tard is en­demic to In­dia and was to be­come the coun­try’s na­tional bird but for the worry that its name might be mis­spelt!

India Today - - UPFRONT - By Pr­erna Singh Bin­dra Pr­erna Bin­dra is a for­mer mem­ber of the Na­tional Board for Wildlife, and has au­thored The Van­ish­ing: In­dia’s Wildlife Cri­sis

The death blow to the crit­i­cally en­dan­gered Great In­dian Bus­tard (GIB) may come from un­ex­pected quar­ters— re­new­able en­ergy projects. As 2017 drew to a close, one GIB crashed against a power trans­mis­sion line, one of the few re­main­ing that criss-cross its last strong­hold—the Thar desert in Ra­jasthan. Its burnt, rav­aged car­cass was found the next day, mak­ing it the ninth GIB to be killed by a trans­mis­sion line, mainly of wind power, in the past decade. In July 2017, for in­stance, a GIB col­lided with a 33 KV trans­mis­sion line con­nected to wind tur­bines in Naliya, Gu­jarat. With fewer than 150 birds re­main­ing in the wild, each death takes the bird closer to ex­tinc­tion. In such low pop­u­la­tions, even one un­nat­u­ral death can cause ex­tinc­tion over three gen­er­a­tions.

Re­new­ables, while crit­i­cal as a clean source of en­ergy, are not nec­es­sar­ily green, which is some­thing In­dia needs to con­sider as it pushes ahead with its am­bi­tious re­new­able en­ergy gen­er­a­tion tar­get of 175 GW by 2022, of which 160 MW is ex­pected to be met via so­lar and wind en­ergy. World­wide, wind tur­bines kill be­tween 150,000 and 320,000 birds. In Thar, a re­cent sur­vey showed that five birds of var­i­ous species—in­clud­ing en­dan­gered vul­tures—die per kilo­me­tre of power line ev­ery month. That trans­lates to 18,700 birds across the land­scape. Bustards are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble due to their nar­row frontal vi­sion— they spot the line when it’s al­ready too late. Such deaths are pre­ventable. Low wattage power lines such as the one in Naliya can be un­der­grounded, and bird flight di­vert­ers on power lines have known to cut mor­tal­ity by half in some Euro­pean coun­tries. But there has been lit­tle in­ter­est in In­dia, ei­ther on the part of the power com­pa­nies or the state to in­stal th­ese due to the high costs in­volved.

Be­yond the car­nage, there is also the loss of habi­tat, so­lar and wind power be­ing very land in­ten­sive. Prime bus­tard habi­tats be­tween Naliya and Bitta in Kutch as well as the two main pop­u­la­tions in Thar—in the north­ern part of the Desert Na­tional Park and the other at the Pokhran Field Fir­ing Range—are packed with trans­mis­sion lines and wind and so­lar power projects. Recog­nis­ing the threat, the Na­tional Green Tri­bunal has passed an in­terim or­der bar­ring new wind projects around the Desert Na­tional Park.

The way for­ward is de­cen­tralised re­new­able en­ergy, har­nessed by mini grids. So­lar pan­els on rooftops need to re­place the heav­ily pol­lut­ing diesel gen­er­a­tors that add to Delhi NCR’s pol­lu­tion bur­den and most res­i­den­tial colonies and cor­po­rate houses rely on.

Power lines are just one among the many threats the GIBs face. The bird has van­ished from nearly 95 per cent of its his­tor­i­cal range. Its habi­tat has been lost to roads, high­ways, min­ing, canals—as well as ‘green­ing’ projects that trans­form arid grass­lands to wooded ar­eas, ren­der­ing them hos­tile to the GIB. The Great In­dian Bus­tard is en­demic to In­dia. In fact, it was to be­come our na­tional bird but for the worry that its name might be mis­spelt! A few birds have been recorded in Pak­istan— they fly be­tween the two coun­tries as they in­habit bor­der re­gions—but hunt­ing is a ma­jor con­cern here. One study shows that of the 63 birds sighted in four years (2001-04), 49 were poached. Bet­ter co­or­di­na­tion be­tween both coun­tries has been sug­gested by forests of­fi­cials and con­ser­va­tion­ists on both sides of the bor­der. An­other need of the hour to save the GIB is co­or­di­na­tion with the army. As per sources, about half of the GIB’s hun­dred-odd pop­u­la­tion in Thar re­sides within the field fir­ing range in Pokhran. While the fir­ing and ex­plo­sives tested here re­main a threat, what the GIB gets here—this be­ing a pro­tected army en­clo­sure—is habi­tat undis­turbed by min­ing, roads or other an­thro­pogenic pres­sures. The for­est de­part­ment in Ra­jasthan has sought per­mis­sion from the army for joint mon­i­tor­ing of the GIB.

It’s only apt that both In­dia’s ‘green army’ and the one that pro­tects its borders work to­gether to pro­tect the na­tion’s en­dan­gered nat­u­ral her­itage from im­mi­nent ex­tinc­tion.

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