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When a community takes up conservation
| March 22, 2019
A young Bishnoi strives to raise awareness on the plight of the GIB and other desert species.
Great Indian Bustard © Wiki
The 17th largest desert in the world, the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, which is 10% of India’s biomass, is home to the Bishnoi community. They have been around since over 500 years ago. This community is extraordinary, because unlike any other, the main objective of this community is conserving Nature.
It was founded by Lord Jambeshwar, who is believed to be an incarnation of Vishnu himself. The one incident that bought this community to light was in 1730 AD, a non-violent protest where the community came forward to save khejri tress from being cut down. They stood in the way of loggers by shielding the trees, this incident led to the death of 363 people. After hearing this, the King of Rajasthan halted the activity and declared the region off-limits for hunting and logging. The incident is known to have inspired the renowned Chipko movement in the 1970s.
In the years since, from lush green fertile lands by the Saraswati river, the drastic change in the landscape of this state has not gone unnoticed. The locals’ social concern for the environment may have spawned from these evident transformations. Communities such as the Bishnois have seen the drastic change in the way they lead lives. With technology taking over, an increase in wind turbine projects, cellular towers and high-tension wires for improved power transmissions in these rapidly developing areas, etc have started to have an affect on the native wildlife.
The state bird of Rajasthan, Great Indian Bustard (GIB) is a species that is currently facing the consequences of these changes. From a population of an estimated 1,260 GIBs in 1969 the numbers are down to less than 150 in India today. The GIB’s last remnant population of about 50 in Jaisalmer district accounts for 95% of its total population in the wild. One of the heaviest flying birds in India, which can live up to 20 years, they can be very shy of human presence. The arid grasslands and scrubs of Rajasthan is one of their last remaining habitats, where they have adapted over the years to survive in such conditions. Their diet can vary from grasshoppers, beetles to foraging crops such as millets, groundnuts and legumes around their habitat. Female GIBs lay just one egg a year, which makes conservation of these species a lot more challenging.
GIB death caused by collision with power lines © Bipin C M
Communities such as the Bishnois have noticed the drop in bird numbers. Radheshyam Bishnoi, a farmer with great love and respect for wildlife is one such to take up the cause of the GIB. With an interest in all things wild, Radheshyam is able to identify most bird species found in Rajasthan and is also an avid photographer. His passion towards the cause also led him to take up wildlife first aid training from a local veterinarian in Jodhpur. He has been actively involved in raising awareness about wildlife in areas such as the Desert National Park. Amongst the daring acts he has undertaken to champion the cause of the GIB by mounting a high voltage transmission tower — to bring attention to the dangers to the bird.
He mentions how conservation of peacocks, vultures, black bucks, spiny tailed lizard, MacQueens bustard and Chinkara can play a role in protecting their native landscape. The Bishnoi community, which has people from all age groups playing a role in conservation, also helps nab poachers by alerting local authorities.
Radheshyam recollects a time when GIBs were spread out all across the farmlands, a few years ago. Things have gone south since, as the birds are vulnerable to feral dog and wild pig attacks because their nesting sites are on the ground. The endangered birds also face a threat from hunting, high-tension wires and windmills; which have reduced their populations to a mere 50-60 individuals. Lesser known factors that affect the status of these birds are degradation of grassland habits due to over-grazing and clearing land for cultivation. The GIBs have been known to be devoted to their nesting sites. There have also been instances where tourists in pursuit of shooting pictures have disturbed these birds.
Radheshyam notes how measures such as installing reflectors on the high-tension wires, management of stray dogs, reducing human intrusion and fencing nesting areas, can benefit the bird population immensely. The resources needed for conservation of these endangered birds are what the Bishnois seek. They remain confident about witnessing a rise in their numbers with proper management techniques and support from bigger conservation-oriented organizations.
Magnificent birds like the GIB have been pushed to the brink of extinction due to several factors. Maintaining the last remaining habitats of these species is most important if one believes that all life has an equal right to the land and resources. With a community which is willing to take measures to conserve species, raising awareness and engaging other local communities on these issues, positive change becomes achievable.
“Please help us save these birds,” pleads Radheshyam.
WCS-India hopes to develop a comprehensive strategy of in-situ conservation, including site-specific measures in close collaboration with international experts and the Rajasthan Forest Department, to secure the grassland habitat of GIB and help GIB populations in the state recover.
Written by Anisha Iyer