A message from Dr. Nigel Collar, Chairman of the IUCN Bustard Specialist Group to the WCS event at CMS, February 2020.
Dr. Nigel Collar with other experts at the Desert National Park. Photo courtesy: H S Sathya Chandra Sagar
Thousands of species are coming to the end of their lives in our current extinction crisis. Many of them can be saved with relative ease (if global warming does not take away their habitat), because they have restricted ranges in which reserves can be established, or because they live in colonies that simply need better protection. But others are more problematic, and a few are challenging on a massive scale. At the far end of this spectrum of difficulty-to-conserve lie the bustards. A recent analysis by BirdLife indicates that the bustards are the most threatened terrestrial family of birds on earth; only the seabird families of penguins and albatrosses have a higher proportion of threatened species. These three groups are well ahead of the others in the slide towards extinction.
Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan
What is it about bustards that makes them so hard to help? The simple answer is: evolution. Over tens of millions of years, bustards adapted to life in wide open landscapes, and because there were no trees in these grassland habitats they lost their hind toe and, with it, the chance to nest in trees to reduce the risk from ground predators targeting their eggs and young and equally the chance to roost in trees to escape ground predators targeting the adults themselves. Consequently, they developed the highest levels of wariness as their first line of defence, avoiding any unfamiliar form of disturbance to their routine. When, therefore, human settlers move into open landscapes they quickly restrict bustards to the least disturbed areas, and as more people arrive the fewer and smaller such areas remain. So disturbance is a cardinal factor in the retreat of bustards.
Some species of bustard evolved to move into and inhabit scrub and savanna, living very cryptically and always at risk of ambush; but these habitats are less exposed to human settlement, and the species in them mostly continue to hold their own. The species that are confined to open habitats are the ones that are most vulnerable. If human disturbance by humans is the first problem they face, the second is human use of the habitat—converting it to their particular needs, either for pasture or for cropland. Both of these activities involve modifications of the habitat, and the more intensive the farming becomes, involving mechanization and the deployment of chemical biocides, the more the habitat changes into short grass and monocultures, usually fenced off into parcels, greatly reducing food resources, breeding cover and accessibility. Thus habitat loss, going hand-in-hand with disturbance, forces the further retreat of the bustards.
On top of this, bustards are large birds and some, at least, make good eating. Hunting is therefore another big threat in many areas, and is difficult to control because it often takes place deep in landscapes beyond the sight and reach of the authorities. Moreover, there is a major danger from dog predation in any areas where human settlements are established; this particularly affects eggs and flightless young birds, greatly compromising reproductive output. Finally—back to evolution—the structure of a bustard’s head, with eyes set back to offer 360° vision so as to guard against attack, and its relatively high body weight make a particularly dangerous combination: the position of the eyes means that forward vision is not really sharp, and the weight of the bird means that it flies rather fast and is relatively unmanoeuvrable. The resulting powerline mortalities can in themselves be enough to wipe out entire populations from areas that are otherwise entirely suitable for the species; a single powerline is now likely to finish off the dwindling population of Bengal Floricans in the grasslands around the Tonle Sap in Cambodia, extinguishing an entire subspecies.
Powerlines that threaten bustard habitats
These factors combine to make the challenge of saving bustards as high as any in the wide world of bird conservation. But the low profile that bustards like to keep, as far from human view as possible, means a low profile too with the general public and decision-makers; and the land these birds live on is always in demand for food production, a key human need (with the global population increasing by a million every four days), so there is little political sympathy for the species.
Photo courtesy: Rajasthan Forest Department / Kamlesh Kumar
It needs to be stressed that all the threats to bustards need to be confronted together, because any one of them left unaddressed—disturbance, habitat loss, hunting, dog predation, powerlines—has the power to undo all the good things achieved in the fight against the other threats. So bustards need firm friends fast. We need a whole new initiative in Europe and Asia to save them. Everyone needs to play a part, but governments must take a major role, because the issues are far too great for NGOs to tackle alone. All three bustards endemic to India require national and international collaboration to save them. In India, the Bengal Florican is confined as a breeding bird to a thin string of protected areas but with as yet no plans to increase the habitat for them, expand their numbers or do more to protect the lands into which they wander outside the breeding season. The Lesser Florican is in an extinction vortex from which it can be rescued only with a huge effort to save existing breeding sites and create new ones, and to discover more precisely what it does outside the breeding season, where it goes and what it then needs. The GIB needs key powerlines being marked or (better) buried, grasslands restored (the waist-high grass in Desert National Park that used to give it cover is now a memory—it must be allowed to grow back), disturbance reduced, dogs totally controlled. The current massive investment in captive breeding needs to be matched in size by investment in habitat conservation, and this should be done immediately.
Photo courtesy: Ramki Sreenivasan
Bustards are wonderful birds. We cannot afford to lose them from the world. Yet to date we have done nothing like enough to help them, and every year they grow rarer and closer to the abyss of extinction. We must unite and fight to save them. This meeting at the CMS CoP is as good a place to start as any, and I urge you to do so with all my heart.