By Dr. Nigel Collar
I am terrified over the future of the lesser florican. Of the three bustards that breed in India, it is the one I fear for by far the most. The great Indian bustard (GIB) and the Bengal florican are both listed as Critically Endangered, but the GIB has a multi-million dollar programme to support it, and the Bengal florican persists in a handful of protected areas, but the lesser florican is on its own, with tiny numbers in a few protected areas and little support from the authorities. All three species deserve five-star conservation treatment! But unlike the other two, the lesser florican, with its heart-stopping decline in numbers this century, will be completely gone in twenty years if we do nothing now. In reality it is far more ‘critically endangered’ than its two family relatives.
The smallest in the bustard family and the only member of the genus Sypheotides, the lesser florican, also known as the likh or kharmore, is endemic to the Indian subcontinent, where it is found in grasslands and grassland-like cover including some crops. During the summer it visits north-western and central India, when it is perhaps best known for the male’s leaping breeding displays during the monsoons, but in winter it spreads out and many birds move into the lower reaches of the subcontinent. During these seasonal movements it probably suffers mortality at powerlines, which are known killers of bustards everywhere. Hunting locally may also play a role in its endangerment.
But by far the greatest threat is habitat loss and degradation. India has been revolutionising its farming systems. Once the villages of the north-west retained communal grasslands—vidis or bheeds—to provide for their cattle through the year, and the floricans bred in them. Now these little patches of grass are gone, as India moves to industrial-scale farming, using tractors and pesticides for maximum yields, often focusing on cash-crops that floricans cannot inhabit. It is the same everywhere in the world: intensive agriculture and bustards simply do not mix.
A superbly meticulous piece of work documenting the plight of the lesser florican was led by the Wildlife Institute of India three years ago. It is at once utterly depressing, showing how the species is plummeting to extinction, but also inspirational and instructive, telling the world what we can still do to save the situation. There are just a few places left where action now could make a difference.
According to Dutta et al. (2018), quoted in this report, ‘The priority sites for conservation actions are Shokaliya [= BNHS] and Saurashtra [= TCF] landscapes, followed by Kutch and Kekri [= BNHS] landscapes, followed by Ratlam, Shahpura and Akola landscapes.’ I insert BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society) and TCF (The Corbett Foundation) here to indicate how these priority sites have already been assigned to conservation organisations.
Dutta et al. (2018) itemised 13 types of threat, some of which are part-repetitions, allowing them to be amalgamated into 10:
- Land-use changes: agricultural intensification, cropping patterns, and use of grasslands for infrastructure (wind-turbines, roads), industries/housing, salt pans, mining.
- Grassland mismanagement in the form of untimely harvesting, excessive grazing, plantation of shrub/trees.
- Pesticide usage in breeding grounds.
- Poaching, trapping, and egg collection.
- Free-ranging dogs in prime breeding habitats.
- Erratic and changing rainfall patterns under climate change (unproven but probable).
- Unethical photography.
- Lack of local awareness regarding importance of grasslands and the lesser florican.
- Paucity of ecological and conservation information.
These each need consideration in any work we embark on towards the conservation of the lesser florican, but the first three are the known stand-out issues.
The authors of the study also make eight sensible recommendations of relevance to any in situ conservation effort, as follows:
- Provide protection by creating conservation areas and implementing strict patrols.
- Prevent infrastructural, industrial and salt pan developments, and mitigate powerlines.
- Manage grassland by consolidating contiguous patches (to make large areas), restricting grazing in monsoon months and removing exotic shrub/tree plantations.
- Promote florican-friendly practices, e.g. organic farming, monsoon stall-feeding.
- Create networks of ‘florican friends’ to report and prevent detrimental activities.
- Control dog populations in a holistic programme in neighbouring villages.
- Study florican ecology using satellite telemetry and associated surveys.
- Conduct outreach programmes to generate support among multiple stakeholders.
They then map priority areas based on numbers and densities of birds found in 2017:
From this map and other evidence in Dutta et al. (2018) it is apparent that the following regions are not being addressed by conservation interests:
- RED: Jalore and the larger area to its east, marked as Manadar (Rajasthan)
- BLUE: Bhilwara area including Shahpura (Rajasthan)
- GREEN: Pratapgarh (Rajasthan/Madhya Pradesh)
- YELLOW: Sailana (Ratlam) south to Sardarpur (Madhya Pradesh)
Further key pieces of information in Dutta et al. (2018) are: (1) floricans are more numerous in large continuous areas of grassland; (2) breeding male territories have more heterogeneous ground vegetation structure than the general habitat, possibly to accommodate diverse life-history needs (food, concealment and self-advertisement); and (3) Rollapadu Wildlife Sanctuary, AP, was not studied by them but held six males in 2017.
Sites can be managed for (a) popular support and (b) habitat restoration. Jhunjhunwala & Gupta (2009) ran an intensive outreach programme with the local communities at Sailana Sanctuary, which endured chronic hostility owing to government failure to compensate villagers for the loss of control of their land. At the end of the project, the authors reported:
Surrounding schools have included the lesser florican as a topic in their curriculum. The people living in the surrounding area take great pride in the florican and it has become a flagship species for the area. The programme has been so successful that the children in the schools in which we work are now demanding that the lesser florican be made the state bird of Madhya Pradesh.
Moreover, they were able to make a comparison with the situation in Sardarpur, where no such outreach programme had been conducted:
Since we began working in Sailana in 2005 the number of florican sightings per year have been consistently > 27, with the highest number of sightings in 2008… In the control site at Sardarpur, where we have not conducted outreach programmes or facilitated the reward scheme, the number of Floricans have actually decreased even though Sardarpur is 2.9 [error for 29] times bigger than Sailana.
Evidence that habitat restoration can work is supplied by Gupta (2018), who ascribed the return of the florican to Sardarpur to an intervention by the sanctuary staff.
This year… the department thought of the experiment of planting crops that would attract insects and in turn the lesser floricans who feed on these bugs. According to Forest Department’s Sardarpur Range SDO Rakesh Damor, the department planted ‘moong’ and ‘urad’ pulse crops in an area of 30 hectares in the sanctuary. These crops were chosen because they are easily infested with crop pests. Unlike farms where pesticides are sprayed to control the infestation, these crops were allowed to be bug-infested. The experiment worked with starting July, the first Lesser Floricans appeared in the sanctuary. By last week the forest department confirmed the sighting of not one but 14 Lesser Floricans showing that they indeed found the environment as well as the access food supply suitable at the Sultanpur [error = Sardarpur] Sanctuary this time to visit and breed here.
Conclusions and Recommendations
It is very clear from the evidence in Dutta et al. (2018) that the lesser florican will become extinct in the world within 20 years, and almost as clear that the window to prevent this is now and for the next 2‒3 years, after which it will be too late. The situation is more urgent than any other bird conservation (or perhaps any species conservation?) issue in all India.
It is also obvious from even the slim evidence above that habitat management both outside and inside protected areas can reverse the situation (unless powerlines play an as-yet unknown role in killing birds off). Providing the appropriate cover and the food that goes with it, and working to a plan to create large continuous areas of habitat, can save the species.
Most particularly, it is absolutely essential to investigate what immediate steps are needed to turn the two florican reserves, Sailana and Sardarpur, neither of which are currently the target of any conservation organisation, into more fully protected areas that are exclusively devoted to serving the interests of the species. This is a last-gasp emergency, and it needs to be recognised that the challenge is not just to stabilise florican numbers but to increase them. At 348 km2, Sardarpur technically ought to be capable of holding around 2,000 birds—and it needs to! If land-owners remain disaffected by their treatment by governments, solutions have to be found very fast. Everything needs to be on the table for consideration, even down to land purchase. There is not a day, week or month to be lost!
Dutta, S., Narwade, S., Bipin, C. M., Gadhavi, D., Uddin, M., Mhaskar, M., Pandey, D., Mohan, A., Sharma, H., Iyer, S., Tripathi, R., Verma, V., Varma, V., Jangid, A., Chakdar, B., Karulkar, A., Lambture, B., Khongsai, N., Kumar, S., Gore, K., Jhala, D., Vaidya, N., Horne, B., Chittora, A., Annigeri, B. S., Trivedi, M. & Jhala, Y.V. (2018) Status of the Lesser Florican Sypheotides indicus and implications for its conservation. Dehradun: Wildlife Institute of India.
Gupta, A. (2018) 7 pairs of Lesser Florican seen in MP sanctuary after 8 years. http://indiasendangered.com/7-pairs-of-lesser-florican-seen-in-mp-sanctuary-after-8-years
Jhunjhunwala, S. & Gupta, A. D. (2009) Lesser Florican Community Leadership Programme, India. [Cambridge, UK:] BP Conservation Leadership Programme (final report).
Photos: Wikimedia Commons
Please find the Kannada translation of this article here.