The Great Indian Bustard story
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On a wintry January evening, a pair of Great Indian Bustards were loitering on the edge of a farm near Kutch's Naliya grasslands in Gujarat. They had strayed 15 kilometres away from the tiny 202-hectares sanctuary designated for their protection, oblivious of their dwindling numbers, and soaring popularity among the scientific community.
Extinct in an estimated 90 per cent of their former range across the subcontinent, the critically endangered Great Indian Bustards (Ardeotis nigriceps) currently stand with 99 other species "that will be the next to go if conservation action is not taken immediately", as Zoological Society of London's conservation head, Jonathan Baillie, wrote in IUCN's list of 100 most endangered species, released last year. In Kutch, where an estimated 10 per cent of the birds live and breed, "immediately" has translated into more waiting.
The Great Indian Bustard is one of the three species of bustards found in the country and, at a maximum weight of about 20 kg, is the heaviest bird that can fly considerable distances. "It needs a bit of a runway though," says Ashwin Jadeja, a young forest-beat guard who daily patrols the bird's habitat near Gujarat's coldest town.
This ability, perhaps, partly explains how in the last few years bustards have been spotted in areas not known to host them.
In 2005, Dr Bharat Pathak, director of the state-run research unit GEER Foundation, had rushed to Velavadar Blackbuck National Park in Bhavnagar district. He had heard of a Bustard sighting there. Pathak found a pair, hundreds of kilometres south-east of Naliya, in a place better known as a habitat of the Lesser Florican, a smaller bustard species.
In 2012, two Bustards were again spotted, this time separately, on the southern edge of Little Rann of Kutch, more than 100 km east of Naliya.