In other times the featured photo would be a grand sighting: four individuals of the Great Indian Bustard and four Chinkara (Indian gazelle) lined up in the scrub inside the Thar desert. Unfortunately, what you see is probably 4% of the world population of the Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps). This bird is almost surely dwindling into the mists of extinction. A decade ago I saw a single individual in a different habitat. I fear that this habitat, one of the last large refuges for it, will also see the last of them in a couple of decades.
This species is listed as Critically Endangered because it has an extremely small population that has undergone an extremely rapid decline owing to a multitude of threats including habitat loss and degradation, hunting and direct disturbance. It now requires an urgent acceleration in targeted conservation actions in order to prevent it from becoming functionally extinct within a few decades.
IUCN Red List
A century ago the Great Indian Bustard was visible in Rajasthan, all the way south to Maharashtra, and east to Madhya Pradesh. Why are they endangered now? Two decades ago it was due to hunting. The number of bustards fell from over 2000 in the 1960s to about 200 in the last decade. Since then it has plummeted because of habitat degradation. The bustard lives in scrublands, lays a single egg in a nest in rocky ground, and incubates it for about a month. Natural predators include foxes, mongoose and monitor lizards, which eat the eggs, and cats, jackals and dogs, which eat the chicks before they are a month old. The greatest danger to eggs, apparently is due to cattle stepping on them. Habitat loss to humans, and the resulting increased danger from cattle and feral dogs, has been the main cause of the total population of this bird diving below a hundred since 2011.
I never got less than a kilometer away from a bustard. That’s what you see in the featured photo, which is the best that I could do with a 1500 mm zoom. In 2009 I had seen a single bird at roughly the same distance in Maharashtra. At that time I saw a feather from its back (photo above) in a forest guards’ hide. I took the shot as a record, knowing fully well that I would never get closer to a bustard than this.
I’d seen birds move through grass, hunker down under shrubs, but never seen it fly. This time around, we spotted three of them at a distance. As we watched, a car drove past us right towards the trio. I managed to take a photo, without getting its number plates (photo above). Two of the birds slipped behind a thicket and could not be seen any more. The third ran away as the car approached. The birds are excitable, and encounters of this kind visibly agitates them. There is also a chance that unscrupulous tourists like this could drive over eggs. The late fame of this bird could be the last straw.
The government has declared the bird protected, with legal provisions similar to the protection given to tigers. The state of Rajasthan has adopted it as its state bird. There seems to be some confusion about how to go about increasing the population. I sincerely hope that the Great Indian Bustard, one of the largest flying birds in the world, does not follow the Indian Cheetah into extinction, but I am very afraid that it will.