Himalayan grasslands

We drive past slopes covered with pines, over and over again, whenever we are in the lower Himalayas or the Siwaliks below them. We hardly ever stop to walk into them. I now realize that I was brainwashed by old and false certainties. The false statements are the following: forests of Himalayan Chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) are ecologically barren. We bought into popular but false ecological lore which extends this into statements about pine forests encroaching into productive oak forests because of deadly human interventions involving fire. These assumptions are at best questionable, and at worst completely wrong.

The new understanding is that these are not forests but savannahs, grasslands which are protected by the longleaf pines. These chir pines secrete terpins which drip into the ground and by changing the chemistry of the soil make it inhospitable to some species. The grasslands are not barren. Recent biodiversity counts show that the Himalayan pine savannahs support more species of flora (mainly grasses and herbs) than oak forests. Worldwide, the biodiversity of animal life in forests is dominated by insects, and these counts are missing in Himalayan ecology. Apparently, the biodiversity of grasslands is always undercounted: for example, they are often full of ants, and someone really should count them in pine savannahs here. I have clambered up a pine covered slope once to look at griffons resting in this habitat, so I have first hand evidence that they are not barren.

Chir pines (Pinus roxburghii, also called longleaf pines) are easy to recognize. They have the distinction of having the longest needles among all pines. Although they are evergreens, they shed needles copiously in April and October-November. November is usually very wet in the hills, but April is dry. Locals and seasoned travelers told us that late April and May are known as the fire season in these parts. This year the winter was very dry, and apparently the fires started in October and have smouldered since then.

Ratnam and her co-authors, in their impressive paper on tropical grasslands, present a closely argued case that the role of fire in the management of Himalayan grasslands has been misunderstood since the 19th century. As a result, fire prevention was written into the law in the 1940s. However, worldwide, fires are an intrinsic part of savannah ecologies, and terminology like “prescribed burns” is a common part of forestry practices elsewhere. The argument is expanded on in a separate paperwhich makes the case in more detail, where they relate this understanding to the degradation of all types of grasslands in India. One consequence of this that most bird-watchers are aware of is the tragic collapse of the population of the Great Indian Bustards (Ardeotis nigriceps) in the grasslands of the Indian plains.

Chir pines are adapted to alternation of fire and shade. The seeds germinate faster in red light, which is abundant on the forest floor, after sunlight filters through the trees. The growth habits of seedlings are also fire adapted, as are the grown trees themselves. Studies of the effect of fire on the ecology of chir pine savannah have also been published. It seems that biodiversity is highest on patches which have been burnt more than once. This could be why the traditional fire management methods evolved.

I have spent a lot of time walking in oak forests, and mixed forests on these lower slopes of the Himalayas. They are full of birds and animals (including exotica like the Himalayan red giant flying squirrel, which has the distinction of having the most adjectives preceding its generic name). But I have spent almost no time in pine savannahs. It is time to restore the balance, and see for myself what animal life I can find in them.

Sunset of the Bustards

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.

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