On a cloudy September day, in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, a small group set out in search of one of world’s rarest birds — the critically endangered great Indian bustard — in its global stronghold of the Thar Desert. The monsoon was nearing an end, and ahead of us lay endless zigzag trails of coarse brown sand, interrupted by pale green bushes and patches of grass. Occasionally, we caught sight of Indian gazelles, known as “chinkaras”. Desert larks flitted through thorny trees as cinereous (black) vultures circled overhead.
Our group consisted of local shepherds, the physician and bustard conservationist Dr. Pramod Patil, and myself, all hoping to catch sight of this extraordinary bird, known locally as “godavan.” Once distributed across most of the sub-continent, the great Indian bustard has now disappeared from nearly 90 percent of its former range, primarily due to poaching and habitat loss. Fewer than 250 individuals exist worldwide, with an estimated 150 remaining in the Thar Desert. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the great Indian bustard as one of the 100 most endangered species in the world.
At midday, we stopped in a small shepherd settlement of thatched huts with mud walls. As we sipped tea in a shady courtyard, there was a commotion in the air – a large bird flew over us and landed on a nearby strip of grass.
It was a great Indian bustard, standing about three feet tall and weighing some 40 pounds. Its black crown stood out against its white neck and dusty brown feathers, and it flaunted a conspicuous black breast band. The bird strutted around majestically, probing the grass for insects and seeds, before flying away.
Patil and the shepherds are at the heart of an effort to pull the great Indian bustard back from the brink of oblivion. After first encountering the bustard nearly a decade ago as a medical student — the bird, he recalls, appeared “silent, powerful, mystical” — Patil eventually quit his traditional medical practice in 2013 and began working to save the species in the Thar desert. Realizing that the cooperation of local cattle herders was essential, he decided to offer basic medical care to the herders in exchange for their commitment to report bustard sightings, identify new breeding sites, restore degraded grasslands, and protect the birds from poachers.
Today, he distributes free medicines and counseling to the villagers, conducts their periodic health checkups, and provides transportation for critically ill patients to the nearest city hospital, about 50 miles away. He also has agreed to allow villagers to recharge their mobile phones for free when they convey data on bustard sightings.
The efforts of Patil, local herders, and authorities in Rajasthan have helped halt the decline of bustard populations in India. Villagers now report the presence of outsiders whom they suspect of attempting to kill the bustards for sport, food, or the alleged aphrodisiac qualities of the bird’s flesh. Local herders also participate in joint anti-poaching programs with the State Forest Department. As a result, there have been no known instances of poaching in Patil’s conservation area in the past several years. The semi-nomadic herders in the region have also accurately documented sightings of the bustard and identified previously unknown breeding sites, which can then be protected.
Patil has enlisted nearly 5,000 people from about 30 hamlets into his conservation initiatives. He also has succeeded in setting up a community watchdog network of more than 100 individuals who assist with the mapping of bustard sightings.
Living in a remote region and reticent by nature, the herders were at first skeptical of Patil. Gradually, however, they warmed up to him, thanks to his passion for the birds, his respect for the herders’ knowledge of nature, and his delivery of free medical care. “It was initially not easy to develop rapport with them,” recalls Patil, a bespectacled man of 31 who can be seen visiting local settlements with a stethoscope around his neck and his customary box of medicines in hand. “Without my medical background, it would have been rather impossible to win their hearts.”
Now, he says, the herders have become his ecological “gurus,” and he has integrated their knowledge into his conservation strategies.
Once found in at least 16 Indian states, the bustard’s population has now dwindled to tiny pockets in just five states.
Despite Patil’s efforts, the plight of the great Indian bustard, Ardeotis nigriceps, across the subcontinent is dire. No reliable records exist on populations of the bird a century or two ago, but British accounts suggest that the great Indian bustard was once widespread in India and what is now Pakistan. One estimate from the 1980s placed the bird’s numbers at 745.
Historically found in at least 16 Indian states, the great Indian bustard’s population has now dwindled to tiny pockets in five states in addition to Rajasthan. In Pakistan, which shares a border with Rajasthan, the bird’s situation is grim. A 2008 study reported that the bustard population was in continuous decline and was nearing extirpation in the country because of “intense pressure of human persecution and trade.”
Though not migratory, the omnivorous great Indian bustard moves over a vast landscape, and habitat destruction has also taken its toll. The expansion of agriculture to feed the region’s booming population, coupled with the construction of roads, irrigation canals, power transmission lines, and other infrastructure, is impinging on the undisturbed arid grasslands suited for the bird.
Patil’s work is concentrated in the last bastion of the birds, the Thar desert, including the 1,200-square-mile Desert National Park, a semi-arid grassland proposed for a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Managed by the Rajasthan State Forest Department, the park’s habitat is ideal for the bird because of its vast stretches of undisturbed grasslands and scrublands that harbor a diverse variety of insects, including the grasshoppers and beetles on which the bustard thrives.
Winner of the 2015 Whitley Award for his bustard conservation efforts, Patil collaborates with The Bombay Natural History Society, BirdLife International, and the Royal Society for Protection of Birds. In addition to enlisting the help of herders, Patil has conducted awareness campaigns in local schools by explaining to children the importance of the bird and how it can be conserved. His goal is to make the students proud of the presence of the bustard — the Rajasthan state bird — and help them develop an affinity for the species. Patil’s program has distributed badges with imprints of the bustard, stickers, and large posters of the engendered creature.
The trust of the local communities is bearing fruit, especially during the bustard’s breeding seasons, which occur in two phases — from April to June, followed by the monsoon months from July to September. The bustards are slow breeders, laying just one blotchy brown egg a season. Their breeding sites are in open land, and the eggs are thus vulnerable to multiple threats from local predators such as wild dogs, foxes, lizards, predatory birds, and pigs. But members of the local community have helped identify 10 breeding locations within the enclosed habitats of Desert National Park, which the forest department has fenced off to avoid disturbance to nesting birds.
Patil’s conservation logic seems to be resonating with local residents. As Burha Baba, an elder from western Thar, says, “There is a dual benefit. If we do not disturb the grassland habitat of the bird in or near the nesting site during the breeding season, it not only helps the bustard, but also helps to maintain the growth of grass for our livestock after the season.”
To make the conservation initiatives financially beneficial for the local population, young people are being trained in new models of ecotourism. A Nature Guide Program aims to bring tourists from across the world to explore the little-known beauty of Thar and view bustards and other rare wildlife. Twenty-five unemployed young people have participated in the program, and some are now offering home stays and food to tourists. Local women are also being trained to make burlap bags with the bustard’s image on them.
Now, says Deepak Apte, director of the Bombay Natural History Society, “There is at least a glimmer of hope for the bird from complete disappearance.”
“The species is called the great Indian bustard,” says Patil, “and if we (in India) cannot save the bird from extinction, we would just be left with its pictures for the next generation.”