The Last Remaining Bustards Of Gujarat
Despite a Supreme Court order for power lines to be laid underground to protect the rare birds, a new Central Electricity Authority notice seeks to allow power lines through Bustard habitats across India
Kutch (Gujarat): In the Abdasa region of Kutch district in Gujarat, close to India’s western edge, overhead electric lines are marked with what look like small red-and-yellow paper tags that move with the wind. These are bird flight diverters, installed to protect the Great Indian Bustards from colliding with these lines.
The Great Indian Bustard, a bird with a black crown on its forehead, a pale neck and head and a brownish body, is critically endangered--in this region, only four specimens remain alive.
Durgaben Vasava, clad in jeans, t-shirt and jacket, with her hair tied back in a tight bun and covered with a cap, leads the way on her motorcycle to the Kutch Bustard sanctuary. Having worked here for five years as a forest guard, Vasava says she feels upset every time she sees a Bustard dead due to a power line. Her job involves patrolling the two-square-kilometre sanctuary every day, but that doesn’t mean she often spots the rare birds, whose habitat extends beyond the sanctuary as well.
“Jab season me Ghorad dikhta hai toh aisa lagta hai humara koi mehmaan aaya hai,” said Vasava, in Hindi. “Spotting the Bustard is like welcoming a guest home.”
The Great Indian Bustard (GIB), a large bird about a metre in height and weighing 15-18 kg, has vanished from 90% of its former range. The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimated in 2018 that there are fewer than 250 GIBs left in India, their only home, down from 1,260 in 1969 and 300 in 2008.
The Indian government’s numbers vary from the IUCN estimate. In an Indian government press release from March 2022, based on a 2018 report by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), the largest numbers are in Rajasthan (128), and fewer than 10 remain in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka each. Thus, India has fewer than 150 of the endangered birds left.
Without any males left to procreate, the future of the four remaining female Bustards of Gujarat was already in jeopardy; the continued existence of power lines in their habitats might just tip them over the edge into oblivion, experts fear.
A Great Indian Bustard in flight in Kutch, Gujarat
Gujarat’s Ghorad, Rajasthan’s Godawan
Naveen Bapat, 80, is a seasoned bird watcher. He remembers when Abdasa had 48 Bustards, around 13 years ago.
“If Ghorad (Bustard) is there, that means a region’s ecosystem is complete,” said Bapat. “If they become extinct, that means our grassland ecosystem will collapse. No environmentalist is against renewable energy, but we had to move the court because the government was not doing anything about the dying birds. They now have to comply and make power lines underground,” said Bapat, of Bustards dying due to electricity lines that cater to renewable energy projects.
Historically, widespread hunting for sport and food precipitated the GIB’s decline, accelerated by vehicular access to remote areas. But today, the continued decline in the GIB population has been triggered by loss and degradation of grasslands which are their habitat. This decline is because of widespread agricultural expansion and mechanisation of farming, infrastructural development such as irrigation, roads, electricity towers, wind turbines and construction, mining and industrialisation, improper habitat management and lack of community support for conservation efforts, notes an IUCN assessment which categorises the Bustard as ‘critically endangered’.
Kutch’s Abdasa region is home not only to the GIB but to two other Bustard species as well--the Lesser Florican (which is also critically endangered) and the Asian Houbara (which is classified as “vulnerable”).
The Wildlife Institute of India (WII), an autonomous body under the environment ministry, published a report in 2018 titled ‘Power Line Mitigation’, which estimates the number of Bustards in Rajasthan’s Thar at 128, give or take 19 birds, and cited power lines (that Bapat was referring to above) as the most significant threat to the species’ survival. Surveys conducted by WII in Thar region (the biggest Bustard habitat in India), covering 80 km of power lines repeated seven times over a year, found 289 carcasses of around 40 species, including the GIB.
The study estimated a mortality rate of around 6 birds/km/month for high tension lines and around 3 birds/km/month for low tension lines. Specifically in terms of GIB, six deaths were recorded, all due to high tension transmission lines, some of them connected to wind turbines. WII extrapolated these mortalities to the priority Bustard habitat, and said that “this amounts to about 16 GIB deaths per year from a population of about 128 ± 19 individuals in Thar. Such a high mortality rate is unsustainable for the species and a sure cause of extinction.”
Of 10 GIBs tagged in Rajasthan (where they are locally called Godawan), Gujarat (where they are known as Ghorad) and Maharashtra (locally called Maldhok), two died from power line collisions between 2015 and 2018, corroborating WII’s findings.
“Local villagers here understand the importance of Ghorad and inform us if they spot the bird in the region. The main obstacle to the birds’ survival is the power line for the windmill. You can see it everywhere,” said Vasava, pointing to the large wind farms surrounding the Kutch Bustard sanctuary.
Only four Great Indian Bustards survive in Gujarat’s Kutch, all of them females.
Governments are yet to agree on a possible solution for their survival and possible means of future procreation.
Seen here, entrance of Kutch Bustard Sanctuary.
The state has not had a male GIB in years, and to assess conservation options for the four remaining females, there were discussions between the state governments of Gujarat, Rajasthan, the Union government and experts on conservation strategies for cases like these where procreation is not a possibility and the birds face the threat of extinction in the region. The discussions were reportedly about whether the females of Gujarat can be translocated to Rajasthan, or whether male birds can be brought into Gujarat from the latter.
In scientific terms, in-situ conservation involves conservation of a species in their natural habitat, and ex-situ conservation involves conservation outside natural habitats.
Rajasthan had expressed concern that even if they send a male to Gujarat, there is still the threat of power lines around the Kutch sanctuary. Rajasthan has managed to successfully run a satellite conservation breeding facility with the help of experts from WII in the Sam region of Jaisalmer. The programme in Rajasthan recently hit an important milestone wherein India’s first two captive bred GIB chicks (captive bred GIBs undertook procreation and chicks were born in breeding facility) were born there, according to WII. Thus, the programme now has a founder population of 22 birds and four chicks so far.
India’s first captive-bred Great Indian Bustard born at the Rajasthan breeding centre
In April 2022, the Gujarat Energy Department submitted an affidavit in an ongoing matter before the Supreme Court to bury power lines in Bustard habitats (in which Bapat is also petitioner), stating that the option of translocating GIBs out of Kutch may be explored. However, officers from Gujarat’s wildlife department told IndiaSpend they are optimistic about GIB survival in the region, and want to undertake conservation breeding programmes in the state. The Union government in March 2023 has stated that sites for establishment of conservation breeding centres for GIB and Lesser Florican birds have been identified in Gujarat and Rajasthan.
N.V. Srivastava, the Wildlife Warden of Gujarat, is positive about the Bustards’ future. “We have proposed undertaking captive breeding of the birds by bringing male birds here, with trained staff and expert guidance overseeing the process. This means the second or third generation of birds can eventually be released in the wild. So, it is not necessary that the Bustard will go extinct from Gujarat.”
Other measures being undertaken by the Gujarat forest department for Bustard conservation include removal of prosophis (invasive species), planting of shrubs and exploring other habitat possibilities for GIBs within Kutch that have “less disturbance”, such as the Narayan Sarovar blackbuck sanctuary.
V.J. Rana, Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) for Gujarat, believes that advanced technology such as cloning or artificial insemination could also be a solution for the birds’ survival in the future.
M.K. Ranjitsinh, a retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer known as the architect of India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 and the petitioner in the SC case, believes the conservation of the last four female Bustards in Gujarat could be achieved if the government demonstrates its commitment by burying existing and upcoming overhead power lines in the priority areas of Abdasa and Mandvi.
“This would allow for the introduction of a male bird from Rajasthan. However, without mitigating the powerlines, all conservation efforts would be in vain, as the birds would eventually collide and die,” he said.
Sutirtha Dutta, scientist with WII and lead of India’s Bustard Recovery Programme, agreed and said that in cases of non-viable populations such as Gujarat’s, males can be brought in only if conservation breeding programme has surplus males and only if threats to the birds are mitigated. He said translocation of birds from Gujarat to Rajasthan carries a risk (chances of mortality due to stress) and was proposed in a dire situation but if done successfully, might help in capturing a wider genetic signature of the birds. If a founder population such as the one currently in Rajasthan has a wide genetic signature, it helps future generations cope.
“Right now, there is no decision about moving these birds to Rajasthan,” said Rana, the CCF. “We are hoping males will come from Rajasthan instead. We are in search of a potential breeding centre here. We are working on all possible measures.”
In October 2022, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) directed that male GIBs must be translocated to states where there is a need, and the same applies for female birds.
But Dutta believes that states like Gujarat have too small a Bustard population to take up conservation breeding as at least 15-20 birds should be involved.
“The plan we are proposing is that in all these other states, we need to restore at least 300 sq km of habitat including grassland and seasonal agricultural land where critical threats like power lines and poaching need to be mitigated as much as possible. Once that’s there, then surplus birds from our centre can be released in their traditional habitats,” said Dutta.
Bustard habitats are riddled with power lines as of now and Ranjitsinh also questioned the wisdom of breeding GIBs in large numbers, only to release them into an environment where they would be at risk of being killed by power lines. He emphasised the importance of rendering the area safe before releasing the birds.
IndiaSpend wrote to the Gujarat Forest Department and Energy Department with queries on the proposed Bustard conservation breeding program, its status, the percentage of power lines laid underground in Bustard areas in Gujarat among others. This story will be updated when they respond.
Bustard habitats are categorised as priority areas and potential areas based on existence and movement of the birds.
In 2019, a writ petition was filed before the Supreme Court by Ranjitsinh, Bapat and others asking that Bustards be protected. Based on the 2018 WII report, the petitioners sought undergrounding of all future overhead power lines; selected existing power lines in priority GIB habitats, and installation of diverters in potential habitats.
In this matter, the SC in April 2021 ordered that all proposed low voltage power lines in the priority and potential areas of GIB must be made underground. Even the proposed high voltage power lines passing through these areas should be underground, the SC ruled, but added that the technical feasibility of doing the same will have to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
As for the existing power lines (low voltage and high voltage), the SC ordered that all overhead lines in priority and potential habitats of GIBs, wherever feasible, should be made underground within one year and where not feasible, they should be marked with diverters.
Less than 25% of the total length of power lines have been marked with bird flight diverters (seen here), a Supreme Court-appointed committee has noted. Bustards can die of collision or electrocution due to power lines.
-The SC formed an expert committee consisting of Rahul Rawat, a scientist with Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, Sutirtha Dutta, the scientist with WII, and Devesh Gadhvi, a scientist and deputy director of The Corbett Foundation, to assess the feasibility of laying high voltage transmission lines underground in GIB habitats.
The committee has received 57 applications so far from public and private power companies. The committee ratified 82% (or 3,341 km of power lines) as lines to be laid overhead with diverters in Gujarat, and did not ratify--or recommended re-routing--for 18% applications (753 km length). The reason for not ratifying these is because the power lines were proposed through either the priority or potential GIB area having high frequency of movement of the birds. In Rajasthan, it ratified 98% power lines to stay overhead, but with bird flight diverters installed.
In a separate note, the committee in its status report in January 2023, noted that it did not receive a single application from the concerned authorities to exempt existing power lines from being shifted underground in Rajasthan.
“Further, to the best of the knowledge of these Committee members, no existing transmission line in Rajasthan and only a 10 km segment of a much longer 66kV transmission line in Gujarat have been laid underground; whereas the length of transmission lines that have been marked with diverters is <25% of the total line length,” it noted, and sought directions from the SC to concerned agencies for expediting undergrounding.
While progress on shifting the power lines underground remained sluggish, earlier this year the CEA issued a public notice stating that it proposes to notify the Draft Central Electricity Authority (Construction of Electric Lines in Great Indian Bustard area) Regulations, 2023.
It invited suggestions and objections towards these with a deadline of March 3, 2023. The regulations propose that electric lines of 33kV and below passing through GIB areas (this includes priority and potential areas as identified by WII) shall be underground cables, but allow electric lines above 33 KV voltage level to be laid overhead with diverters.
Bustards have wide sideways vision to maximise predator detection at the cost of narrow frontal vision. Because of this, and a habit of scanning the ground while flying, they cannot detect power-lines ahead of them from afar. Being heavy fliers, they fail to manoeuvre across power lines and end up colliding into them, the WII report had noted.
When these birds collide into low voltage lines, they often die of electrocution, but in case they collide into high voltage lines, they die of the collision itself. Therefore, the CEA’s proposal, which allows high voltage lines overhead, has raised concerns.
Having been a forest guard for more than five years, Durgaben Vasava’s job is to patrol the Kutch Bustard Sanctuary. She blames the power lines for windmills around the sanctuary for many bird deaths.
Ranjitsinh called the CEA’s move a deliberate attempt to shift the goalpost. “The order of the SC has the force of law. The government itself had told the SC that power lines up to 440 kV could be made underground. In Kutch itself, 66 kV power lines have been taken underground in Khadir, so then why cannot it be done in this case? Do it in priority areas first, at least,” said the retired government officer, who also reiterated results of various scientific studies that diverters are not an effective solution for the Bustards.
Meanwhile, power companies have not taken their lines underground and, in fact, many have approached the SC-appointed committee for an exemption from the costly prospect, the committee’s status report says. To add to that, the latest CEA move might allow power companies to circumvent the SC judgment, conservationists say.
Moreover, in its draft regulations, the CEA has also retained authority to, by order and for reasons to be recorded in writing, relax any provisions of these regulations on a case-by-case basis, which also does not sit well with experts.
“The SC appointed a committee because a decision about power lines cannot be taken in a blanket fashion,” a conservationist, who did not wish to be named, pointed out. “Then how did the CEA decide to do something sweeping like this, allowing all power lines over 33kV? In India, power lines have been taken underground for Metro rail or even a garbage landfill. Then why cannot the same be done for Bustards?”
“Just 10 days ago [in late March], a Bustard carcass was found under a power line in Rajasthan. That power line has killed four Bustards so far. If a tiger or lion dies due to human error, people are prosecuted or arrested. Then how is the approach different for the Bustard, also a Schedule I species?” he asked.
IndiaSpend wrote to the CEA with questions on how many comments it received to the above mentioned public notice, whether it plans to amend or scrap the proposed Regulations, percentage of power lines in Bustard areas made underground or marked with diverters in India. This story will be updated when they respond.
As I readied to leave Kutch’s Bustard sanctuary without spotting the elusive bird, forest guard Vasava warned me not to touch the electric fencing next to the exit, which runs all around the perimeter of the sanctuary. The irony, that such fencing which has been set up to protect the sanctuary is similar to what ends up killing the Bustards, is unmissable.
“Nobody thought of the ill-effects of renewable energy back then,” Vasava says. “Jab tak hum neend se jaage, tab tak bohot der ho gayi (By the time we woke up from our slumber, it was too late).”
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