4 Indigenous Species In India That Need Conservation Efforts In 2023
India has only about 300-900 Gharials, fewer than 1,000 Lesser Floricans, fewer than 250 Great Indian Bustards and only 674 Asiatic Lions. These species are under threat and require immediate conservation efforts
Mumbai: For wildlife conservation in India, 2022 will be the year of the Cheetah. In September 2022, eight African cheetahs were translocated to Madhya Pradesh's Kuno National Park, in the hope of reviving this species, extinct in the country for nearly 70 years, and for conservation of grassland ecosystems.
Though this project got attention, and money, there are several species of birds, mammals and reptiles indigenous to India, threatened due to illegal hunting, habitat fragmentation, diseases etc., whose conservation requires a greater push in 2023, experts say.
"Irrespective of the cheetah project, the other threatened species have to be undoubtedly given attention," said Kedar Gore, director of The Corbett Foundation, a non-governmental organisation working for wildlife conservation.
As the year comes to a close, we bring you the details about four such species, protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, but under threat of extinction a few generations down the line.
There are fewer than 1,000 mature individuals estimated today in Nepal and India, down from 3,500 about 20 years ago. This species, where the males are black and white in colour and the females are sandy coloured, is already extinct from Pakistan. In India, it goes by the name 'Kharmor' in Gujarat and 'Khar Titar' in Rajasthan.
From 1982-1989, its population in Nepal and India declined by nearly 60% from 4,374 to 1,672. By 1994, it had increased by 32% to 2,206 birds. The reduction in the population of the Lesser Florican has continued and "appears to have accelerated over the past 20 years", an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) assessment notes. "The species appears to be in imminent danger of becoming extinct in Madhya Pradesh and only very few are breeding in Maharashtra," it states. Population fluctuations in this bird species are correlated with breeding season rainfall patterns, showing that the bird is susceptible to extinction in the event of a severe, prolonged drought.
Some of the other major reasons for the reduction in the bird's population include loss and conversion of grassland for other purposes such as for agriculture, attacks on chicks by feral dogs, adults colliding into power lines, and people hunting them for food and eggs.
Great Indian Bustard
There are fewer than 250 Great Indian Bustards (GIB) left in India, their only home, from 1,260 in 1969 and 300 in 2008.
Earlier, they were widely found in the Thar desert and the Deccan tableland but the GIB has vanished from 90% of its former range and is now principally confined to Rajasthan. In places where GIB numbers are less than 30, there is a high probability of local extinction within 50 years. In places where Bustards are more than 100, the rate of decline, because of human causes, can be one adult each year.
Historically, widespread hunting for sport and food precipitated the GIB's decline, accelerated by vehicular access to remote areas. But today, the decline in the GIB population has been triggered by loss and degradation of grassland--their habitat. This 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.
Both the GIB and the Lesser Florican are grassland birds and our grasslands are "fast disappearing", said the former director of the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, P.A. Azeez. "Unfortunately, grasslands are not protected in India unless they are part of protected forest areas. They are referred to as wastelands even as they serve a great ecological purpose."
Azeez also suggested that high tension power lines, if they cannot be buried, the height at which they are installed should change and reflectors installed to make sure that the birds do not die by colliding with power lines.
Gore from the Corbett Foundation hopes that the cheetah will act as a flagship species for India's grasslands and savannah habitat that are ignored and lack the much-deserved protection.
These important ecosystems, "unfortunately categorised as wastelands" are, "in reality, excellent habitats for many other threatened species", said Gore. "What India needs now to complement the cheetah reintroduction programme is a grassland policy that also offers long-term protection to species such as the Lesser Florican and the Great Indian Bustard."
The greatest danger to the Asiatic lion is that all are isolated in a single place in the Gir Forest protected area and nearby areas of Gujarat. The single subpopulation [as all the tigers are restricted in one area] is vulnerable to extinction from unpredictable events, such as an epidemic or a large forest fire, an IUCN assessment notes.
Until a century or more ago, lions were distributed across Southwest Asia and prone to being hunted. In 1913, when the Nawabs and the government became aware of the fact that no more than 20 lions remained alive, uncontrolled shooting of lions was banned and for the first time, steps towards lion conservation began. By 1936, India had 287 lions, by 2008 we had 350, 523 in 2015 and 674 in 2022.
The Asiatic Lion landscape now goes beyond the previous 1,883 square kilometre network of the Gir Protected Area and spreads over around 20,000 sq km in Saurashtra, as per the 2015 census.
Since the population now extends beyond the boundary of the lion sanctuary, and the numbers are stable, the subspecies is categorised as endangered.
In 2013, the Supreme Court had ordered that to protect the Asiatic lion and give them a second home in India, lions be reintroduced in Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh within six months. While eight cheetahs have been translocated to Kuno this year, the government has still not moved the lion population to Kuno.
"The Supreme Court order of April 2013 is yet to be implemented. In 2018, the canine distemper virus and babesiosis killed at least 34 lions in Gujarat…According to the Gujarat government's own records, 585 lions have died in the state in four years between 2018 and 2021 and a significant fraction of these deaths are due to diseases," said Ravi Chellam, wildlife biologist who is also the CEO of Metastring Foundation and Coordinator of Biodiversity Collaborative. "If it happened once, it can happen again."
Lions are also threatened by poaching, drowning due to falling in wells and shrinking of the size of the Gir forests, as per the IUCN. Gujarat's forest department also considers human presence and their livestock in the Gir sanctuary area, adverse effects of natural calamities such as drought, poisoning, as threats to the lion population.
Native to Bangladesh, India and Nepal, the Gharial is a critically endangered species. It is extinct from Bhutan, Myanmar and Pakistan.
Gharial were historically distributed throughout the major channels of the rivers Indus, Ganga, Mahanadi, Brahmaputra-Meghna and Irrawaddy. The species is currently extinct from the Indus, Irrawaddy and several tributaries of the Ganga and Brahmaputra-Meghna systems, but persists in 14 sites within the Ganga river system. Their global population is estimated to be in the range of 300 to 900, as per an IUCN 2017 assessment. However, B.C. Choudhury, a former scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India, and a trustee of the Wildlife Trust of India, believes India has around 3,500 Gharial--2,500 in the wild and 1,000 in captivity.
Some of the reasons behind the decline in Gharial numbers include dams and barrages disrupting river hydrology, deaths because of fishing nets, and historically, unregulated hide-hunting. Currently, the serious threats to the Gharial population are increased river-bank disruptions, especially due to sand mining and boulder removal.
"During the next decade, Gharial will likely be extirpated [go extinct] from some of the minor or non-breeding sites, including three sanctuaries in India designed for their protection (Son, Ken, Satkosia Gorge), as well as the Padma-Jamuna, Brahmaputra-Meghna, and Bhagirathi-Hooghly drainages [river systems], based on the infrequent sightings in these regions," warns the IUCN Red List 2017 assessment.
Choudhury believes the Gharial is a species of concern. "Year 2025 will be the 50th year of India's crocodile conservation programme that focuses on the Gharial," he says, adding that they have bred in captivity but that they are not monitored after being released in the wild. "Measures like effective monitoring in the wild are needed to study their survival."
IndiaSpend reached out to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change's Wildlife Department with queries on what measures the government has taken for conservation of these threatened species, the demand for a grassland policy, the status of making power lines underground in Gujarat and Rajasthan, the status of the Supreme Court-ordered relocation of Asiatic Lions outside Gujarat, and to comment on monitoring of Gharials. This story will be updated when they respond.
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