Protecting India’s Last Legacy

“We must build economic systems that value nature as a central source of human wellbeing and environmental health in the post-COVID 19 world. Safeguarding biodiversity can help reduce future health risks and make our societies more resilient,” José Ángel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, told participants at a joint WWF-OECD webinar on world environment day of 2022.

Nature-based solutions are defined by the IUCN as actions to protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems that simultaneously address societal challenges, providing benefits to human wellbeing and biodiversity. Investments in landscape approaches, coastal recovery and forestry and afforestation projects are some of the examples of incorporating concept of nature based solution in main stream sustainability development.

Adopting this concept in sustainability landscape of one of seventeen megadiverse countries, India, the home to 7.6% of all mammalian, 12.6% of all avian, 6.2% of all reptilian, 4.4% of all amphibian and 11.7% of all fish, is absolutely crucial. Especially when the 73 species of India include 9 species of mammals, 18 birds, 26 reptiles and 20 amphibians, according to IUCN criteria, are critically endangered.

Ironically adopting nature based solution sometimes is in direct conflict with sustainable development agenda of state. The victims of these conflicts are often those critically endangered faunal species and local human community.

Image: Great Indian Desert

My colleague, biodiversity expert Dr. Arun Venkataraman, once highlighted this conflict with respect to Great Indian Bustard (GIB) (Ardeotis nigriceps), a Critically Endangered Species as per the latest IUCN Red-List and a bird endemic to the Indian sub-continent. The bird is now close to extinction. A decade ago more than 350 individuals were  found across several populations in  India. However the species today is confined to 3-4 small pockets in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan states of India.

Image: Close to extinction endemic species of Indian subcontinent – Great Indian Bustards at Desert National Park

Arun further elaborated on this issue, by mentioning that the “Barmer and Jaisalmer Districts in Rajasthan are  thought  to hold  nearly 75 % of the global population of GIB. These districts are  also valued for  their extensive wind and solar energy potential and have  experienced and continue to experience, intense wind and solar energy project development. The Wildlife Institute of India (WII) has carried out long term research on GIBs within the Barmer and Jaisalmer Districts and has obtained a comprehensive understanding of habitat utilization across this landscape. The WII also considers overhead high voltage transmission lines as the leading cause for mortality.  Based on this research, GIB habitats in these Districts have been zoned into GIB Priority Areas (with intense feeding and breeding activity) and GIB Potential Areas (used in transit across habitats). Specific mitigation planning has been suggested for each of these  areas and it has been recommended that this planning occurs in consultation with the WII.

Image: GIB of DNP

When State, Institutions and Policy Makers recognize this underlying cause and conflict between conserving GIB and promoting renewables (wind mills) as part of sustainable development agenda, there is another informal conservation activism remains inconspicuous.

That is participation of community folk turned conservationist in protecting less glamourous but ecologically important species.

In 2013, Musa Khan used to do odd jobs around the Desert National Park. A sudden encounter with Gururaj Moorching, a famous wildlife photographer, changed his life. He drove the photographer and his friends through the park and spotted few birds. It became a turning point in his life and later in 2015, when the forest department organized a training for tourist guides, Khan became a top performer. Over the last 6 years, he has become a sought after guide at the park.

Acting as a link between the forest department and the villagers, he has helped to create awareness about wildlife among the locals. Musa Khan is now a popular name amongst birdwatchers. He is in great demand during the winters, particularly between November and March. A lot of people rely on his expertise to plan their trips to the Desert National Park. Therefore, they make bookings only when Khan is free. I remember to book him while planning my exploration in DNP, between 28th and 31st December 2022. For that I started talking to him since end of August of that year.

Image: Musa and I

I was Musa’s guest for five days during my exploration in Thar Desert, also known as the Great Indian Desert, located in the north-western part of the Indian subcontinent. More than 60% of the desert lies in the Indian state of Rajasthan; and Jaisalmer is nearest city through which one can reach there.

During my exploration we spotted around 60 avian species of Indian desert. Some very special sightings were raptors like merlin, Eurasian sparrow hawk, common and long legged buzzards, lagger falcon, Eurasian crestel, tawny, imperial and short-toed snake eagle; four types of vultures like Himalayan and Eurasian griffon, cinereous and Egyptian; some special lark species of desert like bimaculate, crested and greater hoopoe lark; trumpeter finch; various wheatears like Persian, isabelline, variable and desert wheatears.

Image: Tawny Eagle at DNP

However, the most mention worthy sighting was two different species of bustards. Great Indian and MacQueen’s bustards.

Hugely supported by ornithologist Salim Ali, the Great Indian Bustard (GIB) was once in the running to be crowned India’s national bird. It lost the title to the Indian peafowl, largely due to the potential of its name being misspelt, as per an article written by animal rights and environmental activist Tamanna Sengupta in online magazine

Image: GIB pair in habitat surrounded by windmills

Thanks to Musa Khan, in three days, we saw five individuals of GIB, one adult male, two adult females, one sub-adult male and one juvenile. Mainly they were found foraging within Desert National Park and in surrounding grasslands of the Sam and Salkhia village near the park. The grazing ground was surrounded by several hundreds huge wind mills.

MacQueen’s bustards on the other hand is winter migratory species to Thar Desert. These Mongolian birds leave the wintering areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan from mid to late March and arrive in their breeding grounds after about two months of flying, taking a path that avoids the high mountains of the Himalayas. Their migrations have been tracked using satellite transmitters.

Image: MacQueen’s bustards at DNP

In fact we noticed tag and radio collars attached to the legs of the two adult birds we saw there.

Today wildlife enthusiasts, ecotourists and photographers from all over World visit Desert National Park to have glimpses and their dream shots of these two bustard species. Musa Khan keeps track of these birds’ movement with help of local nomads and shepherds who frequently spot these birds while getting their livestock to grassland for grazing. His engagement with them prevent them from hunting the birds, as every body now started to understand the ecotourism economy of Thar desert.

Image: A shepherd from local community of Thar desert

Community based ecotourism has huge potential to be an effective element of Nature Based Solution in order to further upheld the agenda of Sustainability Development.

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