Facing Extinction – The Great Indian Bustard and The Thar Desert

The fast greening of the Thar desert is a point of concern for the scientists. Though harsh on living beings, the disappearance of the desert does not augur well for the environment. Greening of the desert is affecting the biodiversity of the area and also affecting the global climate by altering the wind patterns. According to an article in Science Daily in April 2008, a bacteria residing in the desert sands of Kalahari helps in carbon capture.

Hence, rather than replacing them with green patches of forest, it’s a good idea to see how the desert can be preserved in order to reverse global warming.   However, when a Newspaper article reported last November that the increase in rainfall and overall cooling down had brought in hordes of winter birds at the Desert National Park in Jaisalmer, it was music to our ears. It set us driving towards Jaisalmer from Jodhpur. The article had mentioned that one could spot various European migratory birds and also catch a glimpse of the Great Indian Bustard, which might be soon extinct.

Great_Indian_Bustard Photo: Dr Lipika Dey

A call to the Desert National Park revealed nothing about ways and means to see the birds. A few conversations with local drivers however yielded a few names of friends and relatives staying in Khetolai, a village that was mentioned in the article.

The Desert National Park spans over an area of around 3000 square kms, covering a number of villages. We landed at Khetolai around 3 in the afternoon, hoping against hope that the Great Indian Bustard would be waiting to greet us while it basked in the soft winter sun. Locally called Godawan, it was once found in many places wherever there was an abundance of the long, wispy savannah grass. Today, only about 150 of them exist in the country – a few in this park and a few in Gujarat.

Luck was not on our side that day.  However, going around the forest area in Khetolai had its own reward. We could spot the Mongolian and the common cranes, a few eagles, wheatears and European common starlings – though the big bird eluded us. A little Googling had revealed that one entrance to the park was near Sam sand dunes, around 60 kms from Jaisalmer.

Photo: Dr Lipika Dey

A fifteen-year-old memory of a heavenly sunset behind the pristine sand dunes at Sam, complete with the soulful tunes of Rajasthani folk songs, the heart wrenching notes of ravanahatha, the beats of the dholak, the swirls of ghumar and a hearty meal of kair-sangri and gatta curry – were still fresh in our minds. Swathed in this memory, I had booked us a tent at Sam sand dunes this time.

We reached Sam around 8 pm in the evening. I realised that the reality of the dunes today is enough to depress the most optimistic of characters. The neons dominated the skyline, while the full moon sheepishly floated in the sky, like a village relative lost in the urban crowd. The folk music has lost its way in Bollywood glitz. The ghagras swirled to the tunes of glitzy film songs. Patches of sand peeped self-consciously from among the planted bushes. Only the dream of meeting the Godawan kept our moods upbeat.

Eguptian Vulture Photo: Dr Lipika Dey

A few enquiries at the camp next morning made it clear that the national Park was a well-kept secret. So we ventured on our own armed with a few names picked up from the article and conversations with villagers at Khetolai.

A board pointing towards Sudasree guided us towards the entrance of the National Park area. After buying the tickets, we proceeded through the fields. The kair fruits had ripened to a crimson red. A profusion of snow-white flowers adorned the bui bushes. The green, the gold, the white and the red painted a beautiful picture against the spotless blue sky.

The entrance to the main forest was deserted. We peeked into the few empty huts scattered here and there. Finally, we could spot Ramjan. He was a local lad, and somehow landed there like a Messiah who would show us the bird. He arranged for a jeep to take us around the park, not the core area, but with a promise to show the birds. And he was true to his words.

Desert Fox Photo: Lipika Dey

When we went back to the park around 4 in the afternoon, we could finally see three male bustards from afar. The wait was well worth it. The males of this species are bigger than the females. They are also more courageous than their female partners. Three grand male birds moved around gracefully amidst the long-blade savannah grass, with their slender white necks sticking out, their brown feathery backs shining like a silk carpet. The kohl-rimmed eyes hunted for the insects and small reptiles that hid in the grass. The females, it seems, are shy and wary of other animals. They lay eggs, in one or two, amidst the grass. Though the mother guards the eggs carefully, still most of them get shattered under the feet of the grazing cattle, thereby putting an end to the process of procreation. Unfortunately, I was not equipped with the perfect camera that could do justice to the magnificence of this bird.

With increasing urbanization, peaceful grasslands, where the birds can breed undisturbed, are shrinking at a rapid pace. The Godawan, which was once a common bird in this region, and had even vied for the title of the national bird of India, is sadly facing total extinction. If that happens, we would be the unfortunate generation to have abetted it.

Vulture Photo: Lipika Dey

Though the godawan was the high point of the evening, spotting quite a few desert foxes, and then vultures, was no less thrilling. A family of these huge creatures sat around a huge carcass, enjoying a feast with their wings spread out in the sun.  Spotting these natural scavengers is also a rare event these days. Once upon a time, when we were students, a tree in front of the only girls’ hostel at IIT Kharagpur hosted these birds, and hence the area was famously called Shakuntala, of course, loaded with allegory! As we trailed back to the tent, we were also lucky enough to come across a parliament of Egyptian vultures, their yellow faces surrounded by a mop of blonde hair, satiated after a hearty meal from the remains of a sheep. A golden dusk was engulfing the world, which would soon be lost in folds of silvery darkness.

The tents were gearing up for yet another jazzy evening. Entertainment unleashed as plastic cups, beer bottles, flashy packets of unfinished chips piled up. Seeing the heap of garbage grow over two days, we inquired with the owners about their garbage collection services. Apparently, there is no regular practice of picking up garbage from the area, and the mess will be cleared only after the tourist season is over in March.

Seeing the Great Indian Bustard was overwhelming. But seeing the total transformation of Sam in the last fifteen years was unnerving. There seems to be everything in Thar today, other than the desert. Like the Great Indian Bustard, the desert too is weeping silently, appealing to us to save it from dying a slow death.

With boardroom discussions around sustainable tourism gaining pitch, I fervently hope we can do something now and soon.

About the Author: Dr. Lipika Dey is a Chief Scientist at TCS Research. Her areas of interest are in Artificial Intelligence, Sustainability analytics and Natural Language Processing. She loves travelling, bird watching, cooking and connecting to people.