Prakash Javadekar and the environment ministry are proud of their record in speeding up green clearances. Take a look at what they cleared last week. The forest advisory committee approved the expansion of the air force base at Naliya in Kutch, Gujarat, one of the few places in the country where the Great Indian Bustard, an endangered bird, is found.

Naliya is one of two sanctuaries in Gujarat devoted to the Great Indian Bustard. The bustard, incidentally one of the largest flying birds, was once widespread across India and Pakistan, but is now extinct from 95% of its former range. Classified as a critically endangered species, the numbers fell from around 1,260 in 1969 to around 300 in 2008.

Ornithologist Bikram Grewal, who has served on several committees, laments that the Great Indian Bustard will be the first to go extinct in our lifetime. Asad Rahmani, who has spent a lifetime studying the bustard, worries that “we are maybe 30 years late in saving this majestic bird". They both just may be right.

Since India adopted a comprehensive framework to protect its wildlife in 1972, the Great Indian Bustard may just be the first species bordering on extinction. India should have been the proud custodian of this species; in the next few years it will be remembered as its last stand.

Of course the defence needs of the country are paramount. But I am sure the Indian Air Force would rather save the wild species of this country than give flight to a programme which will lead to the extinction of the bird. The air force has for long reported the presence of the birds inside the base and areas surrounding the airfield, according to the minutes of a 29 July meeting of the advisory committee accessed by Mint.

But why blame just this one project? Our failure to save this bird is linked to our failure to save grasslands, the habitat of the Great Indian Bustard. We still see grasslands as wastelands that can be put to better use, failing to realize that they host an array of species and provide important ecosystem services. For the hapless bird, the arid and semi-arid grasslands with scattered short scrub are ideal for breeding. Birds congregate in traditional grassland patches which are less disturbed, to breed during mid-summer and monsoon. The bustard nests in open ground, laying only one clutch (usually consisting of one and very rarely two eggs) per year, thus making it vulnerable to rapid population decline.

The three states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra could play a key role in saving the Great Indian Bustard from extinction. Rajasthan, which has the most viable population, has declared it as the state bird, but done nothing further. Now Gujarat wants to denotify a part of the sanctuary for a bird that’s already on its way down the extinction vortex.

Of course some efforts for conservation were made; in June this year, Javadekar’s ministry announced a captive breeding programme for the bird. But a recent study by a team of scientists from the University of East Anglia, in partnership with Birdlife International, found that captive breeding of the bustard may not be as effective as preserving it in the wild. “Our predictive models show no guarantee that a captive population can be established, and a high chance it will fail," Paul Dolman, reader at the School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, wrote in an article in the Journal of Applied Ecology in June.

The study categorically states, “Given the already depleted wild population, any collection of bustard eggs for captive breeding would need to have a strong chance of survival and reintroduction to make an ex-situ conservation programme worthwhile. Unfortunately bustards are particularly difficult to keep and breed in captivity." Dolman said: “Ten years of effective habitat conservation measures, leaving eggs in the wild and not attempting captive breeding would result in more adults in the wild than if those eggs were harvested to set up a captive breeding population."

And that’s why the Great Indian Bustard needs our environment minister. More than captive breeding, your ministry needs to work on saving its habitat instead of diverting it for other purposes. The Indian mind is an innovative one; if we want to save a species, we can. We did it with the gharials, we are doing it for the tigers. This majestic bird needs our help. Let’s save it.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of the book Green Wars: Dispatches From A Vanishing World.

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