Is anyone listening?
Lt Gen. Baljit Singh (retd)

The Lesser Florican is totally dependent on grasslands for breeding and foraging.
The Lesser Florican is totally dependent on grasslands for breeding and foraging. It is an endangered species as most of these grasslands have disappeared due to excessive farming and urbanisation. Less than 2,000 Floricans are left in the world. — Photo by Asad R. Rahmani

Several bird species in India are on the verge of extinction. Now if this dismal status, coupled with a 130 years old, disturbing but true episode, succeeds in jolting at least one out of every 100 Indians to stand up for our birds, chances are that the feared extinction could be warded off, at least till the end of the Century.

James Audubon, one of the greatest American bird artists, recorded in the 1870s one flock of passenger pigeons (an endemic bird of the USA) so extensive and tight knit in flight that "the light of the noon day sun was obscured as by an eclipse."

This observation was reinforced by another person from Michigan in 1876. He talked of a swath of land "300 miles long and one mile wide" over which the migrating flocks of passenger pigeons had blocked the sun and stars "for 14 consecutive hours!"

The Red Indians, who hunted game animals and birds for food and clothing accessories, understood the population dynamics of all wild creatures and ‘harvested’ them sustainably. However, the age-old self-imposed societal regulations on keeping hunting within limits simply collapsed after the Red Indians were vanquished and dispossessed by the colonisers whose lifestyle and perception of man-animal equation were totally different.

Along with this vanished the mighty flocks of the passenger pigeons. In 1878 a single, crazed en mass hunting spree spread over seven consecutive days in Michigan, pigeons equivalent of "300 tonnes of meat were shot, netted and clubbed." The last passenger pigeon alive in the Cincinnati zoo died on September 1, 1914.

An awareness hoarding in a military establishment shows how the Army has played an important role in safeguarding endangered birds
An awareness hoarding in a military establishment shows how the Army has played an important role in safeguarding endangered birds

In India, however, the earliest paradigm of wildlife conservation and connected checks and balances was handed down through Ashoka’s edicts. This was then perfected by Independent India into The Wildlife (Protection), Act 1972. Taking cognisance of the unprecedented loss of forest cover and dwindling wildlife, the Act permitted strictly controlled hunting for sport and science. By 1980s, when the populations further plummeted, hunting, netting and trade were banned totally.

But India has not been able to enforce the ban for saving the threatened birds.

Is there a way to prevent the looming extinction, is an oft-asked question.

I did conceive a blueprint, which has the potential to create a safety stock of almost all species of our birds, including those on the latest IUCN Red Data List. My hypothesis is based on two fundamental facts

 A flock of Bar-headed Geese sticks together in its fight for survival.
A flock of Bar-headed Geese sticks together in its fight for survival. — Photo by Asad R. Rahmani

Mammals cannot survive as viable populations outside quality forests, be that a sanctuary, National Park or a protected forest. Almost all species of birds can and do adapt to live and maintain viable populations on the premises of agro-industrial-urban conglomerates using trees which are part of modern-day landscaping of all such utilities. Birds are equally at home in roosting, nesting and breeding on tree avenues lining national highways, internal link roads, water channels etc.

So the need of the hour is to develop friendly, non-autocratic partnerships between the Ministry of Environment and Forest, the Wildlife Institute of India, NGOs and those private and public sector entities that have the potential to support viable bird populations on their estates. In doing so be sensitive to the prevailing land management system (ownership rights) of the parties concerned.

There should be no attempt to bring them under the purview of the Act by legislation as such a move will face hostility from the principal partners and the scheme will flounder at the start itself.

To name just a few such potential entities, take the Tata’s Telco estate outside Pune, which has excellent water bodies and open areas for birds of such habitats.

The College of Military Engineering, Kirkee, has a similar potential.

The BSF Training Establishment at Tekanpur (Gwalior-Jhansi road) is festering (or used to be!) with birds, rodents, small mammals of the mud-ravines habitat.

The IOC refineries at Mathura and Panipat have water bodies that harbour very large populations of resident and migrant birds.

Ammunition depot of the Army on the outskirts of Guwahati already has a large breeding population of the Night Herons, Lesser Whistling Teal and has the potential for harbouring the IUCN listed Adjutant Stork. Army’s Mahajan Manoeuvre Range is ideal for the revival of the Great Indian Bustard on the lines of similar ventures prevalent on the US Army manoeuvre areas.

Now for the long-term assurance of putting in place viable breeding populations of all species of our birds the best hope lies in the government and Parliament accepting that: a) The entire network of wildlife sanctuaries, National Parks, Tiger Reserves, notified forests amounts to less than five per cent of India’s land mass. It is home to the entire range of our wildlife. More important, it is the bastion of India’s bio-diversity and prime-agent for India’s water security. So make the present boundaries of this five per cent absolutely non-negotiable by judiciary, Parliament and the governments at the Centre and states for any reason whatsoever.

(b) Utilise the balance 95 per cent of our surface area productively for the over- all socio-economic well-being of the nation.

At this stage no other alternative can save India’s green cover, its bio-diversity, its ground water re-chargers, its noise and carbon sinks and its birds and wildlife from doom.

Is anyone listening?