The great Indian bustard has been in deep trouble for a while. Once found across India’s grasslands and dry landscapes, the critically endangered bird is now down to just 160-odd individuals, most of them surviving in the Thar Desert in Rajasthan state.
Even in this last stronghold, survival is hard. Agricultural fields and a growing network of power lines and wind turbines have taken over their habitats, while predators like dogs destroy the eggs that the ostrich-like birds painstakingly lay down. In a last ditch effort, wildlife researchers along with the forest department have started a hunt for the birds’ eggs in Rajasthan to begin the process of captive breeding. On June 20, they managed to collect two bustard eggs from the wild.
“A beginning has been made and I hope we are able to save the bird,” Arindam Tomar, the state’s chief wildlife warden, told Mongabay.
The Wildlife Institute of India, Rajasthan forest department and India’s environment ministry have entered into an agreement to build two captive breeding facilities for the great Indian bustards (Ardeotis nigriceps). The main, bigger facility is being constructed in the village of Sorsan in southeast Rajasthan, while a second, smaller facility is being built in Jaisalmer, in the west, close to where many of the wild birds breed.
The buildings will take a year or two to come up, Tomar said, but the hunt for eggs is on because the teams “did not want to miss this year’s breeding season.”
“That was the urgency of doing it,” he said. “There are only 150 great Indian bustards surviving in the wild, so every day is precious. We don’t have any captive population of great Indian bustards at all, we don’t have them in any zoos or anywhere else.”
Mongabay contacted two experts from the Wildlife Institute of India involved in the project; one declined to comment and the other did not respond.
A long and challenging road
Tomar said the road ahead was going to be very long and challenging. This is the first time that Indian bustard eggs have ever been collected from the wild for the purpose of captive breeding, and protocols ranging from the incubation of the eggs to rearing any chicks that hatch are still being figured out.
“It’s going to be very difficult first to incubate the eggs, then to rear the chicks,” Tomar said. “Then there’s the next challenge of whether the birds are able to breed or not. If they start breeding, then we might have a population that we can start releasing in the wild again. The effort now is to create a founder population of breeding birds, chicks of which can probably be rewilded. So it’s going to be a very long process.”
For now, the teams have permission to collect up to six eggs from the wild per year, Tomar added.
A lot still needs to be figured out, but the teams have help from the International Fund for Houbara Conservation (IFHC) in Abu Dhabi, an organisation that’s had some success with the captive breeding of the Asian houbara (Chlamydotis macqueenii), a bustard species found across northeast Asia, central Asia, the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula, and nearly hunted to extinction in the past.
In general, though, bustards are difficult birds to breed in captivity, Nigel Collar, a bustard expert and Leventis Fellow in Conservation Biology at BirdLife International, said in an earlier interview with Current Conservation. So it remains to be seen if collecting eggs from a tiny population of an imperiled species actually translates to a group of breeding individuals, ones that can later survive in the wild.
Some experts are hopeful.
“We’re only hearing gloomy news of the great Indian bustard,” Sumit Dookia, a wildlife biologist working in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert and an assistant professor at Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi, told Mongabay. “We need stories of success as well – that at least we’re moving in the right direction. There is a chance of predation of the eggs on the ground also. But the two eggs that have been collected are under controlled conditions now. Although we cannot expect anything right now, it is one step towards the right direction.”