NEW DELHI: The Great Indian Bustard (GIB) finds itself trapped in a peculiar environmental situation in the Thar desert, as its habitat is at the heart of the country’s green energy transition network. High tension transmission lines of solar and wind power grids have unfortunately been killing the bird to the verge of its extinction over the last few decades.
The GIB and the Lesser Florican have been listed as Critically Endangered on the Red List of Threatened Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) since 2011. The GIB is one of the heaviest flying birds in the world — about a metre in height with a wingspan of around seven feet. It’s endemic to the Thar Desert region.
According to a 2008 survey, the number of GIBs was estimated at just 250 and confined to Rajasthan and Gujarat. A decade later, in 2018, the corresponding figure dipped to 150, including 25 GIBs in the government’s captive breeding centres. There has been no update on the numbers ever since.
Earlier, bustards were extensively hunted for meat and by local sports as trophies. The GIB’s nesting is on the ground and its prey base is pests, termites, rats and snakes, thus contributing to balance in the desert ecology. But when the Indira Gandhi irrigation canal increased intensive agricultural opportunities in arid regions of Jaisalmer and Barmer, they destroyed their habitats. Besides, use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides in agriculture impacted its food chain and restricted its growth.Then came the renewable energy grids to fight global warming that further shrunk the GIB’s habitats.
The problem with GIBs is their lack of adequate frontal vision. As such, they fail to detect power lines ahead of them while flying and end up colliding with the lines and getting electrocuted. “If timely action is not taken, these grassland birds would be soon declared extinct,” said Dr Sumit Dookia, who teaches Animal Ecology and Wildlife Biology at Delhi’s IP University and also works with the community in the conservation of GIB in Jaisalmer and Barmer. “The main threats to these birds are habitat loss through agricultural activities and transmission lines of solar and wind power grids causing collision and electrocution,” he said. The Supreme Court recently directed the Union government to come up with a comprehensive plan to save these grassland birds while factoring in India’s obligations to renewable energy.
Deadly power lines
In 2019, environmental expert M K Ranjit Sinh filed a public interest litigation to save these birds from Anthropocene (human impact) activities in these regions. The PIL sought interim directions to the Rajasthan and Gujarat governments to ensure predator proof fencing, controlled grazing and no further permit to install overhead power lines, windmills and solar infrastructure in the GIB’s potential habitat identified by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). The PIL also sought the installation of bird diverters for power lines and also to ultimately take the power transmission cables underground.
Significantly, the WII’s ‘Power Line Mitigation, 2018’ report revealed that over 1 lakh birds of a whole range of species die every year in and around the Desert National Park (DNP), Rajasthan due to electrocution. In their 80 km of power lines survey, scientists found 289 carcasses of around 30 species, including those of the GIB. There were six GIB mortalities recorded in the Thar desert between 2017-20. All the GIB deaths were recorded due to high tension transmission lines — some of them connected to wind turbines.
On 19 April 2021, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court headed by then Chief Justice of India S A Bobde ordered the installation of diverters on power lines till the overhead cables hindering the flight of GIBs go underground. The renewable energy industry was given a year to take the overhead lines underground within one year.
But the order was hardly implemented as the industry complained about the high cost in shifting the transmission lines underground. Besides, they put up cheap plastic diverters in some places, which broke down by and by.
For its part, the Centre sanctioned Rs 33.85 crores for five years for habitat improvement and conservation breeding of the GIB in collaboration with Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra forest departments. Besides, two satellite conservation breeding facilities were established in Jaisalmer.
But experts associated with the plan said the funds were inadequate and were in any case not fully released. Besides, the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change formed an advisory committee in 2019, which is yet to meet.
Former Director of Bombay Natural History Society, Dr Asad R Rahmani, hopes the SC’s recent intervention would enhance conservation efforts. “The court’s order would hopefully make the government prepare a conservation plan for GIBs for the next 20 years, including investment in captive breeding centres,” said Rahmani who is also birder and a grassland expert.
New sighting areas of GIBs
In absence of research on bustard behaviour, the general understanding is that the present GIB habitat is inside the DNP in Barmer district of western Rajasthan. But the latest WII map shows most GIB sightings outside the DNP.
That suggests the habitat is actually in an arc from the north of the DNP, spread across Barmer (west) and Jaisalmer (east) districts. These regions are now dotted with solar and wind power infrastructure, which hinders movement.