The grasslands of Nannaj, Maharashtra, lie within a mosaic of afforested woodland plots, human settlements, private and public grazing lands and agricultural fields. The Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary is also here. These grasslands are witnessing varying changes in the landscape and its avian community.

A study in five villages – Vadala, Akolekati, Karamba, Mardi, and Narotewadi – of Nannaj, Solapur district, observed bird species trends over a 13-year period from 2009-2021. While the citizen science app, eBird, records 199 species in Nannaj, the study monitored 45, of which seven were migratory. It found that smaller-bodied species that were diet generalists – able to feed in several habitats – showed stability or increases in population.

However, large-bodied, specialist birds like the great Indian bustard, showed “strong, consistent declines”. Some smaller-bodied species that were specialists, such as the great grey shrike and red-necked falcon, were also strongly declining.

The grasslands of Nannaj, Maharashtra, are part of a landscape that includes afforested woodland areas, human settlements, private and public grazing lands, and agricultural fields. Map created on Google Earth Pro and Canva.

Deserts, grasslands and shrublands, collectively called Open Natural Ecosystems make up at least 10% of India’s landmass. These are dry, semi-humid or semi-arid regions that support a diversity of fauna, like the Indian wolf, blackbuck and the critically endangered great Indian bustard.

Many threatened species of flora are also found here. However, 68% of India’s open natural ecosystems are classified as wastelands, and less than 5% are legally protected. This habitat, which offers fertile soils, is among those most extensively modified.

Observations from the study

The study areas used a simple day-listing method. “The bird attendance register was filled in at the end of each day by putting a tick mark against all species that were seen or heard,” it stated. Field data was collected by Sarang Mhamane, a local birdwatcher and co-author of the study. He would note down the detection (presence or absence) of various species observed; the number of individuals was not noted.

“The idea was to have a committed observer consistently observe birds at one site. We wanted to draw a contrast between local trends and those noted by State of India’s Birds at the country-level,” said Akshay Bharadwaj, lead author of the study who is an ecologist and a PhD scholar at the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland.

The great Indian bustard and the western marsh harrier were examined closely. The latter is the only raptor to nest on the ground, and migrates for the winter from central Asia. Being a top predator, it is an ideal indicator of ecosystem health. It was seen to be steadily declining in Nannaj over the study period, a trend consistent with other other long-term studies.

Source: 'Assessment of long-term trends in a threatened grassland bird community using daily bird lists', published in Bird Conservation International, Volume 34 , 2024 , e3, CC BY 4.0 Deed.

The great Indian bustard (locally referred to as maldhok) initially showed a distinct seasonality, mostly seen from July to October. It has declined so sharply in recent years “that no seasonality is apparent anymore,” according to the study. This finding is in line with national population trends. “Their numbers have reached historic lows, and the species is nearing local extinction,” noted the study.

“There was a time when farmers remember seeing GIBs [great Indian bustard] in their fields frequently. This has not been the case for many years,” recalls Mhamane. Farmers here grow a host of crops like jowar (great millet), bajra (pearl millet), soybean, sunflower, urad dal (black gram), and groundnut.

It was noted that some birds that prefer woodland or scrublands, such as the small minivet, showed increasing reporting rates over time. Others, like the painted sandgrouse, a relatively rare species of scrublands, experienced a considerable decline.

“The woodland plots in this mosaic consist of neem and anjan (Hardwickia) trees planted in the 1980s by the forest department over the native grasslands. Over time, as the GIB was declining, they began restoring the woodlands back to grasslands,” said Mhamane, who has been working on various wildlife conservation projects in Nannaj since 2003.

Precarious balance

Being ground-nesters that are highly sensitive to habitat changes, grassland birds are a good indicator of ecosystem health. Interestingly, some studies note that despite specialist birds being sensitive, “low-intensity agro-pastoral lands can, in some cases, supplement protected areas in conserving grassland species and bird communities.”

“For example, some studies from the Thar desert show that habitat heterogeneity in the landscape can supplement (but certainly not replace) grasslands.” said Bharadwaj. However, he warns that this is a precarious slope; when agricultural activity picks up, birds decline.

He refers to a study published in December 2021, which noted that bird species richness and abundance in the summer was similar across grasslands, croplands and rangelands in the Thar desert. This was not the case in the winter however, with insectivorous habitat specialists being the most negatively impacted outside of grasslands.

Another study published in July 2014 that was conducted across multiple semi-arid grasslands in India observed that while several specialist species certainly preferred an undisturbed habitat, “low-impact agricultural landscapes support many declining species” at the same time. When agricultural activities intensified each monsoon, the presence of sensitive grassland species like the lesser florican promptly decline.

However, conservationists warn against the danger of excessive grazing and fires. “After excessive grazing, grass needs to be grown back quickly, so livestock owners would set it on fire,” said Mihir Godbole, founder of The Grasslands Trust, which conducts research, awareness activities and restoration in Maharashtra’s grasslands.

“Though essential for regeneration, fires are set so frequently that the flora is unable to complete its life cycles. Two grass species – Heteropogon contortus and another variety called pandhri kusal in Marathi – that are fire resistant are dominating the landscape. The original diversity of over 40 species of grasses needs to be brought back. These fire-resistant species are only edible during monsoon. We have been raising awareness about fires and setting firelines to protect grassland patches.” A fireline is a three-metre-patch of vegetation deliberately burnt around the intervention plot to prevent fires from spreading across.

Future of grasslands

In November 2022, Tata Power Renewable Energy received a “letter of award” from the government to set up a 150 MW solar energy farm in Solapur, and work is likely to commence in 2025.

Sanjana Nair is a policy analyst at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment who has observed that policies for renewable energy projects are geared towards the use of “wastelands”, such as Gujarat’s Government Waste Land Allotment Policy for Wind/Solar/Wind-Solar Hybrid Park, thus making grasslands vulnerable to land use change.

“Renewable energy projects in India are exempt from environmental impact assessments,” she explained. “The notification cites three reasons for the exemption of solar projects. One, that solar power is clean and environment-friendly. Two, these projects don’t lead to much change or development on the land. Three, they don’t pollute. However, this doesn’t account the potential ecological impacts, and restricts the notion of what is environment-friendly. EIAs [environmental impact assessments] must be mandated for renewable energy projects to help mitigate adverse impacts.”

Iravatee Majgaonkar, a PhD scholar, also at ATREE, whose work focuses on land use change in grasslands and pastoralism, told Mongabay-India, “Historically, the only livelihood that has been able to take advantage of grasslands’ aridity and vegetation sustainably is pastoralism. It is in no way related to ranching, and doesn’t require clearing of vegetation or modification of the landscape. It is in line with the natural flow of the ecosystem.” Majgaonkar notes that pastoralists usually graze their livestock during the monsoon and move on to the Western Ghats in other seasons, as observed during her work in Maharashtra and Karnataka.

A solar farm in Maharashtra. Renewable energy policies are geared towards the use of ‘wastelands’, making grasslands, many classified as ‘wastelands’, vulnerable to land use change. Image by Sanjana Nair via Mongabay.

Aside from her research, Majgaonkar is also involved in grassland restoration efforts, which are currently in a preliminary stage. She said that pastoralists are incorrectly categorised by the government as farmers, which hinders a crucial policy framework that could lay pastoralist needs in line with conservation needs, as they are similar.

“Pastoralism is completely different from agriculture, which can be quite resource-intensive. However, in policy documents, you will rarely see pastoralists referred to separately, they are all called farmers. I see a lot of scope for pastoralism and conservation goals to overlap especially in Maharashtra and Karnataka, in the form of community-led management of savannah grasslands. Unfortunately, pastoralists are being forced to slowly move out of their ancestral livelihoods, for socio-economic reasons.”

Bharadwaj believes that native grasslands and Open Natural Ecosystems require targeted restoration efforts in suitable areas, as is being attempted by grassland restoration projects in some areas of Rajasthan and Maharashtra. Incorporating a focus on non-forest habitats, such as grasslands (which were historically considered “wastelands”), can lead to the incorporation of Open Natural Ecosystem species into the conservation framework.

“Point counts are the gold standard. This study is not as precise as a point count, though we are working on this too. Sarang has been conducting point counts from 2016 onwards, and we’re just starting to clean up and analyse that data now. We hope this would help us gain quantitative information on declines to understand trends observed,” he added.

“The highlight of our study is that consistent efforts by even a single observer at a specific location that they have access to, for example their home gardens, can yield important and valuable information on the local trends within their bird community, especially when contrasted with larger-scale trends,” said Bharadwaj.

This article was first published on Mongabay.