Acres after acres of land, developed into fruit orchards of different kinds, break the wiry brown monotony of the Kutch landscape in Gujarat. This “transformation” of the semi-arid land has been in the making for the last decade and has brought in much cheer to the farmer communities who have replaced their traditional crops with horticultural produce, thereby garnering a good margin of profit. What is almost going unnoticed, however, is the concurrent increase in the use of pesticides for these plantations that is affecting the local bird population, including the Great Indian Bustard.

According to Falgun Modh, deputy director of the Gujarat horticulture department, from 2007 to 2017, the total fruit-growing area has increased from 59,000 acres to 1,00,000 acres in Kutch. “The total fruit production has trebled to 10 lakh tonnes,” he said. With the government offering 70% subsidy on drip-irrigation that addresses the problems of water scarcity and saline groundwater, farmers are obviously happy at the profits garnered by making more space for fruit trees such as pomegranate, mango, papaya, even banana. While dates are a part of the local flora, there are more varieties introduced.

This growth in horticultural produce, however, has not spelt good news for the local bird population, according to Kutch-based ornithologist Jugal Tiwari. “The increase in the use of pesticides in fruit farms is depleting the overall insect and bug population, which is in turn affecting the bird population because that is their food source,” he said. Kutch has nearly 375 species of birds, including raptors, waterfowl, waders and lark. It is also one of the last remaining abodes of the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard. Most of these bird species are insectivorous.

Impact on birds

“All the three bustard species are insectivorous,” Devesh Gadhavi, deputy director of the Kutch Ecological Research Centre, a division of the Corbett Foundation, said while giving some examples of bird species feeding on insects. “Harriers, which are commonly found here, feed on grasshoppers and locusts; small falcons are also insectivorous and so are the rollers.”

Gadhavi, who has been working on the conservation of the Great Indian Bustard in Kutch for several years now, added that the effects are also felt by migratory birds like the white-browed bush chat, also known as Stocliczka’s bush chat. Kutch, it must be remembered, falls in the migratory route of many birds who fly south for winter, including the stately common cranes that arrive here by the thousands.

Kutch region's landscape before the horticulture boom. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

That said, there has been no scientific study on the effect of pesticides on the avian population in Kutch. But experts insist there is no denying this fact: observation of infrequent sightings or declining population of birds breeding at regular sights indicate their worst fear. One of the most visible effects, said Resul Sherasiya, former director of the Gujarat horticulture department, has been on the common house sparrow. “House sparrow nests were earlier commonly spotted in villages here, but are now becoming increasingly rarer. It could be one of the effects of the increase in pesticide usage in the farms,” he said.

Similarly, the frequency of sighting of the nocturnal nightjar, which is insectivorous as well, has gone down, “possibly because of depleting insect diversity”, said Gadhavi. On the Great Indian Bustard, this is yet another challenge to the already fragile population. Official estimates put their number in Kutch at 25, although conservationists believe it is barely 10. The estimated global population of the Great Indian Bustard is just 150.

“Farmers are moving away from traditional crops of the region like bajra and jowar whose byproducts served as fodder for the GIB, and other birds,” Gadhavi said. “This lowering of the food source, combined with the depleting insect diversity like the beetle, that the GIB feeds on, by pesticides is putting stress on the already dwindling population of the endangered bird.”

Modh of the Gujarat horticulture department agrees. “Wherever agriculture is intensive, the local bird population goes down. It is collateral damage,” he said. “This is because in intensive farming, pesticides kill the insects that the birds feed on and therefore the birds migrate to a different place in search of food.”

The problem is not that pesticides are used but that they are used indiscriminately, and climate change has played a role in this.

Damage from climate change

Over the years, agricultural scientists say, there has been a spurt in the number of new pests on crops, possibly because of climate change. Mealybug, for instance, has emerged as a new pest for horticultural crops like the hollyhock flower and even for cotton. “Mealybug is a sticky insect that doesn’t easily let go; hence pesticide sprays sometimes have to be used multiple times,” Sherasiya explained. “This however ends up killing even the natural predators of the pests.” The ladybug beetle, for example, is a natural predator that is killed by these sprays. Chrysoperla or lacewings, he added, are also insect predators whose populations have been observed to have gone down. It is a similar case with butterflies, Sherasiya said, “as a result of which pollination is also affected”.

One conservationist said the population of lesser cats seems to have plunged. These cats, he added, feed on birds of prey and with their population going down – as their food source, rodents, have become lesser in number – it has caused a domino effect on the whole cycle.

Additionally, pesticide-treated crops and crop seeds are known to have a direct effect on wildlife as well. “The effect of pesticides on birds has been well documented in many European and North American countries,” states a study by V Dhanajayan, S Jayakumar and S Muralidharan. “Although we have information on the levels of persistent environmental contaminants in many bird species in India, due to lack of adequate data we are unable to make a direct correlation with the reported population decline. Of all the birds, levels of DDT, HCH and dieldrin recorded in some of the species were indicative of poisoning.”

The study states examples from across India – the decline in breeding population of Sarus crane in Bharatpur from 27 pairs in 1973 to just six pairs; aldrin poisoning resulting in the death of 18 Sarus cranes between 1987 and 1990; death of 58 aquatic birds in the Okhla Bird Sanctuary, Uttar Pradesh – that are indicative of the adverse effect of pesticides on birds.

The wildlife ecologist Rauf Ali, who died in 2016, also mentions the effect of pesticides on birds in his book Running Away from Elephants. Pesticide accumulation in a bird’s body affects its breeding, he writes, adding, “Pesticides are also believed to be responsible for the decline of the once ubiquitous Sarus crane, so beloved of Indian epics. These birds pair for life, and are always seen in twos. If one bird dies, the other soon follows.”

A few years ago, 23 Siberian cranes were found dead in a village in Kutch. Their postmortem revealed pesticide in their blood and vital organs. A villager said the migratory birds had probably eaten pesticide-treated wheat seeds; the wheat harvesting season coincides with the time migratory birds arrive here in their thousands.

Increasing use of pesticides is causing a decline in the population of the endangered Great Indian Bustard. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Not all crops, however, even horticultural, require heavy doses of pesticides. “Among fruits, for example, papaya and mango, both of which are popular in Kutch, require very little pesticide,” V Vijay Kumar, director of the Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology explained. “Pomegranate, however, is more susceptible to pests and hence requires more.”

According to the state horticulture department, in 2016-’17, the total area in Kutch under pomegranate cultivation was 7,965 hectares; its total production was 1,25,687 metric tonnes. In 2017-’18, these numbers rose dramatically, the total area under pomegranate cultivation was 12,886 hectares while production was 2,03,341 metric tonnes.

“Not only is pesticide usage on pomegranate and watermelon plantations very high, but they hardly contribute towards bird diversity,” Gadhavi said. “Nests, for example, cannot be built on pomegranate trees.”

While Kumar says the effect of pesticides in agricultural farms has affected birds only “partially”, since they source their food from other forms of vegetation too, it should be remembered that large parcels of “wasteland” – a misnomer, say conservationists, for grassland – continue to get converted to agricultural land in Kutch. Either way, it is a growing concern.

What is the solution?

Organic farming is the solution, said Manoj Solanki, a farmer in Madhapur village near Bhuj. “I have been practicing organic farming for the last 17 years and fiercely advocate it to my fellow farmers,” he said, one of the few to strongly believe that this is the road ahead. He grows vegetables, groundnut and castor on his 80-acre farm. He also has 300 cows “for bio-manure”, which also aids a thriving dairy business. “Crops have two enemies, disease and pest,” Solanki explained. “Disease usually happens due to some deficiency in the soil. In organic farming, through compost, we give micronutrients to the soil, making it more resilient. Pests, we understand, come for a temporary phase, maybe 15-20 days, and it is part of nature’s plan. We don’t kill them but try to repel through strong odour, like spraying cow urine, or burning neem leaves.”

He also conducts workshops for farmers in his and the surrounding villages, and has even made a movie on compost-making and the benefits of organic farming in Gujarati.

The only drawback is that organic farming requires time to show results and the crop is more susceptible to pests. “There is a lot of hard work initially and there are no quick results which draws farmers towards using chemicals,” Solanki said. If one is patient, however, this can lead to great benefits considering the “market demand for organic produce”. Additionally, “the soil doesn’t lose its fertility”.

The good news is that concerted efforts are being made to encourage farmers towards organic farming. As Modh said, “Kutch, as compared to other places, has more organic farmers.” Gadhavi and his team from the Kutch Ecological Research Centre, for instance, trained a group of farmers to grow green gram free of pesticides. It was then sold in the market for Rs 80 per kg. “Considering green gram is otherwise available at Rs 70 per kg, people were happy to get the organic version at a similar price. Hence, this year, we had 60 farmers signing up to do the same,” he said. In addition to these efforts, conservationists suggest the government should design a special incentive scheme for farmers to practise organic farming in biodiversity hotspots.

To treat nature’s wounds, it seems, it is best to turn to her for help.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.