There have been no recent sightings of the eight or so documented great Indian bustards in the Siruguppa region of Ballari district in Karnataka. Local conservationists claim the critically endangered birds seem to have abandoned the region due to disturbances caused by the construction of tall structures and plantation work by the Karnataka Wildlife Department.

Ballari is the only breeding ground for the great Indian bustards in peninsular India. It is the second one in India, after Rajasthan. India has the only population of this iconic grassland species in the whole world. The bird has been categorised as “critically endangered” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List and accorded the highest protection as Schedule 1 species under India’s Wildlife Protection Act.

The Karnataka wildlife department has built four three-storey structures, including two watch-towers and two anti-poaching centres in the Siruguppa taluka area of Ballari. Other features added were electric poles to get electricity supply from the grid for the anti-poaching centres and 45 water-holes. Some plantation work had also begun on roadsides, which has now been stopped.

“I asked the wildlife officials to stop the (building) work when only the first floors were built, but they continued and are now constructing the fourth floor of the structures,” Samad Kottur, wildlife conservationist and a member of the advisory committee on the great Indian bustard appointed by the Supreme Court, told Mongabay-India. “They intend to hurriedly complete the work to justify the funds received from the central and state governments for this purpose.”

He said that he made a few visits to the breeding area but could find none of the great Indian bustards due to these disturbances.

Fourth floor of watchtower under construction as of July. Photo credit: Samad Kottur

Panel suggested obstruction removal

Explaining the disturbance, SK Arun, honorary wildlife warden of Ballari said, “The great Indian bustards being low flying birds with poor frontal vision, prefer open grassland or farmland.”

“A large number of their deaths have been reported for colliding with windmills, power lines or high rise intrusions during their flight,” Arun said. “So they leave the area after it gets disturbed with such infrastructure.”

“Being shy, they also avoid human presence,” he said.

He said that water-holes created on the great Indian bustard habitat might attract unnecessary attention of shepherds and local people, thus adding to the disturbance and perils of trampling upon eggs of the bird, which are laid on the ground. He pointed at a river nearby as an alternative to providing water for wildlife.

The forest department formed a team of local stakeholders and conservationists to look into the matter. This committee submitted a report to the chief wildlife warden, Ajay Mishra, on June 24 this year. Both Mishra and the chief conservator of forest, Ballari, SS Lingaraja did not comment on the report findings.

However, honorary wildlife warden Arun shed light on the report by saying that “the first committee was quite upset to see the structures and has recommended for their removal.” Instead of taking action to contain the damage, the department has gone on to form another advisory committee to investigate further.

Arun, who is part of the second committee, said that most members are unanimous about the need to dismantle the newly built structures and electric poles and plug the water holes.

“We are awaiting the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (wildlife) to take a final call on this matter,” he said. “Before this, he is likely to visit the contentious area at his convenience.”

According to Arun, there has been no further progress on this matter, as the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests has not yet visited the area and taken a decision on razing down the structures. A virtual meeting of the second committee members took place in the first week of July, where most of the members had advocated for dismantling the structures.

One of the new anti-poaching centres. Photo credit: SK Arun.

Kottur said that the construction work to build the fourth floors of both the watch-towers had been completed. He said wildlife officials did not pay any heed to conservationists’ appeals to stop the construction work.

Kottur also informed that the matter had been brought to the Supreme Court’s notice, which is yet to take to give any direction on the matter. He said that due to Covid-19, the court’s functioning has slowed down. However, he expressed hope that the court may give a stringent direction any day on this matter.

Chief wildlife warden Mishra asserted that the watch-towers and anti-poaching centres were built to curb poaching in the area. However, most of the members of both committees have recommended patrolling on bicycles to safeguard the area, said Arun.

Punati Sridhar, former state forest force chief who retired in the last week of April, had also filed a chargesheet against the wildlife officials, blaming them for keeping him in the dark about their decisions. However, no action was taken on it by the state government.

He told Mongabay-India, “Had I been informed, I would never have permitted to build the high rise structures in the fragile breeding area of the great Indian bustard.”

Matter before a high power committee

In response to a petition filed in July 2019 by noted conservationist M.K. Ranjitsinh (who was instrumental in framing India’s Wildlife Protection Act), the Supreme Court constituted a high powered advisory committee to implement a conservation plan for the bird.

The petition mentioned that over the last 50 years, the great Indian bustard population has recorded a decline of over 82%, falling from an estimated 1260 in 1969 to 100-150 in 2018.

Asad Rahmani, former director of the Bombay Natural History Society, who has conducted extensive research on the species, was appointed chairman of the advisory committee. Kottur was appointed a member of the same committee.

Kottur informed Mongabay-India that he provided all the related information, documents and evidence about the Ballari great Indian bustards to both Rahmani and Ranjitsinh. Both would apprise the apex court about the development.

“I am very disappointed with the massive disturbance caused to the great Indian bustard habitat in Bellary,” Ranjitsinh told Mongabay-India. “Can the Karnataka state government and government of India not ensure that the key last surviving habitat where bustard is breeding remains undisturbed?”

“When there are just seven to eight birds, is it necessary to build tall structures in the middle of the area?,” Ranjitsinh said. “Why could they not have a single-story building on the roadside or faraway at the Andhra Pradesh border, where they suspect poachers’ movements?”

“It will be the distinction of forest department of Bellary that they killed the golden goose they were supposed to save,” he added.

The common grievances of wildlife conservationists was the raw treatment given to them by the wildlife officials.

Indrajit Ghorpade, a local conservationist and wildlife photographer said, “The local conservationists like me who have been sharing information about the presence of the great Indian bustard in Ballary and surrounding area with wildlife officials have been sidelined in the last couple of years by the officials after they realised the significance of these birds and the limelight and funds involved at international level. ”

He blamed their short-sightedness and neglect for pushing the bird to extinction in Ballary.

Sutirtha Dutta, a scientist with Wildlife Institute of India, is hopeful that the birds may return, if they survive, on the restoration of habitat without much delay. He said the great Indian bustards are known to have traditional linkages with their habitat – they have a strong attachment to the areas they use and keep coming back there until the area becomes completely unsuitable.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.