It is a rare conservation success story in India: the rare Great Indian Bustard is back from the brink of extinction. This remarkable story is scripted by unlikely partners – cattle herders and a physician.

“I was enamoured by the powerful yet mystical aura of this bird at first sight, back in 2003 when I was still a student,” said the doctor Pramod Patil. A decade later, when he realised the bird was near vanishing, Patil hung up his doctor scrubs and became a full-time conservationist.

The Great Indian Bustard’s population declined drastically after the turn of the century because of reckless hunting, poaching of eggs, and habitat loss from the construction of roads, irrigation canals, windmills, and laying of overhead power lines.

According to the Species Factsheet of BirdLife International, the bustard flourished in at least 16 Indian states about a decade ago but has since died from nearly 90% of this area. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the bird as one of the 100 most endangered species globally. Only about 250 birds of this species exist now, including in Pakistan. In India, fewer than 30 are reported to be in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The Thar desert in Rajasthan harbours its largest population in the country – about 140 birds, spread over 19,728 square kilometres, according to a survey carried out jointly by the Wildlife Institute of India and Rajasthan’s forest department in 2016.

Not surprisingly then, Patil chose the Thar for his conservation work. Once in the desert, though, he realised that for his efforts to succeed, support of the local pastoral communities was essential. After all, they have coexisted with the bird, locally known as Godavan, for centuries and are well versed with its behaviour and ecology.

Pramod Patil with members of the pastoral community. Photo credit: Ian Barber

Helping hand

The designated protected area for the Great Indian Bustard – the Desert National Park – is about 3,000 sq km. The bird, however, moves over a much wider area. The pastoral communities too traverse the length and breadth of the Thar desert with their livestock in search of grasslands. “So, who could be a better field guide for my work?” Patil asked.

But being an “outsider” from Pune, it was not easy for Patil to reach out to the generally reticent semi-nomadic pastoralists. Luckily, he is a doctor. Most of the remote villages in the Thar are bereft of even basic medical facilities and Patil has won their confidence by treating them for free. He conducts health check-ups from time to time and makes arrangements to transport the seriously ill patients to the nearest hospital about 50 kilometres away.

In return, all they are expected to do is report bustard sightings, new breeding sites, help restore degraded grasslands and protect the bird from poachers and hunters.

Villagers in the Thar conduct joint anti-poaching campaigns with officials of Rajasthan's forest department. Photo credit: Pramod Patil

It does not always go to plan. According to Anup KR, deputy conservator of forests who is in charge of the Desert National Park, conflicts sometimes arise in the summer months when grasslands dry up, leaving the pastoral communities desperate. It is also the bustard’s breeding season, when they require patches of undisturbed grassland. The breeding season has two phases – from April to June and July to September. The bustards are slow breeders, laying one blotchy brown egg a season.

“To overcome the problem in summer months, the forest department distributes fodder in the hamlets so the livestock keep away from the GIB habitats,” Anup KR says.

The tradition of grassland conservation is embedded in the social and cultural mores of the pastoral communities. With the help of village elders, women and children, Patil is now stressing the importance of such tradition in meeting livelihood challenges and conserving biodiversity.

As Burha Baba, an elder from Neemba village in western Thar, said, “There is a dual benefit. If we do not disturb the grassland habitat of the bird in or near the nesting site during the breeding season, it not only helps the bustard but also helps maintain the growth of grass for our livestock after the season.”

In the course of his work, Patil realised that women as decision makers in the family could play a vital role in spreading awareness about bustard protection. “We tried to work out a sustainable and incentivised model for the women who were willing to join us in our efforts,” Patil said.

Women have been taught to make bags with Great Indian Bustard imprints. Photo credit: Pramod Patil

Wide impact

For one, the women were taught to make hessian bags with bustard imprints, which are used to carry water bottles and keep them cool. “Initially, they were used by our menfolk wandering the desert with the livestock,” said Fatima Bibi from Neemba village.But now, they are catching the attention of tourists as multipurpose bags, thereby helping reduce the use of polythene.”

Patil, with the help of teachers and the state forest department, has also turned the village schools into “awareness centres”. Children are explained the significance of their state bird so as to “instil pride and a sense of belonging” towards the species. Some local youth helped by distributing badges, posters and fibre facsimiles of the bird in schools. The budding conservationists soon became part of the community “watchdog network” of over 100 people who assist Patil in the mapping of bustard sightings.

Pramod Patil with schoolchildren. Photo credit: Jo Shute

To ensure the conservation is sustainable, new models of eco-tourism are being worked out that give the villagers direct control over the revenue earned. Further, a programme has been launched by the forest department in cooperation with Patil and his team to train local youth as “nature guides”.

The programme, launched about a year ago, aims at bringing tourists from across the world to explore the beauty of the Thar and its rare wildlife. Twenty five youth have been trained in its first phase. The second phase is ongoing. Some of the trained nature guides have added to their incomes by providing home stays and food to the tourists.

Such multi-pronged strategies have enabled Patil to integrate local communities, spread across 30 hamlets, into his conservation initiative spanning 2,000 sq km. The villagers have strengthened the bustard “watchdog network” and voluntarily join in anti-poaching programmes of the forest department.

“The highlight of the project lies in the active involvement and empowerment of the local communities through multifarious aspects of conservation without which no sustainable results can be achieved,” said Deepak Apte, director of the Bombay Natural History Society, one of India’s largest wildlife research organisations which partly sponsors Patil’s work. “Reaching out to these remote desert villagers with free medical services has been an excellent way to create a win win situation for conservation.”