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Two artificially hatched bustard chicks give conservation efforts a fillip

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on July 19, 2019 Published on July 19, 2019

Miracle of nature: Two chicks were hatched artificially in a facility set up by the Rajasthan forest department   -  ANOOP KR

The birth of the chicks in Jaisalmer spells hope for the endangered Great Indian Bustard

A newborn is being feted warmly in the deserts of Jaisalmer. The Desert National Park in Rajasthan can’t have enough of the baby — an artificially hatched Great Indian Bustard chick.

The birth, last week, is the second such in India. The first artificially hatched chick was born last month. The births are being celebrated in wildlife circles, for the Great Indian Bustard (GIB), called godawan in Rajasthan, is a critically endangered species.

Once found all over the country, the GIB is now restricted to protected areas in Rajasthan and a single site in Gujarat. Mainly found in Rajasthan’s Sudasari, Mialjar, Bandhara and Ramdeora regions, within the 3,162-km boundary of the park, it is one of 108 species of birds and 21 species of animals found in this part of India.

“The Jaisalmer desert housed many rare species, not just the Great Indian Bustard, for which it has now become famous. However, with human interference and climate change, the ecology has been threatened by invasive species,” says Bipin CM, scientist and researcher from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun.

The bird — usually one-metre tall with a wingspan of 210-250cm — has a pale-white neck and head, and black crown. It is threatened by a clutch of factors — including urbanisation. Windmills and power lines, which are extensively found in this area, pose serious threats, as the bird is short-sighted and ends up injuring itself while flying along the power lines. To top it, the female bird lays a single egg in the open on the ground, which is often destroyed by other desert animals and birds that feed on it.

Rajasthan’s forest department has been taking action to ensure a better future for the bird. The park is a protected area, with patrol vehicles posted along the boundaries to prevent encroachment by villagers. To save the bird from extinction, the government began a project three years ago to hatch its eggs artificially in a controlled environment, rear the chicks and then release the second or the third-generation birds into the wild. The programme initially aims at increasing the captive population of the bird.

“The breeding season of the bird lasts from March to October. It is an elusive bird, and mates in the corners of the desert,” he says.

The breeding programme — with the WII as a partner — involves collecting eggs, incubating them, and then getting them to hatch in a temperature-controlled enclosure. The eggs in Jaisalmer were among the six collected by the forest department. The other eggs are still in incubation.

“A female typically lays only one egg per year, two in rare cases, and only if she decides that the conditions of the desert are suited for the newborn. This makes eggs pretty rare and special among the godawan (GIB),” he explains.

The bustard chick is housed in a temporary facility in Sam, Jaisalmer, with round-the-clock protection and state-of-the-art facilities. Experts from Abu Dhabi have been assisting WII scientists in the project. Abu Dhabi has a successful breeding centre for another subspecies of the bustard called the Houbara. The chicks in the Jaisalmer facility are being given the same diet that their Abu Dhabi cousin enjoys.

“The chicks are being monitored by a team of scientists who ensure that the facility has proper climate control. Two scientists from the bustard facility in Abu Dhabi have come down to assist in the process. The facility is a mix of a natural environment, where the chicks are exercised, and a closed-door environment to stay in. The eggs were kept in incubators for 28 days,” says Yadvendradev V Jhala, from the department of ecology and conservation biology, WII.

The challenge in artificial breeding is to bring up the bird in an isolated environment without its mother, and set up a captive population large enough over the years for them to be reared in, and then reintroduced into the wild.

A hatching centre is in the works in Sorsan (Kota), while a breeding facility is to come up in Ram Deora (Jaisalmer). Meanwhile, taking note of the dwindling population of the GIB, on the basis of a plea filed by retired IAS officer and director of Wildlife Protection MK Ranjitsinh and other activists, the Supreme Court has sought a response from the Centre and state governments. The plea had noted that the bird population had fallen from 3,530 in 1999 to less than 700 in 2018. Only 100-140 of the 700 birds remain under protection at the Desert National Park.

But with the spotlight on the chick, there is hope. “The bustard has been pushed to the borders of the country, and out of its natural habitat. Only focused care can now bring it back,” Bipin says.

Published on July 19, 2019
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