A great Indian bustard in Kutch. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Prajwalkm CC BY-SA 3.0.
The following is an unedited excerpt from Wild and Wilful by Neha Sinha, published by HarperCollins India. It will be available from February 10, 2021. (Editor’s note: The paragraphs have been broken up to ease reading online.)
Let us return to the deserts of Rajasthan, now being tapped as an inexhaustible source of clean solar power. If the question is where we plonk our large projects, we may also ask if the great Indian bustard (GIB) can stop solar projects coming in the marubhoomi. The Rajasthan forest department finds itself cornered. As the gold rush for solar power continues, the department is trying to maintain a ‘GIB arc’ – keeping the bird’s breeding range in and around the Desert National Park – out of the renewable energy picture. Yet, problems persist.
In June 2018, at the height of the sizzling summer, a male GIB, a precious gene pool and potential father of a population, died of electrocution in Rajasthan. If I were to imagine how the GIB sees the desert, it is clear it can navigate the heat, the endless dunes, the scarcity of water, the temperature extremes. Power lines, it cannot.
The WII conducted surveys in the Thar to understand just how dangerous the power lines were. They covered 80 kilometres of power lines seven times over a year. What they found, exceeded their imagination: 289 carcasses of 30 species, including the GIB. Among the dead were cranes, buzzards and pigeons, birds both migratory and resident. This meant eight dead birds for 10 kilometres of high-tension power lines. And six dead birds for 10 kilometres of low-tension power lines. If we extrapolate these findings to 6,000 square kilometres of habitat, that is 18,000 dead birds in a month!
Conservationists and forest departments thus have a clear demand: no more power lines in places where the GIB exists. This includes the ‘GIB arc’ – 250 square kilometres around the Desert National Park in Rajasthan. This will help the bird maintain its last breeding stretches, Indian Forest Service Officer G.S. Bhardwaj, who has spent years trying to safeguard the GIB, told me. In Gujarat, there are attempts to safeguard around 200 square kilometres around Kutch. For a bird named after India, is less than 500 square kilometres too much to ask for?
This sounds like a rhetorical question. But the issue becomes rhetorical as lines carrying electricity are seen as the very symbol of a prosperous India. It is also becoming a symbol of leadership, an emerging narrative that has little space for nuance. The yellow sands of the Indian desert are being seen as a hub for green power. Power – whether political or electrical, whether measured through wattage or through votes – cannot be stopped. But can it be deflected, to save our own bustard?
Like many other birds, the GIB has eyes on either side of its head. It cannot see what is right in front of it. To avoid this, the soil provides a solution: overhead lines can be taken underground. This is not popular with managers because it is expensive. The next solution is putting up colourful diverters on power lines so birds can notice the wires. Diverters, typically, are round signs with circles or swirls of colour tacked up on wires; it is surmised birds will avoid these patterns. Such diverters were recently put up in Gujarat. Buffeted by strong winds, and made of poor quality, they had broken off a month later, leaving the power lines as invisible and dangerous as before. And in 2019, a Gujarat Energy Transmission Corporation (GETCO) substation came up in the GIB habitat in Gujarat, posing more risks. Time was running out. As conservationists and policymakers clenched their fists in resolve to save the bird, opportunity slipped away like fine-grained desert sand from the fist. One of the opportunities could come from an unlikely ally: the Indian Army.
It was 2017, and I was in Pokhran, not far from the India-Pakistan border in Rajasthan. There was dust everywhere. It was in my eyelashes and between my toes, each step a filament of discomfort. I was eating the dust. I was smelling it. It felt like soil was taking revenge on us for crushing it underfoot with each step we took; like it had found wings, motion, a fluvial quality. A group of us were trying to convince the Army to let us survey their lands for GIBs near the villages of Loharki and Khetolai in Rajasthan. Pokhran is known for one thing in India: a nuclear test. Pokhran may have been chosen because of the desert’s otherness, the marubhoomi, the place where things are dead anyway. The Army officers were listening to me, but not really. As I described the GIB as the powerful, striking bird that had struck Dutta as a ramp model, I was up against a wall of incredulity.
‘But I am telling you, madam, we are trained to see! We know how to see things that others can miss. And we have never seen such a bird,’ the officer was telling me, shoulders squared in disbelief. He was bored, tired of listening to a so-called expert. ‘Birds are seen only if you really look for them. Otherwise, they blend perfectly into the landscape,’ I said.
‘But,’ he stressed, ‘you are the one saying this is a big bird. This is a bird the size of a small dog? I don’t think it’s there because we have never seen it,’ he said. He had his mind made up. My patience was battered. ‘You can go to the firing range. But if anything happens to you, it is your responsibility. There are mines there,’ he said. I could imagine him saying in sotto voce, ‘If you die for an imaginary bird, that is your problem.’
Our team eventually received permission, and we went to the missile range sitting in 4×4 vehicles. We had to stay on the road at all times because there was live ammunition off the road. I couldn’t help but think that wildlife also begins off the road. At first glance, the terrain looked just the same everywhere. Spiny bushes. Stunted trees. Dust covering everything like a skirt thrown casually over the greens, robbing them of freshness. Sharp grasses breaking the ground like blades lined on a range for men to play with. Little, dry mounds of earth breaking the horizon in places. And above us, a pall of expectation. Mouths set in hard lines, a little to prove the soldiers wrong but more to find a little GIB haven here. What kind of haven would it be, though, blasted by bullets? That was a thought I had tucked away in one tunnel in my mind, a tunnel I would traverse only if we found the birds.
Hours of search had yielded nothing. We were on foot now, the sun white in the sky. A hot wind had lifted the corners of my shirt, covering my skin in a fine sheen of dust. There was dust in our eyes as well, collecting stubbornly in the corners like flies refusing to move even when swatted. Dr Rahmani had stopped in his tracks.
‘There is a bustard there,’ he said.
His voice was calm, and had complete assurance. We turned to look. There was nothing to see, just more grasses, bushes and dust. We looked again, hearts beating madly against our dirty clothes, eyes barely open against the rivulets of crusted grime. Yes, there was something there. And it was a male GIB, head inclined upwards in its characteristic, iconic tilt. The trick to see the GIB was to trace that tilt, that particularly jaunty angle of the neck. Otherwise, the striking bird was as invisible to us as it had been to the Army. We had stopped now and were scouring every bush in the vicinity. The area didn’t disappoint. There was another GIB. He was displaying too; his neck feathers were dancing prominently. And then we saw another, this time a female, smaller than the male, looking like a chicken. In all, there were seven GIBs at the spot.
‘This is a lekking site, a communal site where the bustards come to display and breed,’ Dutta whispered in my ear, his voice tinny with excitement. He looked around again. There were so many birds that it couldn’t be just another lekking site. ‘No, not just a lekking site. An exploded lekking site!’
A little ahead of the exploded lekking site, we found three more GIBs. In all, we had seen nine birds – a significant percentage of the global population, which is around 100 to 150 birds. We had stumbled on to a secret place, a valuable secret, which made this missile-firing range an invaluable site.
Somehow, the almost-troglodyte GIB had survived – and was thriving – in a place dedicated to testing weapons. It was ironic and a bit tragic. How long could the birds dodge ammunition? They couldn’t duck wires, but had somehow escaped actual weapons. And while the site would always belong to the Army and was safe from other kinds of pressures, it was also land that couldn’t be amenable to breeding.
As we left the site – our discovery tasting bittersweet – the landscape changed dramatically. As soon as the Army-controlled area got over, we saw houses dotting the land. Vehicles zipped past. And in the sky, electric lines stretched like the lines of destiny on a hand, a jagged lifeline with cuts on it. Nine GIBs in a military area is cold comfort. The rest of the GIBs in not-so-open skies was even less comforting. We all knew that more needed to be done.
We required what scientists call an ‘insurance policy’ for wildlife – a stock of individuals to be kept safe in case calamities befell the entire wild population. The very last stand: a conservation breeding facility for GIBs. This was to be a centre that would hatch the birds from eggs, raise them, then raise their chicks and release birds into the wild a few generations later, keeping a captive gene pool at all times. Rajasthan was the only state with viable eggs. The bird was extinct in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and possibly in Andhra Pradesh. Rajasthan’s neighbour, Gujarat, also wanted to open the centre, but Rajasthan would not have parted with its eggs.
The final partnership for the programme stretched far beyond the desert – it included the Rajasthan forest department, the Bustard Recovery Team of the WII, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), and the Abu Dhabi-based International Fund for Houbara Conservation.
In this embryo of politics, several miscarriages happened. Setting up the centre took much longer than intended. It was only in 2019 that the centre was built in Rajasthan, years after the first planning meetings were held. In 2019, the first eggs were brought to the first centre, a forest department building turned into a conservation breeding hope. Eggs were taken from nests in the Desert National Park.
At the centre, the researchers learnt many things. No one had seen GIB chicks this closely before. No one had reared GIBs from eggs before. The first chick was like a phoenix, magic rising from desert dust and ashes. It was called Uno. Another chick was christened Asad, named after ornithologist Rahmani. Then there was Toni, named after writer Toni Morrison, who had passed away on the day the chick hatched. A great feminist left the world, but her legacy was carried on by a chick that followed humans, a great hope for conservation. Then there was Sharky, a voracious eater who ate like a shark. Sharky is Dutta’s favourite. She validates Dutta by eating like a glutton. The chicks are placid and even-tempered. When offered food, they move their heads and analyse the offering. Following the scrutiny, they eat. Clearly, they have the temperament of the cool, imperious, strutting mirage that was spotted in the desert so many years ago.
The chicks have imprinted on the hard-boiled researchers of the WII’s Bustard Recovery Team, otherwise so used to hiding from GIBs. For the chicks, they are parents. They cry out when the humans leave, and follow them when they come back. This is desirable. Chicks familiar with people are more likely to be comfortable enough to breed in captivity. The first GIB to be released in the wild will come generations later, after a stock is secured. Perhaps this will happen only fifteen years hence. The imprinting, therefore, is a familial bond, more than what exists between a researcher and the research subject. It’s a contract for the future. It lies between effort and dream, it is a hope of fashioning a phoenix from a dodo, a raging song against extinction. The humans, too, are learning to think like an adult GIB and to care for a little GIB.
‘I’m understanding every day,’ Dutta says. ‘I’m learning how to be a mother.’
Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author. She works with the Bombay Natural History Society.