A Power Struggle

Last year, Bird Life International confirmed the extinction of 8 species of birds, the first in this decade. They include the Spix Macaw (of the Rio fame), Cryptic Treecreeper, Alagoas Foliage-gleaner, Black-faced Honeycreeper, Glaucous Macaw, Pernambuco Pygmy Owl, Javan Lapwing and the New Caledonian Lorikeet. The first 4 were designated Extinct in the Wild and the rest as Possibly Extinct.

The interesting point to note in their report is that, unlike in the past, when most extinctions have happened in islands due to hunting or the introduction of an invasive species, these have occurred over continents and have largely been driven by habitat destruction by humans. That’s a worrying trend – we humans and our actions are now starting to threaten the survival of several species. In fact, it is estimated, that over one-eight of all bird species, globally, are extremely vulnerable to extinction over the next few decades.

While these 8 species have no connection with India, we are potentially a big player in this global extinction race that’s currently well underway. The manic pace of industrialisation and infrastructure building that we are in the middle of, all being done in the hopes of raising people out of poverty while they are, in fact, just serving to enrich a chosen few, has been impacting the natural habitats of birds (and wild lifeforms) at an increasingly alarming pace. I read recently that we are losing more than 150 hectares of forest cover daily in our country ~ that’s an area of the size of Pondicherry every year or 1.5 times the size of Goa in a decade. Let that sink in while we now set about destroying the Aarey forests in Mumbai.

I believe that the first iconic one that will give up the ghost will be the Great Indian Bustard. Probably one of the heaviest birds of flight, they prefer dry, semi-arid habitats and would have been our national bird (as suggested by Dr. Salim Ali) if not for the school of thought about a misspelling of its name. In hindsight, if some long-term thinking had prevailed at that point, it may not have found itself at the edge of the precipice where it is today.

They are probably down to a sub-100 population globally (all of them in India), have vanished from large parts of their range that straddled the central Deccan Plateau and Central and Western India and are probably only now found in the Greater Rann of Kutch and the Thar Desert. Adult mortality among the Great Indian Bustard is very high with 3 in 4 deaths occurring due to collisions with high power lines within their habitat.

It is only recently, on my trip to Jaisalmer in August, that I heard some good news about them – that researchers have had some success in artificially hatching 5-6 eggs of the GIB’s in a carefully controlled environment. This was the first year that the eggs had been collected from the wild with the intention of captive and controlled hatching – which in itself is the last roll of the dice and an acceptance of our inability to naturally let the species survive. If Darwin were to postulate his Origin of Species today, I don’t reckon he would have used Survival of the Fittest as one of his principles.

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