July 18, 2005

Thousands Count Endangered Bird in India

BOMBAY, India -- Carrying binoculars and notebooks, thousands of nature lovers and conservationists scoured semiarid grasslands of western India Sunday to count a bird considered on the brink of extinction.

The Great Indian Bustard is long-legged with a black crown on its forehead and stands up to 3 1/2 feet tall. It breeds in grassy plains in western India and its dwindling numbers are the first warning that the grasslands are deteriorating.

"Never before has a census been done on such a scale," said conservationist D.R. Panihar about the launch of the first in a series of efforts to protect the bird. "The situation is so alarming that if effective conservation steps are not taken the Great Indian Bustard will be extinct soon."

The International Union for Conservation of Nature said last year the bird was perhaps the most endangered member of the 22-species bustard family worldwide, and could be extinct within a decade.

India ranks third after Indonesia and the Philippines among Asian countries with the most threatened species of birds. Hunting and livestock grazing are the main reasons for halving the population of the bird in India in the past six years.

Already, the bird has almost entirely disappeared from Pakistan, according to the IUCN.

The conservation group appealed to India and Pakistan to curtail overgrazing of grasslands and stop poaching to protect the estimated 500 individuals remaining in the species.

"The figures are a cause for concern and have alerted foresters and nature lovers," Panihar said. After the census, efforts would begin to identify and preserve grasslands for the bustard, he said.

Director of the Bombay Natural History Society Asad Rahmani said the monsoon season was the best time to conduct the census since the bustards gather at breeding areas.

"Like the tiger is the spirit of the Indian forest, the Great Indian Bustard is a symbol of the grasslands," said Rahmani. "It's a flagship species and must be preserved."