For wildlife conservation in India, 2022 will be the year of the cheetah. In September 2022, eight African cheetahs were transferred to Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park, with the hope of reviving this species, which has been extinct in the country for almost 70 years, and for the conservation of grassland ecosystems.
Although this project attracted attention and money, there are several species of birds, mammals and reptiles native to India, threatened due to illegal hunting, habitat fragmentation, disease, etc., the conservation of which requires a bigger push by 2023, experts say.
“Regardless of the cheetah project, attention should certainly be paid to the other threatened species,” said Kedar Gore, director of The Corbett Foundation, a non-governmental organization working for wildlife conservation.
As the year comes to a close, we bring you the details on four of these species, protected by the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, but threatened with extinction a few generations from now.
Today there are estimated to be fewer than 1,000 mature individuals in Nepal and India, down from 3,500 about 20 years ago. This species, where the males are black and white and the females are sandy, has already become extinct in Pakistan. In India, it is called “Kharmor” in Gujarat and “Khar Titar” in Rajasthan.
Between 1982 and 1989, their population in Nepal and India declined by almost 60%, from 4,374 to 1,672. By 1994, it had increased by 32% to 2,206 birds. The reduction in the population of the Little Florican has continued and “appears to have accelerated over the past 20 years”, notes an assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “The species appears to be in imminent danger of extinction in Madhya Pradesh and only very few breed in Maharashtra,” he says. Population fluctuations of this bird species are correlated with breeding season rainfall patterns, demonstrating that the bird is susceptible to extinction in the event of severe and prolonged drought.
Some of the other main reasons for declining bird populations include the loss and conversion of pastures to other purposes such as agriculture, attacks on chicks by wild dogs, adults crashing into power lines and the people who hunt them for food and eggs.
Great Indian Bustard
There are fewer than 250 Great Indian Bustards (GIB) left in India, their only home, down from 1,260 in 1969 and 300 in 2008.
They were formerly widely found in the Thar Desert and the Deccan Plateau, but the GIB has disappeared from 90% of its former range and is now mainly confined to Rajasthan. In places where the number of GIBs is less than 30, there is a high probability of local extinction within 50 years. In places where ospreys number more than 100, the rate of decline, due to human causes, can be one adult each year.
Historically, widespread hunting for sport and food precipitated the decline of GIB, accelerated by vehicle access to remote areas. But today, the decline in the population of GIB has been caused by the loss and degradation of grasslands, their habitat. This is due to the widespread agricultural expansion and mechanization of agriculture, the development of infrastructure such as irrigation, roads, electricity towers, wind turbines and construction, mining and industrialization, inadequate habitat management and lack of community support for conservation efforts.
Both the GIB and the Lesser Florican are grassland birds and our grasslands are “rapidly disappearing”, said former director of the Salim Ali Center for Ornithology and Natural History, PA Azeez. “Unfortunately, grasslands are not protected in India unless they are part of protected forest areas. They are known as wastelands even though they serve a great ecological purpose.”
Azeez also suggested that high voltage power lines, if they cannot be buried, should change the height at which they are installed and install reflectors to ensure that birds do not die in collide with power lines.
Gore, of the Corbett Foundation, hopes the cheetah will act as a flagship species for India’s neglected and underserved grasslands and savannah habitat.
These important ecosystems, “unfortunately labeled as badlands,” are “actually excellent habitats for many other threatened species,” Gore said. “What India needs now to complement the cheetah reintroduction program is a rangeland policy that also offers long-term protection to species such as the Lesser Florican and the Indian Bustard.”
The biggest danger to the Asiatic lion is that they are all isolated in one place in the Gir Forest Protected Area and nearby areas of Gujarat. The unique subpopulation [as all the tigers are restricted in one area] it is vulnerable to extinction due to unpredictable events, such as an epidemic or a large forest fire, notes an IUCN assessment.
Until a century or more ago, lions were distributed throughout Southwest Asia and were prone to hunting. In 1913, when the Nawabs and the government realized that there were no more than 20 lions left alive, uncontrolled shooting of lions was banned and steps towards lion conservation were initiated for the first time. In 1936, India had 287 lions, in 2008 we had 350, 523 in 2015 and 674 in 2022.
The Asiatic lion landscape now goes beyond the previous 1,883 sq km grid of the Gir Protected Area and extends over about 20,000 sq km in Saurashtra, according to the 2015 census.
As the population now extends beyond the boundary of the lion sanctuary and numbers are stable, the subspecies is classified as endangered.
In 2013, the Supreme Court had ordered that to protect the Asiatic lion and give them a second home in India, the lions should be reintroduced to the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh within six months. Although eight cheetahs have been relocated to Kuno this year, the government has yet to relocate the lion population to Kuno.
“The April 2013 Supreme Court order is yet to be implemented. In 2018, canine distemper virus and babesiosis killed at least 34 lions in Gujarat… According to the Gujarat government’s own records, 585 lions have died in the state in four years between 2018 and 2021 and a significant portion of these deaths are due to diseases,” said Ravi Chellam, a wildlife biologist who is also the managing director of the Metastring Foundation and coordinator of the Biodiversity Collaborative . “If it happened once, it can happen again.”
Lions are also threatened by poaching, drowning due to falling into wells and shrinking Gir forests, according to the IUCN. The Gujarat forest department also considers human presence and its livestock in the Gir sanctuary area, adverse effects of natural calamities like drought, poisoning as threats to the lion population.
Native to Bangladesh, India and Nepal, the Gharial is a critically endangered species. Extinct from Bhutan, Myanmar and Pakistan.
Gharials were historically distributed along the main channels of the Indus, Ganga, Mahanadi, Brahmaputra-Meghna and Irrawaddy rivers. The species is now extinct from the Indus, Irrawaddy and several tributaries of the Ganga and Brahmaputra-Meghna systems, but persists in 14 locations within the Ganga river system. Its global population is estimated to be between 300 and 900, according to a 2017 IUCN assessment. However, BC Choudhury, former scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India and trustee of the Wildlife Trust of India, believes that India has around 3,500 Gharials: 2,500 in the wild and 1,000 in captivity.
Some of the reasons behind the decline in Gharial numbers include dams and shanties that disrupt the river’s hydrology, deaths from fishing nets and, historically, unregulated fur hunting. Currently, the serious threats to the Gharial population are the increased disruptions of the river bank, especially due to sand mining and boulder removal.
“Within the next decade, Gharial will probably be extirpated [go extinct] from some of the minor or non-breeding sites, including three sanctuaries in India designed for their protection (Son, Ken, Satkosia Gorge), as well as the Padma-Jamuna, Brahmaputra-Meghna and Bhagirathi-Hooghly drainages. [river systems]based on infrequent sightings in these regions,” warns the 2017 IUCN Red List assessment.
Choudhury believes the Gharial is a species of concern. “The year 2025 will be the 50th year of India’s crocodile conservation program focusing on the Gharial,” he says, adding that they have been bred in captivity but are not monitored after being released in the nature. “Measures like effective monitoring in the wild are needed to study their survival.”
IndiaSpend contacted the Wildlife Department of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change to ask what steps the government has taken for the conservation of these threatened species, the demand for a pasture policy, the state of making underground power lines in Gujarat and Rajasthan. , the status of the Supreme Court-ordered relocation of Asiatic lions out of Gujarat, and to comment on the monitoring of Gharials. This story will be updated when they respond.