The skies are no longer safe...

Vaishali Rawat Feb 7 2018, 11:00 IST
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Infrastructure development in the Thar region has pushed its flagship species to the brink of extinction.

Clipped wings, dried pools of blood, a scattered pile of feathers. What used to be this bird's neck - the white stalk that boasts an inflated gular pouch during a male's mating display - is now reduced to a bone sticking out between a sliced head and torso. This is all that was left of the regal bird that is the ambassador of our grasslands, one scorching summer in the Thar desert, under a high-tension power line. This crime scene is of one critically endangered bird, the Great Indian Bustard (GIB), whose global population hovers at around the hundreds.

The culprit yet again is the 220kV power line it flew into in the Khetolai village of Rajasthan's Pokhran district, in December 2017. This event's occurrence in the last week of 2017 reflects the bird's fate and foreshadows its future: in the past decade, nine GIBs have been found dead due to collision with power lines. Don't let the single digit take away from its bearing, for it represents the wiping out of close to 9% of its global population.

Looking at the data

The Thar desert is a battleground for the GIB, which is also its last refuge. Its skies have armies of high-tension power lines criss-crossing through the aerial corridors of the birds' habitat, closing in on the bird's remaining populations. For a low-flying bird with poor frontal vision, the mesh of thin power lines is difficult to spot from a distance, making collision or electrocution all too easy. On the ground, where the bird lays one egg a year and only in grasslands, its offspring have a low survival rate due to the threat of nest predation by feral dogs. A vision for developing the Thar, and increasing accessibility of electricity, water and roads to the remotest corners of the landscape have pushed its flagship species to the brink of extinction.

What's great about the Great Indian Bustard? One of the heaviest flying birds of the world, it once roamed far and wide across rural landscapes and grasslands of India. Today, it has been wiped out from 90% of its previous range. A few birds still exist in Gujarat's Kutch and Maharashtra's agricultural landscapes. The Thar desert grasslands, on the other hand, are home to around 75% of their remaining population. These places are the bird's last hope for survival. In the Thar, these birds are largely concentrated in two patches. While one set of the bird lives in less than a third of the 3,162 sq km under Desert National Park, the other set lives in the grasslands of the Indian army's Pokhran field firing range. The area between these ranges is dotted with heavy presence of power lines and wind turbines, further isolating the two populations.

Deserts and grasslands are unique and thriving ecosystems where hundreds of species of mammals, birds and reptiles have adapted to survive. The Thar too has a unique biogeographic construct: it shows high avifaunal diversity and falls in the migratory flyway of many bird species. It is no surprise, then, that the drastic alteration of the desert and grassland ecosystems over the last decade, in big part due to infrastructural expansions, has come at a massive cost for its wildlife. By 2022, the government aims to reach its renewable energy generation target of 175 GW, of which nearly 160 GW is expected to be met via solar and wind energy. Infrastructure associated with both these forms of 'green' energy now defines the Thar expanses, and has been fatal for its rich avifauna. Can this be called green energy, if it is driving a critically endangered species to extinction?

An unpublished study on bird mortality due to power lines in the Thar was conducted by Dr Sutirtha Dutta, a wildlife biologist at Wildlife Institute of India (WII), and Mohib Uddin, a Master's student at University of Kota. It was found that for GIBs and other endangered birds, rates of mortality due to collision with high and low-tension power lines were high. For the study, 100 km of power lines in the GIB habitat in Thar were surveyed and carcass detections were carried out in this landscape.

A total of 98 bird carcasses were detected in one month, including that of two GIBs. Worryingly, the highest number of carcasses found were of the Egyptian vulture and common pigeon. Carcasses of other endangered birds like the white-rumped, red-headed and Indian vultures were also spotted. Extrapolating this collision rate from 100 km to 3,600 km of power lines in the GIB habitat, it was found that an estimated 18,778 birds are dying due to power lines every month.

Power line mitigation

"There are solutions to the power line issue," remarks Dr Sutirtha Dutta, "but the rate of implementation is nowhere near it should be, given the striking urgency of the problem." When WII began highlighting the issue in 2013, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change published the 'Bustard Recovery Plan' which is the central advisory document for GIB conservation planning. In a May 2016 meeting between the Rajasthan Forest Department, the Rajasthan Renewable Energy Corporation Limited (RREC) and scientists from WII, consensus was reached that no new energy infrastructure would be established in GIB priority habitat.

It was also agreed that existing power lines will be marked with diverters and that the possibility of undergrounding power lines will be explored. After a pilot installation of 30 diverters, they were to be installed across power lines in the Thar that exist in GIB habitat, by the RREC and associated power companies. "Everything is agreed upon on paper," adds Sutirtha, "but implementation is extremely slow. As of January 2018, after much delay, the pilot diverters have been installed, but it remains to be seen how expeditiously the large-scale installation is done." Down south in Gujarat's Kutch in 2017, a bustard radio-tagged by WII flew into a 33kV transmission line, which is associated with wind turbines in Naliya, and died. This turbine is located at nearly one km away from the Lala€"Parjan Sanctuary - the only refuge for GIB in Gujarat. Due to pressure from the Forest Department and conservation organisations, the companies that had installed the power lines agreed to put the electricity line underground. Here too, says Sutirtha, the power companies are shifting responsibilities and passing the buck on implementation, due to the costs associated

There aren't many studies in India, but power line mitigation by underground-cabling and usage of diverters has shown positive results for avian populations in other parts of the world. Time is running out for the GIB - some argue that it already has. The question, then, is whether timely, immediate and organised action by all stakeholders will save the bird or if we will silently watch the bustard vanish from its grasslands.

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