His love for birds eventually took him to the world of threatened bustards, perhaps a far cry from the doctorate degree in English Literature that he received from the University of East Anglia. For the last four decades since then, he has worked extensively on numerous conservation projects to protect bustards and other birds all over the world. He has written more than 100 scientific papers and 12 books including BIRDS AND PEOPLE: BONDS IN A TIMELESS JOURNEY and FACING EXTINCTION: THE WORLD’S RAREST BIRDS AND THE RACE TO SAVE THEM. He has served as the Director of Science and Director of Development at BirdLife and has helped develop the IUCN Red List criteria to assess the status of threatened species. In this interview he talks to Shreya Dasgupta about grasslands, and as he calls them, ‘their inglorious bustards’.
SD: Why are grasslands threatened?
NC: I think grasslands are in some respects more under threat because they are not regarded in the way as forests are. Forests are of course under huge threat, and we shouldn’t disregard them at all. But threats to them are more visible and can be tracked better. For example, even identifying grasslands from satellites is problematic. The trouble is that grasslands look so much like fields, that people don’t realise that they have a real biological importance. Whereas everybody recognises that forests are important. I think the advocacy for grasslands is also much much less than it is for forests. That puts them much more at risk. There are fewer of these grasslands, and most of them are converted in Eurasia and gone in South East Asia. So saving grasslands is an absolutely fundamental thing for conservation biologists to be doing.
SD: Are grasslands protected in places that you have worked?
NC: It’s not easy to answer. In Uzbekistan, none of the grasslands are given protection as nature reserves. Southwest Ethiopia where I worked on threatened larks is not protected either. I also work in Portugal and Spain and they do have a European conservation status, which is not particularly well enforced. It is OK, but not necessarily the right solution. But I can’t give you any figures on that.
That scenario might change, but it will depend on someone becoming an advocate for the grasslands. Like lots of protected areas in West Africa and Madagascar were created by primatologists who were absolutely in love with their study animals and they just had to get these protected.
SD: Can captive breeding save highly threatened species?
NC: It is very context-specific and dependent. There are some animal species that are very amenable to captive breeding and they can be introduced, without much difficulty, into a particular habitat, and they will stay there. There are other species that are difficult to breed in captivity and expensive. And if you did reintroduce them, you wouldn’t know what exactly could happen. Also, if you translocate wild birds from one location to another, you have a serious possibility that they will just relocate back to where they came from. This does not happen so much on small islands, of course, because the island represents a barrier, so they stay where they are. So it really depends on the context.
I think, without any question at all, that zoos have a really important role to play in conservation and biodiversity. This will become more so as time goes on. But it mainly depends on the animal. An animal which breeds very rapidly and has very little inhibitions about breeding in captivity would be a god-send to the conservationists. But that is by no means the universal answer. And this needs to be stressed very strongly to people who may think it is the answer to everything. It is indeed the answer to some things, but not to everything. It can also be absolutely counterproductive.
SD: What about captive breeding in bustards?
NC: They are not a good species for captive breeding. The captive breeding of the Houbara Bustard in the Gulf, for instance, encountered huge problems for about 15 years. They’ve finally started to crack it and get the technology that they needed. But progressively over those 15 years, when they finally cracked it, I suspect they were getting an increasingly domesticated form of Houbara. So it’s been shown that, after billions of dollars have been invested, Houbaras can now be turned out pretty much like pheasants. This is probably to some extent the result of several generations of weeding out genetically nervous birds, that is, birds nervous in captivity. But nervousness is probably a good quality in the wild. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but it’s a hypothesis that I have. I don’t think anybody has looked to see how similar or different captive-bred Houbaras are now genetically from the wild-caught Houbaras first brought into captivity. So I would be very very wary indeed.
All the evidence of captive breeding that we have got from zoos that have tried to breed other species of bustards, like the Kori, suggests that this has also not been successful. The Smithsonian Zoo in the US can’t get these Koris to breed in good numbers. They can just about get them to replace themselves. So they’re not actually producing enough to be able to give to other zoos. And there aren’t enough to put back into the wild. So it’s a real challenge.
Great Indian bustards have hardly ever been bred in captivity while Little Bustards have been bred a little bit. It could be done, but it would require a huge amount of money and a large founder stock. With a highly threatened species like the great Indian bustard (GIB), you would be taking a huge risk. If you were to capture 20 birds of this species from the wild, my prediction would be that you would have to expect that at least ten of them would die. Could anyone in India face that kind of expense and loss? I don’t know whether they could live with that. Those kinds of losses would be, I would imagine, just unacceptable. Even the risk would probably be unacceptable. So the only alternative is to take eggs. But again the number of eggs you need is probably too high for being able to get to the point where you’ll have GIBs being bred like Houbaras and being put back into the wild. I think that’s just going too far at this stage. Maybe 40 years ago it could have been attempted. But now we are a bit too late. That’s my theory. However, I accept other people take a different position.
SD: How much can satellite tagging tell you about bustards?
NC: Radio telemetry gives some answers, not all. Satellite telemetry tells you a lot more. But it does require incredible care in handling bustards. I can’t emphasize enough how dangerous it is to handle bustards for their sake, not yours. They will collapse with myopathy, they will break their legs and wings. They will simply die on you. So various protocols have to be observed.
From Bengal Floricans that we tagged in Cambodia, we find that breeding males need about 10 square kilometres of grassland. Any smaller than that, the males are generally not in them. We can identify the kinds of habitats that they like and outside their breeding season they greatly favor open savanna. And this is the habitat which is under the greatest pressure for conversion to cultivation.
We also fitted 63 platform transmitter terminals (PTT) on Houbaras in Uzbekistan and try and follow what they do. We are getting the data back now. One piece of evidence we now have is that captive-bred Houbaras do not survive as well as wild-caught birds. But you need quite a large sample size to draw conclusions correctly.
For instance, I have a student who wanted to study Kori bustard movements in Botswana. There had been reports of their movements there and he thought these were in response to rains. So he put some satellite transmitters on four Kori bustards, and they did not move! They just stayed where they were. It was the most boring result you could possibly imagine. I mean all that effort and a lot of expense, $2000-3000 per transmitter, and they didn’t move. But because it was only a sample of four, we still cannot be certain that these birds were representative, so we still cannot say if the Kori is at least a partial migrant in Botswana.
Similarly tagged bustards that have been released in Britain show an interesting pattern. But it is not a predictable pattern. Except that you can predict that it’s going to be unpredictable. Some of them flew in one direction, some flew in the other, and a couple of them flew to France. What is very interesting is that they came back to the area where they were released. It is a good finding. But if you want to know where they might go, it doesn’t help you at all.
SD: What do you think needs to be done immediately?
NC: From my point of view you’ve got some grassland reserves, and they haven’t worked. What we need to know is why they haven’t worked. It is quite possible that you could make them work. What is it that the reserve is not doing that it should do? It may well be that there are things that we haven’t really considered. For example, I have been told that the village of Nannaj, just outside of Nannaj Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra, has a density of 700 dogs per square kilometres. That is a very high predator density. It probably wouldn’t affect adult GIBs, but the chances of one dog encountering one chick before it can fly would seem to be very high, wouldn’t it? So it’s not inconceivable that just dog abundance has a negative influence on the breeding success of the GIBs in these reserves. It may be that in every other respect, those reserves may be perfectly run. Here you have got this artificially high abundance of predators which behave like wild predators but are actually domesticated, derived from an artificial situation where they are being fed in villages. That is completely incompatible with managing wild animals that have to fend for themselves. It is like sending someone into the boxing ring with Mike Tyson, with his hands tied behind his back. He doesn’t stand any chance!
So we need to look at what’s good, and what’s bad about these reserves. Have they got enough grass of the right type? What other species would you manage this for? I’m happy to be corrected, but it seems to me that most of the grassland reserves in Assam are managed for other grassland species particularly the rhinoceros. And further west they are managed quite heavily for species like the Swamp deer. These animals need grass that is taller than what the Bengal Florican needs. It needs to be a little bit more equitable. You need to have a reasonable amount of habitat for one species and a reasonable amount for the other so that you manage it for both equitably. But you have to accept that the managers of these reserves have got a BIG task on their hands, and you have to be completely sympathetic to them.
The Bengal Florican really needs friends. The way the Cambodian populations are disappearing it is all going to come down to the Indian subcontinent to save it. Here we have now only 400 of them and they are in reserves that are a long way apart.
I think where you can immediately see the problems with the management of reserves of the GIBs, solve them as fast as you can. If the problem has to do with relations with villagers who are hostile for whatever reason that has to be resolved. I think if these things were tackled really thoroughly, there would be a good chance that you could stop the GIB numbers from going down. I know that not everyone agrees with that, and I have personally not seen the situation in terms of industrial scale conversion of old traditional farmland to modern farmland. But nonetheless, I think that with enough investment, it could be done. So I would start with reserves and work from there.
SD: How do you bring focus to the Bustards?
NC: Well, they seem to be getting more profile now. Someone did say that bustards are the new tigers. India is a very proud nation. So I’m sure the last thing India wants to do is to lose a species which has the name ‘India’ in the title. If India loses the GIB, what a horror it would be, don’t you think? If it turned out that there was instead a small population in Pakistan, oh my gosh! What would you do then?
There was a case like that in Japan. There’s a beautiful species of ibis called the white crested ibis that was first found in Japan and was named after the Japan—Nipponia nipon. But it went extinct in Japan and now it is only in China. I don’t think the Japanese have ever gotten over the embarrassment.
SD: Are there examples of success stories where bustard numbers have gone up?
NC: There’s an area in Southern Portugal called Castro Verde. The European Union here provides money for these special protection areas which are not a natural park, but an area of agricultural land where farmers are subsidised to grow certain crops. If they don’t get as much market value for those crops as they would if they were farming more intensively, they get paid the difference. So they are perfectly happy. It is an equitable, fair, and reasonable arrangement. The great bustards are also doing extremely well. I actually discovered the area in 1977, and there were around 400 Great Bustards then. Portugal joined the European Union in 1985 and it’s been having subsidies over the years. Now the great bustard population in this area is about 1500. It has gone up three times since it was first found. So that’s an example where management has improved on the original situation.
I honestly think it can be done, but I think we all agree that it does have to be fair to the local people. The local people have to be part of the solution. Not part of the problem. If you consider them part of the problem, then inevitably it seems to me that you’re going to fail.
Indians are incredibly tolerant people and they love wildlife. So you’ve got a huge advantage there. You just have to win their hearts over and treat them fairly. I think that’s a model that could easily work. But it will cost money. But it won’t cost as much money as a captive breeding program will cost you.
Shreya Dasgupta is a freelance science writer based in Bangalore, with a special love for conservation and environmental news, email@example.com.
Illustration: Pencil Sauce
Photographs : Claire Spottiswoode, Hugh Wright, Dolors Buxo