Let glorious bustard live, fly

The last day of December 1978 found a motley crowd of students and young people — all volunteers of the World Wildlife Fund — at Race Course Road, New Delhi. The conjoint purpose was to meet the external affairs minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to protest against the permission given to Saudi princes to hunt down bustards with falcons in the Thar desert, Rajasthan.

The ground-living, slow-flying birds were to be hawked for the pot. Hence the slogan, “Eat custard, not the bustard”.
If the quarry was significant, so too was the hunters’ companion. Falcons have long been used to hunt wild birds. In his epic book, Birds of Prey of the Indian Subcontinent, the leading chronicler of hawks, eagles and falcons in this part of the world, Rishad Naoroji dips into history to make a point.
Naoroji tells us that the female falcon is larger than the male. The latter is supposed to be one-third the size of the female. For this reason it is known as the tiercel. A century or so ago, the female falcon was flown at prey larger than herself. Common cranes and storks, ibises and bustards were common fare.
But the bustard itself has long been sought after as quarry. Nearly half a millennium ago, Timurid prince Babur was at home in India, hunting the houbara. At least 20 Peregrine falcons were kept at any time in the Mughal court.
Old habits die hard. The palate was not complete for the landed gentry in western India without the famous taloor as the bird was called.
Salim Ali, later to be a doyen of ornithology, recalled the hunts of 1910 in Sind. Here, there were no falcons. The bustard was ridden after on a trained camel. “To pick out with the naked eye a houbara in its native sandy environment”, he recalled later, “at a distance of 500 yards is a feat few can perform even with binoculars without previous experience”.
The protective coloration of the bustard kept it safe till it moved. More often, it was shot not from camel back but on foot. Birds were driven towards the hunters who shot them on the wing.
The houbara or the McQueen’s is the smaller of the bustards. The pride of place goes to the great Indian bustard (GIB), the heaviest land bird in Asia.
The Godawan, as it is known, is not quite the prey for a falcon. But it made a nice enough dish for hunters to have reduced numbers by the early 1960s for it to get a measure of protection.
On that wintry morning of 1978, these distinctions between one bustard and the rest meant little to the protesters. When they — and let me admit, I was there as a high school student — got to South Block all that Mr Vajpayee would give was five minutes.
He did sound amused by the bird’s name and quipped that we were simply troublemakers. “Bustard, wustard”, what he asked is all this. He was charming but not quite aware of what the fuss was all about.
When told there were children out to protest at his decision, he simply brushed it aside. “Bacche nahin aaye hain”, he said, “aap unhe laye hain”. (Children are not here to protest, you brought them here, he said.)
The case was a simple one. The houbara was a threatened species, its larger cousin was endangered. Both were firmly protected by law. There was no reason anyone — least of all a guest of the country — ought to be allowed to hunt it.
The minister did not bat an eyelid. It was sad, he said, but it had begun during the Emergency — the first hunts being held in the winter of 1975. What could he do now? Maybe next year. When reminded that the New Year was but hours away, he looked sheepish and gave in.
The bustard got a reprieve. The Saudis never came back to hunt in India. Rajasthan was spared further hunts. Earlier the same year, it has demarcated a vast nature reserve that would help both the bustards and the raptors: the Desert National Park.
The Saudis sought better hunting grounds: in neighbouring Pakistan. In fact, in his book, Taliban, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid recounts how the first encounter of the Saudi head of intelligence, prince Bandar, with the Taliban took place on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
The Saudis went across to hunt the houbara, only there was a far bigger player on the horizon: Mullah Omar himself. As in the 1970s so too again, the houbara was central as a bit player to a political drama.
Does it really matter? It is tempting to think it does not. Yet, the bustard is but a symbol of the grasslands and dry open country. It looks dead and barren to the untrained eye. That silence is illusory. It has a wealth of wildlife. Black buck prance in open spaces. Larks flutter away. Where it survives, the grey wolf still emerges at nightfall. In this setting, the bustard, certainly the larger one, stands out for its majesty.
Sheer size and looks make it a flagship for a biome every bit as important as the mature
tree forest. Salim Ali thought so and championed it as national bird.
Of course, as critics pointed out, few Indians have ever seen the bird or know what it is. The peacock, which bagged the spot, is far more apt.
Pity the bustard. The name is a shame. When a young wildlife biologist wrote to former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi about its impending local extinction in Saurashtra in 1985, he
was shocked to find the reply had made an all too common error.
The “u” in the bustard gave way to an “a” with disastrous consequences. A further letter raising the issue elicited the same reply. Someone at the Prime Minister’s Office knew little of spelling. And even less of ornithology!
Now, a new paper by a team led by Farah Ishtiaq, (Conservation Genetics, 2011) has more grim news. Genetic sampling and mapping of DNA shows that the GIBs are not very genetically diverse. They are not just in danger but “critically endangered”.
This is all the more reason to protect them in their grassland home. The females lay an egg a year and that is when they need protection. Having bred and raised their young, they disperse. Secure them at the time of year in these patches and you are halfway home.
The bustard will then live to thrive another day. That protest of 1978 will not have been in vain.

The author is an environmental historian and co-editor of The Environmental History of India (Permanent Black,
In Press)

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