A conservationist’s call

Print edition : September 11, 2020

PROFESSOR B.C. Choudhury, a wetlands resources professional with over 45 years of experience, is the executive trustee of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). He spearheaded the first three national-level sarus crane counts 21 years ago. His involvement over the past seven years in the project for community participation in conservation of the sarus crane and its wetlands habitats in eastern Uttar Pradesh has paid rich dividends.

Choudhury explains that wetlands, the primary habitat of the sarus crane, are facing various forms of anthropogenic pressure such as reclamation for urbanisation and agricultural expansion and pollution from the intense use of agrochemicals. Damage to nests and the stealing of eggs, pestering by feral dogs and electrocution add to the threats that the world’s tallest flying bird faces. The sarus crane population is largely outside protected areas, primarily in wetlands that dot the agriculture-dominated landscape. Paddy fields are a near-natural habitat for the sarus, but changing cropping patterns from rice to cash crops such as sugarcane have reduced the bird’s habitat. The sarus crane, therefore, is now localised to areas where there is a mosaic of rice cultivation and natural wetlands. In Uttar Pradesh, the sarus crane holds an esteemed position and is the State bird. Choudhury and his team have been identifying Important Sarus Wetland Sites (ISWS) in the agricultural landscape of eastern Uttar Pradesh because although information is available about the crane population in western Uttar Pradesh and the Terai region, such information was lacking for eastern Uttar Pradesh. This information gap was the impetus behind a project the WTI undertook in 2013 with support from the Tata Trusts in this region.

The ISWS report, prepared after field surveys in consultation with the local Forest Department staff, grass-roots-level non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and panchayat raj institutions, includes a basic fact sheet on each wetland site. The Tata Trusts are investing significantly in sustainable agricultural development and overall conservation of the agricultural ecosystems of the northern floodplains. This report helped to highlight the importance of these wetlands for sarus cranes and helped the State Wildlife Department provide suitable conservation measures for the ongoing sarus campaign in collaboration with local stakeholders. Thirty-three community-based organisations and 160 volunteers were recruited for sarus population monitoring and 26 grass-roots-level NGOs were roped in for conservation awareness. Choudhury concludes that 681 Sarus cranes were counted in 2013, and by 2019 that figure had multiplied to 2,087. This clearly shows it is crucial today that people come forward and get involved in the protection of this bird with a regal attitude.

N. Shiva Kumar

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