Lesser Florican

Telemetry tracking being used to learn about the lesser florican

Print edition : October 23, 2020

A tagged lesser florican female with its typical brown speckled plumage is gently held while officials ensure the tagging device is secure in its harness before releasing the bird. The whole process of catching, attaching the device and releasing is done within 15 minutes. Photo: Wildlife Division, Sasan-Gir, Gujarat

The female lesser florican flying off after being tagged. Photo: Wildlife Division Sasan-Gir, Gujarat

With the known worldwide population of lesser floricans standing at the figure of 700, the species is critically endangered today. The Gujarat Forest Department has come up with an ambitious plan that involves tagging the birds and using satellite telemetry to learn more about them in order to help in their conservation.

Technology has come to the rescue of the lesser florican (Sypheotides indicus) in Saurashtra, Gujarat. The bird, known as khadmor locally, is the smallest bustard species in the world and is endemic to the Indian subcontinent.

The bird is listed as “Critically Endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species and its population as “Decreasing”. The worldwide population stands at 700 individuals, about 300 of them in India. When a species is critically endangered, it means it has seen a 75 to 80 per cent decline in its population over three or four generations. In short, it is not reproducing at the rate required to sustain the future of the species. In India, it has the highest protection under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

Astonishing mating display

The lesser florican is the only species in its genus and is a chicken-sized bird with long legs. The male has three 10-centimetre-long ribbon-like feathers behind the ear region that seem to be of use in the courtship display. It has an astonishing mating display, which, sadly, could be partly responsible for its critical status.

Its mating rituals are well documented. The male employs highly energetic means to obtain a mate. He leaps up one and a half metres in the air, his “ribbons” flying upwards, so that he is visible over the top of the grass in the grasslands where he lives so as to attract a female. She, clearly, is difficult to please, and because of this the male sometimes leaps 350 to 400 times a day depending on the weather. In cool weather the florican jumps more. When it is hot, he restricts this to the cooler hours of the day. Unfortunately, this vigorous drawing of attention to itself attracts more than the female lesser florican; it has made the bird an easy target for hunters. Once it was realised that the bird’s flesh is more than palatable, it became a favourite to shoot and eat. The bird is an easy target also because it uses the same area for its daily displays. The killings are doubly tragic. Not only is the bird killed, but it is killed in the breeding season, which has serious implications for the future of the species.

During the mating season, which is in the monsoon months, the florican arrives at its breeding grounds that are mainly in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, with Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh being the other range States of the species. The highest population density during the breeding season is found in and around the Blackbuck National Park, Velavadar, followed by Kutch, both in Gujarat. The bird’s behaviour here is well documented, and some of the places where it comes for mating, such as Velavadar and the Sailana Wildlife Sanctuary and Sardarpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, are protected areas. The problem in the conservation of floricans lies elsewhere, in two other issues. One is the declining habitat; grasslands are being denuded and converted to farmlands. The other is that the life and whereabouts of the bird during the non-breeding season are a mystery. Every year, the Gujarat Forest Department regularly monitors the population in Velavadar during the monsoon season.

Mohan Ram, Deputy Conservator of Forests, Wildlife Division, Sasan-Gir, has spent the greater part of his career in the Gir and greater Gir landscape. He said: “We see these birds for three or four months, and after that no one knows where they go. Apart from a few random sightings, there is no information about it in the non-breeding months. While it is breeding, the male has its distinctive black-and-white colours, but after that it moults and becomes camouflagic, making the identification more difficult. If we want to do conservation, then these eight months of non-breeding are very important. We must know its whereabouts so that we can do habitat improvement work and conservation work.”

To assist in this, the Gujarat Forest Department took the Corbett Foundation on as knowledge partners for its extensive familiarity with the bustard family and other grasslands species. Kedar Gore, director of the foundation, said that the non-breeding locations of lesser floricans were “believed to be in south and south-east India. Their sightings in India other than in the breeding season have become rare and no prudent information regarding their migration is available till now.”

The Wildlife Division, Sasan-Gir, developed a project that essentially involves tagging lesser floricans and using satellite telemetry to learn more about them, which the Gujarat Forest Department submitted to the Centre. The plan was approved, and consultations with international and national bustard experts were held. In satellite telemetry, a tracking device is placed on an animal, enabling its location to be known via satellites. In the case of the lesser florican, the device uses the Argos constellation of satellites. Unlike a GPS (Global Positioning System) tag that would receive information from a satellite, the Argos tag sends information to satellites, which then relay it back to receivers on the earth. A team monitors it.

The Gujarat Forest Department procured two solar platform transmitter terminals (PTTs) from the United States after specifications were given. A lesser florican weighs between 500 to 700 grammes and the device weighs about 12 grammes. Ram said: “The device should be less than 5 per cent of the bird’s body weight. In this case it is less than 2 per cent.” The device is attached to the bird with a Teflon harness that is neither too loose nor too tight, the judgement for this coming from skilled local people who were also involved in the process of catching the birds to attach the harness. Incidentally, from catching to release, the time taken is not more than 15 minutes. Once attached, the device resembles a small antenna jutting from the bird’s back as can be seen in the photograph. Solar panels power the battery, and care has been taken to create two panels per device in case one fails.

One male and one female were tagged. While male lesser floricans have been caught and ringed in the past, it is the first time ever that a female has been tagged. It is also the first time that the Gujarat Forest Department has deployed PTTs on birds. The Gir Hi-Tech Monitoring Unit at Sasan, which was inaugurated last year for the radio collars on lions, will monitor the PTTs.

The tags will help greatly in the understanding of the full annual cycle of the birds because it is real-time monitoring of the bird. Gore said: “The tags will provide vital information on their movement and help in developing insights into the breeding ecology of the species. The tagging will help in obtaining data regarding the movement, habitat preference and ranging patterns of the species and allow monitoring of the individuals on a regular basis. This information is very crucial in devising conservation strategies for the species in its breeding and non-breeding habitats.”

This conservation venture comes at a price: each tag costs a minimum of Rs.5 lakh, but the Gujarat Forest Department is committed to the project and has even received a thumbs up via Twitter from Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani. The tagging exercise was carried out between September 1 and 5 at Velavadar under the direction and guidance of Shyamal Tikadar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) and Chief Wildlife Warden, Gujarat State, Gandhinagar; and D.T. Vasavada, CCF Wildlife Circle, Junagadh; and under the supervision of Mohan Ram. The bustard experts involved included Devesh Gadhavi, Kedar Gore and Indra Gadhvi, Honorary Wildlife Warden of Bhavnagar District. Mahesh Trivedi, Assistant Conservator of Forests, and forest staff of the Blackbuck National Park assisted them in the exercise. Dhawal Mehta and Karshan Vala, who are associated with the Wildlife Division, Sasan-Gir, for research work, carried out the scientific documentation and necessary facilitation during the exercise.

The whole team is naturally in a state of excitement and anticipation. The two tagged lesser floricans are still in the Velavadar area, but depending on when the rains stop, they will soon be heading back to where they came from. For the monitoring team, this is a time of great hope and is, perhaps, a big step forward in the conservation of a bird that could slip over the edge into extinction.