Sarus crane population largely stable in India (Wildlife Feature)

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New Delhi, Feb 21 (IANS) The population of the Sarus crane, the tallest flying bird in the world, is surprisingly stable in India and showing increases in some areas, says a researcher.

Haryana’s three districts show there are at least 250 birds, while Uttar Pradesh is home to the country’s largest count of 13,000 birds — much higher than was known before, said K.S. Gopi Sundar, research associate (India) of the US-based International Crane Foundation.

Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal require scientific intervention as almost nothing is known of the Sarus crane there.

“The new population figures of the Sarus crane are partly due to new surveys in previously unexplored areas,” Sundar told IANS in an email interview.

Wildlife experts attribute the dip in numbers in some areas to the increased use of pesticides, changing cropping patterns and degradation of wetlands and marshy areas.

Sundar said the Sarus crane is threatened in Gujarat owing to rapid conversion of wetlands and marshy areas to industries and cities.

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The tallest of all the 15 species of cranes in the world, the Sarus is distinguished by its contrasting red head and attains a height of up to six feet, with a wingspan of eight feet.

The biologist said little is known from Haryana about the Sarus.

But seasonal surveys, he said, in collaboration with the Nature Conservation Foundation and the International Crane Foundation in Haryana’s three districts — Rohtak, Jhajjar and Palwal — show that there are at least 250 birds.

Such a high number was not known before, but that was primarily due to a lack of systematic and repeated surveys, he said.

Sundar, the director of new programme SarusScape of the International Crane Foundation, said the increases of the Sarus are partly due to improved survey efforts.

This species, which the Red Data Book of the International Union for Conservation of Nature – a compendium of species facing extinction – has put it in the “vulnerable” category, has the vast majority of populations in agricultural fields.

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Some semi-arid and arid areas like Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan are seeing wetting of the landscape due to governmental activities to favour wet crops such as rice.

According to Sundar, in some of these areas, the new irrigation structures, combined with the growing amount of rice grown, seem to be conducive for the Sarus’ growth in numbers.

But the increase of aquaculture can also be detrimental to the Sarus — as is already apparent in Haryana.

On initiatives to conserve its natural habitat, he said the Sarus requires a combination of medium-sized and large-sized wetlands along with small wetlands to survive.

The breeding pairs are territorial and use the small wetlands to nest.

The larger wetlands on the landscape are crucial to safeguard the non-breeding population which can comprise up to 50 percent of the population, Sundar said.

The International Crane Foundation is currently working in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat, besides in lowlands of neighbouring Nepal and several countries in Southeast Asia.

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There is a brighter side too for its conservation.

Since the Sarus lives for long — perhaps even more than 60 years — its conservation work necessarily is long-term, said the biologist.

In the first International Sarus and Wetland Conference in Lucknow during February 2-4, there was healthy debate by researchers and conservationists about the methods to be used by conservation organisations and governments.

Kandarp Kathju, who has been monitoring the Sarus in Gujarat since 1998, said degradation of small wetlands and marshes — apart from encroachments, drainage and civil works — has shrunk and fragmented the natural nesting habitat of this species.

It was noted at the conference that easy methods such as payments to farmers would be highly destructive to long-standing favourable attitudes.

Instead, it was suggested that providing the farmers with a sense of pride would ensure that the current situation – which is very successful in conserving the Sarus – could be retained and encouraged.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at [email protected])

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