Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Great Indian Conservation Effort

A doctor by profession, Pramod Patil has dedicated his life to saving the Great Indian Bustard. Recently, he won the Whitley Award or the Green Oscar for his work

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was at the suggestion of a friend that Pramod Patil went to the Nannaj Sanctuary to see the Great Indian Bustard. And his first sight, in August, 2003, turned out to be an unforgettable one. “The bustard was 4' tall,” says Patil. “It had a black coloured cap of feathers on the top of his head. The neck was thick and white, while the wings and the body were brown in colour.”

Since it was the breeding season, in order to attract the female, the male had its tail up. Then it took small dance steps, went around in a circle, and let out a mating call. “This call could be heard far away,” says Patil.

What Patil did not know then was that it was the beginning of a fascination with the Great Indian Bustard. A trained doctor, he gave up his profession and became a full-time conservationist working to preserve the bird.

And on April 29, this year, at the Royal Geographical Society in London, Patil, 30, was presented with the Whitley Award, otherwise known as the 'Green Oscar', by Her Royal Highness Princess Anne for his work in the Thar Desert. The prize, worth 35,000 pounds, was donated by The William Brake Charitable Trust.

Sadly, the Great Indian Bustard is on the 'critically endangered' list: there are less than 250 in India. They can be found in only five states: Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. “It is one of the rarest birds in the world,” says Patil. 

Asked the reasons why, Patil says, “Poaching is one major reason. The meat is regarded as a delicacy. The bird can survive only in open grasslands. But these grasslands are becoming less, thanks to rapid industrialisation. The bustard often hits electrical lines and gets electrocuted. And, finally, the bustard is a slow breeder. It lays only one egg a year.”

This egg, the size of five poultry eggs, looks like a round stone. “Since they lay it in the open, it can easily be trampled upon by grazing animals,” says Patil. “So, the egg is always under threat. It takes one month for the baby to come out. And a year for it to move away from the mother.”

Meanwhile, Patil has been busy with his conservation efforts, thanks to the support of the Bombay Natural History Society, BirdLife International and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

In the Thar Desert, he is doing surveys, and meets up with villagers and children and makes them aware about the need to care for the bustard. 

Along with my team, we have been successful in developing an extensive network of support,” he says. “In other states, we are conducting workshops and training programmes for government staff.”

But it is not easy to get close to a bustard. “It is one of the most alert birds, because it has been attacked so often,” says Patil. But once, Patil got a rare opportunity. He was sitting in a camouflaged hide, made of grass and plants, at 3 a.m. at Solapur in Maharashtra.

A bustard suddenly poked his head through the window,” he says. “The bird was so close, yet it did not realise that I was there. It foraged a bit. I made a sketch of it. Then it went away.”

Another unforgettable experience was to meet the legendary naturalist David Attenborough at the Whitley awards ceremony. “I told him that by listening to him, during his famous television programmes, that I got interested in wildlife,” says Patil. “But Attenborough said, 'I think my voice triggered a passion that was already there'.”

(A shorter version was published in Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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