Pesticides are wiping out cranes

George Archibald , director, International Crane Foundation (ICF), USA, has been a regular visitor to Keoladeo Ghana National Park, Bharatpur. In 1993-94, an attempt was made to introduce captive-reared Siberian cranes among the wild flock in Bharatpur. Unfortunately, it failed. He spoke to Amit Shanker about the dwindling population of cranes

 
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

Why have the Siberian cranes stopped coming to India?
Since the mid-70s, about 12-15 per cent of the Siberian cranes coming to the Keoladeo Ghana National Park have been juveniles. This has meant excellent productivity. Last winter, the percentage of juveniles remained normal although the total number of cranes continued to decline. As in India, the Siberian cranes are strictly protected in Russia. With well-protected habitats and enough food, we believe that the problem lies in the migration, during which most of these birds die.

Which are the countries that fall on the migration route and what are the problems?
The two main problem countries are Pakistan and Afghanistan. In these countries large-scale hunting has led to a decrease in their numbers. Recently, crane hunting has also been reported in Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

What is the state of conservation in Pakistan?
It is easier to keep a check in cities but not in rural areas. After the Russians invaded Afghanistan, the us supplied a wide range of automatic weapons to Pakistan. These weapons invariably found themselves in the hands of the local people. Earlier, they just had their little Soyuz which they threw up in the air, most of the times missing these cranes. But with the widespread availability of sophisticated firearms in Pakistan, the effect on wildlife has been devastating.

So is there a way to keep a count of the birds that migrate through these countries?
Because of the turmoil in Afghanistan it is very difficult, if not impossible, for conservationists to do anything from the security point of view. Until stability comes to the region, the survival of Siberian cranes is in jeopardy.

In August 1998, a satellite radio was attached to the last pair of Siberian cranes and a juvenile that were on their way to India. The Russians monitored the movements of these birds across Asia. On November 8, 1998 the Russians stopped receiving the signal of the juvenile when it was in central Afghanistan. Two days later, a pair of cranes arrived at Bharatpur. We guess the juvenile was killed in Afghanistan.

Do you think the authorities in Bharatpur are doing enough to keep the habitat of Siberian Cranes ingood condition?
The habitat of Siberian cranes in Bharatpur has definitely changed for the better. There is still plenty of open areas without tall grass. The authorities have done a very good job keeping the habitat of Bharatpur intact. I have not seen Bharatpur in better shape. They have kept the water hyacinth out and the wetlands are in good condition. There is also a lot of food for cranes.

Has rapid urbanisation and agricultural activity around the park affected the habitat and the birds?
The number of Siberian cranes during the mid-60s were about 200 at the Keoladeo Ghana National Park. But the decline started during the winter of 1974-75. Ron Sauey, a researcher, counted 63 birds during that winter. There are only two cranes at present, perhaps the last pair ever to migrate on their own to India. The threat from agricultural activity and indiscriminate use of pesticides is affecting Sarus cranes whose population has decreased by more than 60 per cent.

Are there any other reasons for their disappearance?
In Bihar, religious practices that protected cranes were abandoned and gradually the birds were being shot and eaten. In Punjab, as agriculture become more mechanised, the Sarus cranes have vanished because few wetlands have been spared. In other areas the number of cranes has decreased as a consequence of the ever-increasing number of power lines and from pesticide contamination of food and water. In the 1960s there were about 45 nesting pairs of Sarus cranes in Bharatpur. At present, there are only seven.

In 1982, grazing was banned in Bharatpur, leading to proliferation of weeds that choked the wetlands and hence reduced the food supply of the Siberian cranes. Do you think it was a wise decision ?
I was here in the 1970s and the early 1980s when the grazing problem was acute. But the real problem were the villagers: the birds were being shot and trees were being cut down. That is why the government kicked them out. It was a wise decision then. But as things stand today, one way to save the park is to introduce buffaloes as they have been a part of the wetland community for thousands of years. A controled population of buffaloes at Keoladeo Ghana National Park might see the habitat returning to what it was before.

What is the ICF doing to protect the Siberian cranes? What can be done so that the birds keep coming to India?
Apart from tracking the birds all over the world, the icf breeds them in captivity for future release in wetlands. We have experimented with Sandhill cranes. Migration among the birds bred in captivity is encouraged by training them to fly with the help of a microlight aircraft. The same can be done with Siberian cranes. The problem with Siberian cranes is that once they migrate south, they will not fly north. Migration should be induced or else they will become non-migratory. At the same time, India should continue to keep the Keoladeo Ghana National Park in good shape. But all this is possible only if Afghanistan gets a stable government within three to four years.

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