Human pressure threatens the survival of the magnificent Lesser Florican

Lalit Shastri

1Lesser florican, also called “Kharmor”, is highly endangered and an endemic species. These magnificent birds can be sighted in a very small area in the Sailana Kharmor Sanctuary in Ratlam district in western Madhya Pradesh. These birds go for mating and nesting when Monsoon arrives in the “beeds” or meadows still existing over little patches of land in the midst of intensive cultivation of soyabean on fragmented landholdings acquired from the local erstwhile ruler at a throwaway price by powerful farmers (Patidars) after the Land Ceiling Act was enforced.

One can spot these birds during the monsoon season at Amba, Sherpur but more particularly in the Naulakha beed and Shikaarvadi area of Sailana Kharmor Sanctuary in Ratlam district.

On World Environment Day, it is pertinent to keep the people informed about the fact that human pressure inside the Protected Area – both at Sailana and Sardarpur in western Madhya Pradesh — is playing havoc and threatening the survival of this magnificent Lesser Florican.

Shikarwadi3The “Beeds” or the grasslands of Sailana progressively are getting swallowed by farmers who are recklessly encroaching upon the breeding grounds of the magnificent Kharmor, a highly endangered and a rare species that is fighting a losing battle and is on the verge of extinction. Besides the expansion of agriculture through the occupation of newer territories by the farmers, the other factors responsible for the diminishing number of Lesser Floricans include reckless grazing and also the pressure of the nomadic tribes from neighbouring States that every year cross through this part of the State to feed their huge stock of sheep and loads of camels. Mining of basalt for road construction, early cutting of grass due to the exodus of landless labourers, who are mostly the Bhils that migrate to other states in search of employment from September onwards, are also factors responsible for bringing down the numbers of the endangered bird. The sightings of this bird were extremely rare till a few years ago in the Sardarpur Sanctuary in Dhar district near Indore. 2013 onwards, during our field visits to that area, not a single Kharmor has been spotted.

bAugust through September 2013, during field visits to Sailana, our team spotted 11 lesser floricans in the Shikarwadi area. A total of about half a dozen more of these birds were sighted at Amba and Sherpur. In this way, a dozen-and-half lesser floricans—could be seen during the 2013 monsoon in the Sailana Sanctuary and maximum of these were in the area lying between Sailana town and Govardhanpura village at Shikarwadi area of Sailana Kharmor Sanctuary. Subsequent research and collation of data established that there was – to be precise – a 25 per cent drop in the sighting of this bird in comparison with the 2012 monsoon season when 33 of these birds were sighted in this area. The total area of Sardarpur sanctuary is 34812.177 hectare. Of the total area, 568.443 hectare is protected forest, 34244.734 hectare is revenue land.

eggsBhurighati, Rajgarh, Khedi and Dattigaon, Devli, Suhana villages define the northern, eastern, southern and western boundaries of Sardarpur Sanctuary. Villagers informed investigators that the private meadows or “beeds” of Panpura village. have remained the main habitat for lesser florican in this area. Earlier, the endangered bird was also using the meadows of Karnavad, Dhulet, Songarh, Amodia, Bimrod, Gumanpura, Semila, Chadawad, Piparni, Semlia, Keria, Siyawad, Mahapura, Bhangarh and Timaychi for breeding purpose. Besides the Lesser Florican, other bird species, including the sarus crane, have also been using this area as their breeding ground.

Now, with growing biotic pressure, it is an entrely a different story and the Lesser Florican has not been sighted by anyone in the Sardarpur area for last couple of years.

To Conserve the Lesser Florican and its habitat, there should be a shift in conservation paradigm from a site-based protection approach to a community-based approach, a site-specific evaluation of conditions, attitudes and current levels of knowledge is also essential. The strategy to go for resettlement of rights is a step in the right direction.

Sailana

DSC_0024Sailana Sanctuary in Ratlam District, is situated within the Malwa plateau in Central India. This Sanctuary has been identified as an Internationally Important Bird Area. The habitat is predominantly tropical grassland interspersed with agricultural fields consisting of pure grasslands and grass patches in crop fields and grazing lands. The grasslands and croplands within the sanctuary are jointly owned by agriculturists and landholders from these villages. An area of about 200 ha within the sanctuary is known as the Naulakha grasslands or Naulakha beed. The area was originally well wooded and consisted of teak and palash. This area now is mostly treeless grassland dominated by the grass type Sehima nervosum-Chrysopogon fulvus. Pure grasslands are found in the traditionally protected areas like Shikarwadi (the hunting lodge in the naulakha grasslands).

The area covered by pure grasslands is however decreasing rapidly due to conversion to agricultural fields. The extended grasslands of Sherpur and Amba in Ratlam district have smaller grasslands measuring between one to two hectares interspersed with crops. There are about 20 additional grasslands with sizes varying from 20 ha to 400 ha scattered in the Ratlam district that could also be good habitat for the Lesser. But the grasslands are rapidly shrinking as there is too much of human pressure and even as portion
Bird Sightings

2Last year (2015), the first sighting of a pair of endangered Lesser florican was recorded in the Naulakha beed of Shikarwadi area of Sailana Sanctuary on July 22. This was confirmed by the Sub-divisional officer (SDO) of Sailana Sanctuary Bhagwati Pawar. The first spotting of ‘Kharmor’ (Lesser Florican) was reported from the Shikarwadi area of Sailana in the later part of July 2014. In 2014, a total of only 18 birds were spotted in the Sailana sanctuary. Amba and Sherpur are two other places in Sailana where the rare birds stay for three months but highest number of birds stays in Shikarwadi area.

A short journey by road from Shikarwadi in Sailana Sanctuary takes you to Amba. If one takes a wrong fork of the dirt track which is dotted with small ponds created by rain water during the monsoon, one comes across a stone quarry bordering the Amba protected area. It has now been shut down with the intervention of forest authorities. Divisional forest officials and local villagers informed that the quarry was being run by a politically powerful operator and many stumbling blocks were encountered before the quarry was ordered to shut down and it came to a grinding halt in 2014.

This abandoned quarry is less than 500 metres from the Kharmor habitat. One has to take a diversion from this spot, and drive a couple of kilometres on a plateaux like surface to reach the edge overlooking a valley that offers an enchanting view of undulating virgin territory Of course on closer look one can spot a few villages nestling near the base. At one particular spot, some villagers have also erected a makeshift structure and put up a few saffron flags to project it as a place of worship. This place has even started attracting villagers who religiously come here each year to join a religious fair. The Amba grassland all along has remained a Kharmor habitat but in recent years, according to local villagers, the Kharmor citings have become rare in this area. There is pressure of grazing. Herds of blue-bull that criss-cross through this habitat are posing a serious threat, especially when they come to Kharmor during monsoon season for breeding.

A few kilometres from Amba is Sherpur. It is also a protected area and just like Amba, this is also an extension of the Sailana Sanctuary. This Kharmor habitat has a contiguous agricultural belt, which is dominated by big farmers. A chronic problem here is the gradual and systematic encroachment of the sanctuary and nistar land by farmers, who are recklessly using pesticides and chemical fertilizers to boost crop production. This in turn is polluting surface water and also eliminating insects that are otherwise supposed to thrive in grassland and form food base for the breeding kharmor. Grazing of cattle and goat is also a problem that has touched endemic proportions at Sherpur. Grazing continues in this area without obstruction while villagers retained on contingency basis and posted here as watchmen look the other way.

Sardarpur

DSC_0305Sardarpur is located close to Rajgarh on the Indore-Ahmedabadroad, about 55 km from the district headquarters of Dhar and 125 km from Indore. Most of the area of the Sardarpur Sanctuary is treeless. During survey visits in the 2013 monsoon season , attempts to spot the Lesser Florican in the Piparni grasslands and also at Dhulat-Rajabheda and Karnawat drew a blank.

Talking to villagers in the Sardarpur area one gathered that all development activities in the Sardarpur area have come to a standstill. The village elders here, without exception, treat the Kharmor as a villain. They have also decided not to take the benefit of the special scheme announced by state wildlife wing to give cash reward to those who report Kharmor sightings.

Mining problem: A case study

mining-SailanaFor the mining quarry near the Amba grassland, temporary mining lease was granted in July, 2013 for mining of stone, boulder and murrum to a Bhopal based company for the construction of the Jaora-Piplodha-Jalandharkheda & Piploda – Sailana road.

As the mining site was located just 500 meters from the boundary of the Sanctuary and in view of the report of the Forest Department and representations of the local villagers the Ratlam District Collector had to cancel the temporary mining licence in October 2013.

This matter also came up before the National Green Tribunal. During the hearing in this case, NGT was informed about gradual decline in the arrival of Lesser Floricon to Sailana Wildlife Sanctuary. The Madhya Pradesh Chief Wildlife Warden also apprised the NGT of the problems being faced in the management of the Sanctuary including, extensive grazing by cattle and sheep belonging to nomads passing through the area.

During the course of hearing it was also submitted that according to recent media reports there was a gradual decline in the arrival of Lesser Floricon to Sailana Wildlife Sanctuary and only 8 such birds had been sighted in the sanctuary during the monsoon of 2014 which only went on to show and validated the fact that they were nearly extinct and their numbers were dwindling rapidly.

The PCCF Wildlife apprised NGT of the problems being faced in the management of the Sanctuary were also brought to our notice which included, among others, the interference as a result of extensive grazing in the area by the cattle and sheep of the villagers as well as nomads passing through the area. Removal of obnoxious weeds, improving the grassland making it more conducive for arrival and breeding of the bird was discussed. It was also submitted that the problem with regard to retention of the water in the ponds which require repairs as soon after the monsoon, the water was getting depleted from the ponds. Apart from the above, it was also submitted that watch towers need to be erected so that with regard to improvement of sighting and controlling the biotic interference in the Sanctuary can be more effective and preventive measures can be taken for the aforesaid purpose.

Significantly, the residents of Amba had played an important role when they forced the Ratlam distrct collector to cancel the mining lease granted in 2013 barely 500 meters from the Sanctuary boundary.

Threats

Inappropriate grassland management

Overgrazing, encroachment, afforestation, leasing out of grasslands and revenue wastelands that form the habitat of Lesser Florican for mining and development related works reflects inappropriate management of these grasslands.

Grassland destruction

Changes in land-use pattern over the decades have resulted in a drastic decline in grassland habitat. Many of these areas have been reclaimed to increase agriculture productivty and also due to fragmentation of land holdings. Progressive increase in the cattle population is also resulting in overgrazing of the grasslands. According to an assessment, between 40–70% of protected grasslands have ploughed up and taken over by the agriculturists or have been transferred to the grazers.

The cattle population of the local villages as well as huge nomadic populations from adjoining Gujarat and Rajasthan states passing each year through the protected areas leads to the overutilization of the grasslands beyond their carrying capacity. Unproductive cattle is also adding to the burden.

Open forest compartments are also not in a position to fulfil the disproportionately high demand for fodder. Reckless over-grazing is also swallowing up the traditional grasslands from much of the historical range of the endangered species. Burning of grass by accident, or as a management tool is also destroying the taller varieties of grass and this is detrimental to Lesser Florican populations.

Power projects

As wind energy structures now dot one end of the Naulakha beeds and the Shikarwadi area of Sailana Sanctuary, the grasslands in this area no longer retain the natural character of the Kharmor breeding ground as it has existed for centuries.The high tension electricity lines that cut across some parts of the Kharmor grasslands, especially in Sardarpur area are also leaving an adverse impact on the Kharmor habitat as the birds often hit the high tension lines .

Hunting

Because of its delicate flesh and excellent flavor it was the “most esteemed of Indian game-birds” during the British Raj. Stray incidents of hunting with guns and snares, involving the local villagers have also been reported in a couple of areas in recent years.

Drought

Erratic and unreliable monsoon rains is another cause of the decline in the population of Lesser Florcans in the preferred areas. This was observed especially in 2014 when the monsoon was excessively delayed.

Pollution

Being primarily insectivorous, the Lesser Florcan is also threatened by the large quantities of pesticides that are liberally used by farmers in the Indian subcontinent.

Natural Predators

Lesser Floricans also face a constant threat fron falcons, kites, harriers, and owls.


Lalit Shastri, a renowned journalist, is also an acclaimed birder, environmentalist and wildlife documentary maker. This writeup is on the basis of an extensive study by him of the status and causes leading to the decline in the numbers of Lesser Florican in Western Madhya Pradesh.

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