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Alarming declines of Grassland birds in Nannaj, Maharashtra: study

Study in Nannaj's grasslands reveals drastic declines in bird populations, especially Great Indian Bustards, urging immediate conservation action in Solapur, Maharashtra.

By Ground report
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Alarming declines of Grassland birds in Nannaj, Maharashtra: study

At Nannaj grasslands, Solapur, Maharashtra, India. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Madhukar B V

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A 13-year study in the fragmented grasslands of Nannaj shows alarming declines in specialist grassland bird populations, raising conservation concerns. The findings in Bird Conservation International highlight the state of iconic species like the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard (GIB) and the need for immediate protection.

Diverse habitats in Solapur, Maharashtra

The study area includes protected grasslands, afforested woodland plots, human settlements, grazing lands, and agricultural fields in the Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary in Solapur, Maharashtra. The region's biodiversity has faced significant changes in land use and landscape patterns, posing threats to its avian inhabitants.

The research used a day-listing method conducted by Sarang Mhamane, a local birdwatcher and co-author. Over 4,324 days, the presence or absence of 45 bird species, including seven migratory species, was recorded in the study area spanning five villages.

The lead author of the study, Akshay Bharadwaj, a PhD ecologist at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, explained, "We needed a committed observer to monitor birds at one site and contrast local trends with the State of India's Birds report."

A graph showing annual trends of selected species in grasslands. Large-bodied, specialist birds like the great Indian bustard have shown “strong, consistent declines
Graph: Bustard Population Declining Steadily. Credit: Bharadwaj, Akshay et. al.

The study's findings paint a grim picture for specialist grassland birds. Large-bodied species like the GIB and the Red-necked Falcon experienced "strong, consistent declines" throughout the study period. Smaller-bodied specialists, such as the Great Grey Shrike, also showed significant population drops.

He refers to a study published in December 2021. The study notes that bird species richness and abundance in the summer was similar across grasslands, croplands and rangelands in the Thar desert. However, in the winter, insectivorous habitat specialists were the most negatively impacted outside of grasslands.

GIB population declining towards local extinction

The GIB, or 'maldhok,' was once widespread in Indian semi-arid grasslands, is now limited to fragmented open habitats with a dwindling population. The study found a significant regional decline in the bustard's presence, reaching historic lows and nearing local extinction.

Mhamane, who has worked on wildlife conservation projects in Nannaj since 2003, recalls when farmers frequently saw GIBs in their fields, which hasn't been the case for many years.

The study highlighted the varying fortunes of bird species in the region. The Small Minivet, preferring woodland or scrublands, showed increasing reporting rates, while the rare Painted Sandgrouse declined.

Habitat loss and fragmentation are contributing to the dwindling populations of specialist grassland birds. This is driven by excessive grazing, lack of protection, agricultural expansion, and encroachment.

Conservationists warn that excessive grazing and frequent fires disrupt grassland flora regeneration, leading to dominance of fire-resistant species and loss of diversity. Community-led grassland management involving pastoralists is advised in Maharashtra and Karnataka for sustainable conservation.

Pastoralism vital for grassland sustainability

Iravatee Majgaonkar, a PhD scholar at ATREE focusing on land use change in grasslands and pastoralism, said, "Historically, only pastoralism has been able to sustainably use grasslands' aridity and vegetation." "Pastoralists are being forced to move out of their ancestral livelihoods for socio-economic reasons, but there is scope for pastoralism and conservation goals to overlap, especially in Maharashtra and Karnataka, through community-led savannah grasslands management."

The study emphasized the need for targeted restoration in suitable areas and non-forest habitats, like grasslands, in the conservation framework. Bharadwaj stressed consistent monitoring, even by individuals, to gain insights into local trends and contrast them with larger-scale patterns.

The findings highlight the precarious state of grassland bird communities, prompting urgent action to protect and restore these habitats. Concerted efforts, involving stakeholders from various sectors, are crucial to safeguarding India's grassland biodiversity and ensuring the survival of avian species.

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