Grassland ecosystems are unique habitats found in various parts of our country. From the famous Banni and Velvadar grasslands in Gujarat to Rollapadu in Andhra Pradesh, there are plenty of majestic grassland ecosystems in India. Grasslands are mainly distributed in areas of low and erratic rainfall, and are classified as regions where annual precipitation is just enough to support an ecosystem of largely grasses and some shrubs. 

Unfortunately, in our country grasslands are generally viewed as wastelands, as barren unproductive areas. By prioritising an increase in green cover, government authorities have ordered the plantation of trees in many grasslands, unknowingly destroying the fragile ecosystem that thrives there. This threatens the large variety of wildlife, mostly ground nesting birds, which find shelter and breed in these habitats. Indeed, it is a matter of great concern to conservationists that grasslands are the most neglected and least protected ecosystem in India.

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For the most part, people don’t realise that these grasslands are not barren, unproductive areas: they are home to a large variety of wildlife, mostly ground nesting birds, which find shelter and breed in these habitats.

One prime grassland habitat is the flat Malwa plateau, in the western region of Madhya Pradesh – these grasslands and adjoining waterbodies attract thousands of birds from many parts of the country, and also from other parts of the world as well. Francolins, quails and buttonquails are seen in good numbers here, and in the winter, harriers, larks, pipits, warblers, shrikes and migratory ducks arrive too. India is home to four species of bustards; all of them are predominantly grassland species as well. The smallest of these bustard species, the Lesser Florican (Sypheotides indica), has been visiting the grasslands of western Madhya Pradesh for decades. 

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The smallest of the bustard species is the Lesser Florican (Sypheotides indica), which has been visiting the grasslands of western Madhya Pradesh for decades. 

As an avid birdwatcher, I have been visiting Malwa and the surrounding areas for the last 10 years to see this beautiful bird, but it wasn't until the last eight that I actively began to record the birds of the region.

The Lesser Florican is spotted only during its breeding period (from July to October). The growth of grass in the monsoon allows the females to hide and breed safely – and it is also a time when food in the form of insects is plentiful. (The Lesser Florican is omnivorous and eats invertebrates like grasshoppers, dung beetles, caterpillars, centipedes, worms and parts of plants as well, such as crop shoots, leaves, herbs and berries.)

During the breeding season, the males establish territories and compete to dazzle potential mates with their aerial displays and fine plumage. In fact, the Lesser Florican is best known for its aerial courtship display, where the male makes a series of spectacular jumps to a height of 1.5m to 2m, around 500 times a day. 

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The Lesser Florican is best known for its aerial courtship display, where the male makes a series of spectacular jumps to a height of 1.5m to 2m, around 500 times a day.

I have sought to understand more about the Lesser Florican’s behaviour and the reasons for its dwindling numbers. Although the Lesser Florican has been given the highest degree of protection under Schedule-I of the Wildlife Protection Act of India, 1972, its numbers have gone down drastically – in 2009, there were estimated to be around 50-55 individuals; this year so far less than 15 birds have been counted in the region. The Lesser Florican is listed as Endangered in IUCN’s Red List. It has also been included as a priority species for recovery in the Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats by the Ministry of Environment. 

Madhya Pradesh has the distinction of having two wildlife sanctuaries exclusively established for the conservation of the Lesser Florican, namely Sailana Sanctuary in Ratlam district and Sardarpur Sanctuary in Dhar district. (In fact, celebrated ornithologist and conservationist Dr. Salim Ali visited these areas of western Madhya Pradesh in the early-1980s and recommended the areas be notified as sanctuaries.)

Unlike other wildlife sanctuaries which have dense forests, these sanctuaries are nothing but flat and large tracts of grasslands, devoid of any kind of trees. They are vast, undulating plateaus, interspersed with a few small hills and some shrubs. These have long been the favoured breeding grounds for the endangered florican. There are many water bodies present in the area, which are perfectly suited for other bird species too, including ground nesting species such as the Grey and Painted Francolin, Rain Quail, Barred Buttonquail, Indian Courser and sandgrouse. Many species of larks and pipits are also seen in good numbers here.

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The author has recorded around 150 other species of birds from the region. Seen here, the Bristled Grassbird (left) and a Rain Quail (right).

In fact, during my visits to the area, I have recorded around 150 other species of birds here, besides the Lesser Florican. In the winter, I’ve seen various species of harriers, warblers and shrikes. Many species of migratory birds, mostly ducks, can also be found in the nearby water bodies. 

Today though, these grasslands face intense biotic pressure for a variety of reasons. 

Of the two sanctuaries, Sailana Sanctuary still stands a chance to be a safe and secure place for the visiting floricans in coming years. The Ratamba forest patch in the Petlavad range of Jhabua, a Reserved Forest Area, has emerged as another ideal habitat for the endangered bird in Madhya Pradesh. For the last six or seven years, sightings of the Lesser Florican have been recorded here, regularly. Unfortunately, the Sardarpur Sanctuary has been devoid of Lesser Floricans for the last three years. 

Industrial development (even for clean energy, through the construction of windmills) has depleted this ecosystem. Excessive grazing by local cattle owners has also affected the habitat. Livestock feed on grass, reducing the grass cover which the florican requires for safe breeding. The trampling of eggs by cattle and free-roaming Nilgai (Blue Bull) herds also poses a great threat.

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Livestock feed on grass, reducing the grass cover which the florican requires for safe breeding. The trampling of eggs by cattle and free-roaming Nilgai (Blue Bull, left) herds also poses a great threat. 

The conversion of these grasslands for agricultural use has been detrimental too. Private farmlands within the sanctuary area have been extensively cultivated. In most places near the breeding grounds of the floricans, soya bean is grown – a cash crop that requires frequent spraying of pesticides. In fact, habitat degradation due to the excessive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides in agriculture is one of the major threats to the existence of Lesser Floricans as well as other creatures surviving on the grassland ecosystem. The birds feed on larvae and insects found in these fields. A heavily contaminated diet affects the breeding capacity of adults as well as the longevity of newly hatched chicks and juveniles.  

In recent years, the threat by predation has increased too. Stray dogs have been seen in packs wandering around the grasslands in search of easy prey. They chase and kill many ground nesting birds and small mammals.

With the loss of their habitat, the numbers of many species of grassland birds have dwindled, although a detailed study will be required to ascertain the specific effects on various species. Based on my own observations, I have seen Baya Weaver breeding areas reduce in these sanctuaries, and have also observed that Eurasian Eagle-owls are gone from much of the area.

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With the loss of their habitat, the numbers of many species of grassland birds have dwindled, inlcuding the Eurasian Eagle-owl.

For its part, the forest department regularly take steps to involve farmers and locals in the protection of Lesser Floricans. In 2005, as part of a florican reward scheme, the department announced that prize money of Rs 5000 would be awarded to any farmer who spots a Lesser Florican in his field and protects the bird. It also works to eradicate the ever-increasing invasive species, Prosopis juliflora, from its habitat, to increase the grass cover for floricans.

At the same time, NGOs such as Jal Jangal Zameen have been encouraging organic farming in the area to minimise the use of chemical insecticides in the preferred breeding grounds of the floricans. Some of the villagers in the area have taken up organic farming, but a lot more still needs to be done. One possibility that could be considered is some kind of incentive for organic farming in agricultural lands frequented by floricans, along the lines of the existing florican reward scheme. 

Yet, it seems to me that despite the efforts of the forest department and NGOs, the local people living in the florican landscapes of western Madhya Pradesh still seem to harbour resentment about the existence of sanctuaries for the Lesser Florican.

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Without help from local communities, bird numbers will only drop further. 

Last year, at a stakeholders workshop at Sailana, where a scientist from BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society) and a senior forest official from Indore were present, I observed that the locals were quite happy when the forest official said that he did not see the bird himself during his visit to Sailana. Their sentiment was that since even he had not seen the bird, what was the reason for having a sanctuary for a bird which was hardly there.

From what I have seen, the locals are more interested to know when the Sardarpur Sanctuary will be denotified by the state government and they can sell their land. Most of the 34,800 hectares within the sanctuary is private land, and due to sanctuary laws they are restricted from any construction or development-related activities.

Somehow, stakeholders have to resolve this rising resentment – it has almost made local communities the enemy of floricans. Yet, without their cooperation, the birds’ numbers will dwindle further; only with their help can the Lesser Florican be saved from these areas.

To read more about grasslands, do see:

Anisha Jayadevan's story on the Banni Grasslands

Dhritiman Mukherjee's story on the hidden wealth of grasslands

P Jeganathan's story on ground-nesting birds