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A Middle-Eastern caller

A Middle-Eastern caller

The Houbara Bustard (Chlamydotis undulate), a winter migrant to India, fights declining numbers with conservation management,reintroduced populations and a will to survive.

For hundreds of years, falconry and the hunting of the Houbara Bustard are deeply embedded in Arabian culture and tradition. When these birds migrated from Central Asia, falconers on camels would hunt them as a reward for having borne the summer heat. Today, with cars replacing camels, hunting continues easily on sand dunes, not for food but spot, and as supply for falcon training.

Populations of all the sub-species of Houbara Bustards have been declining due to habitat loss and degradation as desert areas are developed for agriculture and infrastructure projects, compounded by high hunting pressure from falconers, now even in the breeding areas in the Central Asia.

A winter guest

The Houbara Bustard is a winter visitor to India and is normally seen in the dry and semi-arid areas of northwest India,Rajasthan, mainly in the Thar Desert, Kutch and some parts of Saurashtra (Jamnagar, Little Rann of Kutch) from November to mid-March. It is hunted by local poachers but thankfully, there’s no large-scale supply-hunting for falcons like in Pakistan. Dr Asad R Rahmani and a team of researchers from the BNHS conducted detailed surveys between 1994 and 1998 and found it in 11 districts of Rajasthan, with the major concentration in the districts of Bikaner, Jodhpur, Barmer and Jaisalmer. In fact, out of38 sites censused in Rajasthan, presence was confirmed from 34sites, seen in small flocks ranging from 2-12 birds. According to local information, illegal hunting had taken place or takes place in at least 11 sites.

The Houbara Bustard prefers desert environments, undulating, flat arid plains, steppe habitats and semi-deserts, often with little cover except for open or scattered desert shrubs. Rugged terrain is avoided, as are sandy deserts and barre saltpans. Vegetative cover consists of moderate or sparse perennials, primarily halophytes, grasses, herbs and shrubs, but sometimes includes larger bushes and trees. However, these birds breed in areas of ample grass growth, with good local rainfall, and therefore probably actively select more rather than less vegetated areas.

Though the Houbara is protected under the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) and classified under Schedule 1, part III in India, and despite the lack of actual recent census figures, populations are perceived to be on the decline (wintering populations are anywhere between 2000 to 5000). India is trying to protect its habitat in the Desert National Park and community reserves. It could help to educate locals, and provide infrastructural support to field staff with wireless sets, firearms, and vehicles. Having said that, the wintering Houbara population in India will always be vulnerable as the bird migrates through Pakistan, where hunting exists on a large-scale. The need of the hour is complete protection in its entire range, starting from breeding grounds, staging areas, migratory routes and wintering homes.

A rather large palette

Houbara is omnivorous and opportunistic, the diet reflecting local and seasonal abundance of various plants and small animals. It is known to eat fruits, seeds, shoots, leaves, flowers and young shoots, drupes, seeds, and prefers berries overleaves. When available, it eats cultivated plants, such as beans, peas, alfalfa and mustard. Its diet also includes invertebrates such as grasshoppers, weevils, termites, locusts, beetles, caterpillars, scorpions, spiders and ants; but also snails and small vertebrates such as snakes, lizards and geckos. Chicks are mainly fed insects and small reptiles.

Key predators

The main predators of eggs and chicks are jackals (Canisaureus)and Red foxes (Vulpesvulpes) or Rüppell’s fox (V. rüppelli).Reptiles like the Horned desert viper (Cerastescerastes) or Desert monitors (Varanusgriseus) may destroy whole clutches. The only defense that chicks are capable of is their cryptic plumage combined with motionless patience. Parents defend their chicks if necessary, even at the risk of their own lives. Incidentally, raptors are the main predators for adult Houbaras, but despite the juvenile mortality being fairly high, adult Houbaras live a long life.

 

This article originally appeared in the 2013 July/August Saevus magazine issue.

About the Author /

Formerly with the BombayNatural History Society (BNHS),M Zafar-ul Islam is a NationalResearch Coordinator with the National Wildlife Research Centre in Saudi Arabia, andmanages reintroduction programmes of threatenedspecies in Saudi Arabia. An ecologist with a strong interest in international wildlife conservation, Dr Islam’s main research is on the ecology and biology of globally threatened species such as the Houbara Bustard, Arabian leopard, Arabian oryx, Sand and Mountain gazelles and threatened birds found in India. He has published 13 books (largely with OUPBNHS)and more than a hundred scientific articles.

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