Nurturing the tallest cranes in MP’s Bhoj

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Rajgir observed that due to the decade-long efforts, the cranes have started identifying the areas near the Bhoj wetlands as ‘safe’, leading to year-round breeding…reports Shuchita Jha

When the Sarus cranes population dwindled from 160 in 2001 to just 24 in 2008, it had ornithologists and conservationists worried. From 2013, they rallied together with the local population to save the majestic bird species.

The collective efforts of farmers around Madhya Pradesh’s Bhoj wetlands have now led to the reversal and the population of the endangered bird has witnessed a substantial rise in the region.

The Bhoj wetland is an important Ramsar site (a wetland site of international importance designated under the Ramsar Convention) comprising the Upper and Lower lakes of Bhopal. It boasts a rich flora and fauna, and over 20,000 birds of various species visit annually.

Among them is the Sarus crane, the tallest flying bird which can reach heights of upto 5 feet 11 inches. As per the World Wildlife Fund, there are around 15,000-20,000 Sarus cranes in India, the maximum being in Uttar Pradesh.

They are also found in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat but their population is declining due to conflict with humans and threat to their natural habitats. The bird is classified as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

The intervention to protect the Sarus Crane in the Bhoj wetland started in October 2012, when the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) found that the population of these birds had fallen rapidly in just a decade. Samir Kumar Sinha, Head of Conservation at WTI, explained, “These birds are mostly found in shallow waters and rice fields where they can have access to small shoots and insects. They also prey on the fish in shallow waters. When we found that the birds’ population was decreasing at an alarming rate, we suspected that there was some conflict between the birds and locals, so the idea was to instil a sense of brotherhood between the two.”

From a single pair 10 years ago, the Sarus crane population has risen to more than 100 birds. In 2021 there is happy crop of chicks and eggs waiting to add to the numbers further, thanks to continuous community efforts.

The local farmers have restored the bird population by keeping the birds’ eggs safe in their fields, preventing the hunting of birds and reducing the amount of chemical pesticides sprayed in the fields.

Sangeeta Rajgir, a Bhopal-based ornithologist said: “The locals in the Bhoj area did not harm the birds knowingly, but practices like excessive use of pesticides, overgrazing, pollution, started taking a toll on the crane population here.”

“Encouraging locals to protect the Sarus was the key element in the success of the Sarus Mitra (friends of Sarus) initiative that started in 2013-14. The discussion started at the local level and continued thereafter,” said Sinha.

Today, children in the villages near the Bhoj Tal (Upper lake) have been sensitised to the needs of the birds and now they educate others about the same. They also keep a count of the eggs and try to protect them.

“It is a great feeling to see the locals taking initiative to restore the Sarus population in villages like Nathu Berkheda, Bhisankhedi, Goregaon etc. The locals now not only protect the birds, they also tend to those that get injured and help them recover,” added ornithologist and founder of Bhopal Birds, Mohd. Khalique.

On learning that their practices were harming the birds, the farmers in Goregaon decided to start using organic fertilisers and pesticides, as opposed to chemical ones, as early as 2013. Farmers of Bhishenkhedi and Nathu Berkheda also decided to take the leap to organic farming by 2020.

Abhishek Sigroley, 25, a local farmer in Nathu Berkheda said, “The people who educated us about the Sarus crane said that the pesticides we use in the field get washed off in the local lakes and pollute the water, contaminating it for the Sarus. We also know that if something is killing pests on the crop, it is obviously poison. So we decided to use organic fertilisers like cow-dung and organic pesticides like neem oil for our crops from last year.”

Dwarka Prasad, a farmer who switched to organic farming in 2013, added that it is also cost-effective. “We are now spending less money on buying pesticides, as the Sarus also eats a lot of insects in the water, allowing us to rest assured that grasshoppers, crickets and other insects will not destroy the crops,” he said.

According to Rajgir, the scientists from the agriculture department educated the farmers about making organic fertilisers and pesticides. “As the raw materials were easily available at home, and the farmers also had access to cow-dung in large quantities, the change was easy for them. Though the use of chemical pesticides has not completely stopped, it has significantly reduced,” she said

Rajgir observed that due to the decade-long efforts, the cranes have started identifying the areas near the Bhoj wetlands as ‘safe’, leading to year-round breeding.

“On the last bird count in May this year, we found eggs of the Sarus cranes, one-month-old chicks, and two-month-old sub-adults along with full-grown birds. This signifies that the birds have started breeding all year round, which is a good sign, as Sarus’ lay eggs in the same place year after year if they feel safe in that area,” she said.

Along with making changes in their farming practices, the locals made groups called ‘Sarus-Mitra’ that continue to spread awareness about the Sarus crane among locals and request farmers to not disturb the birds if they spot a nest and eggs in their fields. The friends of Sarus also keep a watch over the new eggs and keep away dogs and other animals of prey. They also report the death of any bird to the local forest department and call the veterinarian if a bird is found to be injured.

Taking inspiration from the farmers of these villages, farmers of nearby villages like Eintkhedi, Mugaliyachap and Bhilkheda have also started protecting the Sarus cranes.

“We have started interactions with the farmers of the villages based along the streams where the Sarus cranes are found. The response has been positive so far,” added Rajgir.

(The author is a Bhubaneswar-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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