Cranes, cultivators and conservation
K.S. GOPI SUNDAR
FARMING is the most dominant land use on ice-free earth, and is the single largest threat to biodiversity largely due to destruction of natural habitats.1 Secondary effects of farming, especially due to pesticides, fertilizers and soil erosion, contribute to further deterioration of natural areas. Traditionally, approaches to conservation of biodiversity have focused on designating human-free spaces for wild species, and revolve mostly around large, charismatic mammals. These spaces, however, are inefficient in protecting species, proving too expensive, or impractical, due to high human densities such as in the tropics.2 Even existing protected areas are under attack thanks to the burgeoning human population, improper planning and execution, and the need for more food production. These limitations to protected areas, and the knowledge that a multitude of biodiversity thrive in farmed areas, have led to the exploration of farmed areas for conservation.3
While it is a formal science in many parts of the world, the notion of human-dominated, heavily disturbed, non-forested areas being useful for wildlife conservation is relatively new to India. One group of animals that have received a disproportionately large amount of interest in farmed areas are birds, due to the relatively large number of species that are able to persist in such areas, and their utility as indicator species.4 Is the conservation of birds in intensively farmed areas at all possible in India? Are our conservation paradigms sufficiently developed to include these species and areas?
Here I explore these questions with specific relevance to a six-foot bird, the Sarus Crane which thrives in the densely human-populated cultivated areas of the Gangetic flood-plains. The Gangetic floodplains have experienced human domination for centuries. Formal cultivation of rice here – progressing from seasonal gathering to storing of grains for planting – can be dated to at least 8360 years ago, possibly being the first ever formal cultivation of rice worldwide.5 Pollen records point to the historical vegetation being dominated by wet grasslands.6 Today, Uttar Pradesh is the most populated state in India with over 166 million people and has 70% of its land under crop production (most of which provides at least two harvests annually), making it one of four most intensively human-modified and cultivated locations in the world.7
Aminuscule proportion of the landscape constitutes woodlands, grasslands and wetlands – shallow, low-lying areas that are flooded either by the monsoon or by overflows of the excellent network of irrigation canals.8 These are usually a few hectares each in size, scattered amid private fields forming very tiny non-cultivated pockets. Some of the larger wetlands are designated protected areas with a focus on wintering water-birds. An even smaller extent of wooded areas remain, and largely as protected reserves.
Non-cultivated areas are designated as categories of ‘wastelands’ under the land use classification scheme of the Government of India. Nearly all of them are panchayat lands retained for common use. The non-protected uncultivated areas are heavily used by people to graze cattle, or extract natural resources such as timber, lotus stems and leaves, clay, reeds and water. The degree of use of wetlands and the variety of uses they have here is exceedingly poorly understood.9
Under the traditional conservation ethos of undisturbed protected areas, Uttar Pradesh’s cultivated landscape would thus rank very low in the list of areas important for wildlife conservation. Under another lens, however, the landscape ranks surprisingly high – the lens of large waterbirds. The term ‘large waterbirds’ loosely refers to herons, storks and cranes – birds that stand at over two feet tall with matching wingspans, and require wetland areas for feeding. The largest in this group of birds is the Sarus Crane which holds the record for the world’s tallest flying bird. Until recently, large waterbirds were thought to require large wetland areas with minimal human disturbance to survive and breed successfully. Studies on these birds in Uttar Pradesh have changed that perception radically.10
A few districts in the southwestern part of the state host densities of many species of waterbirds matching or even exceeding densities recorded for similar birds in protected and managed wetland areas elsewhere. Breeding densities and population of even the lofty Sarus Crane in these districts are among the highest for any crane species anywhere, and the state is home to the largest known population of this species. The Sarus Crane is designated a globally threatened bird species due to attrition of its preferred habitat – wetlands. Some other species like the carnivorous Black-necked Storks also occur here in very high numbers. The population of this stork species in southwestern Uttar Pradesh is the only one known to have a high degree of breeding success.11
What are the mechanisms responsible for the large waterbird situation in Uttar Pradesh? Sarus Cranes appear to do better in areas like southwestern Uttar Pradesh that have flooded rice paddies during the monsoon – a crop that closely resembles wetlands – and the relatively moist wheat during the winter. In areas with drier crops like sugarcane and soy bean, cranes practically disappear from the landscape.12
Panchayats in southwestern Uttar Pradesh appear to have done better at retaining these wetland patches as common lands, though it is not well understood if this is due to specific institutional mechanisms or is accidental. Retaining these wetlands has inadvertently allowed the highest Sarus Crane population in the entire world to occur here, and their population appears to have been stable for the last half-century.13 The fine network of irrigation canals that supports the rice-wheat cropping cycle here create artificial patches of wetlands due to leakages, providing additional areas that cranes can use.
Sarus Cranes in some locations are revered for their supposed lifelong pair-bond, and farmers tolerate crop damage even allowing birds to nest inside rice fields. Cranes time their breeding with the rice cropping, but pairs with more wetlands in their territories do much better at raising chicks each year.14 Nesting begins with the first planting of rice, and chicks hatch when the rice is a couple of feet high, allowing them to hide in the crop for two months when they begin to fly. Despite these adjustments by cranes, however, farmer tolerance is vital for their continued survival.
While western Uttar Pradesh has crane-friendly farmers and plenty of cranes, crane numbers eastwards from here reduce and completely disappear in eastern districts of Uttar Pradesh, and have been extinct in Bihar and West Bengal for a long time.15 This change in numbers appears almost entirely due to changing attitudes of farmers. Other large waterbirds breed on trees and are less affected by farmer tolerance, though wetland attrition reduces food availability, and ability to breed. Also, even single trees are being axed to improve crop production. Most importantly, at least normal rainfall is essential each year to ensure birds have adequate wetlands filled up, allowing them to raise chicks and feed without requiring them to move to wetter areas.
Flooded rice cropping and friendly farmers, along with scattered wetlands of various sizes, are therefore essential to maintain populations of Sarus Cranes and other large water-birds. Lack of mechanized planting and harvesting appears to be a plus for Sarus Cranes and other waterbirds in Uttar Pradesh. Tractors and harvesters cause severe disruption over wide swathes of land, and are not conducive for waterbirds. The relatively small landholding size in Uttar Pradesh disallows such mechanization, and is another boon to waterbirds. Ironically and accidentally, the large human population (disallowing large landholdings) and village politics (allowing retention of wetlands and cropping patterns) appear responsible for the waterbird situation here. Over 350 bird species use flooded rice fields – possibly the highest number of species using any single crop in the region.16
Clearly, farmed areas are worthy of conservation effort. Are current policies and conservation paradigms in India adequate to accommodate both farming and waterbirds? No, they are not. Two primary reasons, not necessarily mutually exclusive, appear responsible for this. The biodiversity conservationist movement is biased towards large mammals that persist largely in protected forests. For some of these species, like the Asian Elephant, cropping areas near the Protected Areas are grounds for farmer-elephant conflict, and are undesirable.
Further, farming policies are largely devoid of ecological consideration. Even vital values of habitats like wetlands, such as their capability to recharge groundwater – an important function for agriculture notwithstanding its use for wildlife – are ignored by departments that focus on increasing crop production. Currently, wetlands are classified as a category of ‘wastelands’, are managed by the Department of Rural Development whose mandate is to increase cultivated areas,17 and this ethos has largely been responsible for wetland attrition in India.18 Wildlife does not figure in the idiom of these departments, except perhaps as pest species that cause crop damage and require being removed from the landscape. Both of these extreme viewpoints also do poorly in accounting for values of waterbird habitats to farmers.
Economics is the primary mover of successful conservation of birds in farmlands in most other countries. In the ‘set-aside’ scheme of the United States, farmers are paid to maintain small chunks of natural habitat amid their fields. These small units are actively managed through federal funding to maximize their utility for birds. Since economics was the motive behind these schemes, habitats that were ‘set-aside’ were rapidly lost when farming corn for methanol become more profitable.19 The capability of federal funding to keep up with the monies required to persuade farmers to retain these natural areas diminished greatly, and most of the land set aside for conservation has been converted to croplands.
In Europe, similar agri-environment schemes were implemented which included practices ranging from encouraging farmers to maintain hedges, even small pockets of trees and grasslands, to very focused interventions such as payments to ensure that one row is deliberately missed during the mechanized seed planting, allowing very small but incredibly important strips of land to become available inside the crop for nesting birds.20 Rarely do farmers collaborate with scientists to actively benefit birds that use farmed areas. In California, for example, when burning straw after rice harvest became illegal due to the Rice Straw Burning Act, fields were kept flooded allowing the decomposition of straw, benefiting enormous numbers of wintering waterbirds.21
Finally, viewing wildlife as being beneficial to agriculture – e.g. in the form of pollination, or as pest controlling agents – is a growing theme in the agriculture-conservation culture, particularly in areas where wooded plants continue to dominate farmed landscapes.22
There have been no sustained economic interventions for farmland birds in India. However, these may not be pertinent or successful at least in Uttar Pradesh for reasons that have been discussed under other contexts.23 Many farmers are currently tolerant due to deeply held beliefs, and economic compensation programmes would likely corrode and dismantle these nature-friendly attitudes. Landholdings are too small to allow either a set-aside programme or growth of natural patches of trees and shrubs in farmed areas. Also, the level of knowledge on requirements for bird species that use farmed areas, and the areas where natural patches would be most beneficial, is very poorly understood. Viewing landscapes like Uttar Pradesh under the ‘wildlife beneficial to agriculture’ ethos would cover few species, and would in fact exclude species like cranes that do crop damage.
What then would be the most advisable strategy for Indian conditions? I argue that understanding the pulse of the land through farmers would give us our best conservation strategy here. This understanding in any detail currently eludes us. That so many wetlands and cranes still persist despite intensification of cultivation and increase of human population in Uttar Pradesh is a clear message. The farmers appear to clearly recognize and preserve the multiple values of the landscape rendering it useful as an enormous production system while also retaining species of conservation interest.
This is distinctly different from farmland areas in other countries where farmers either have negative attitudes towards wetlands and/or wildlife, reducing the potential of conservation efforts.24 Maximizing access to persisting natural areas for common use will include interventions such as grazing, fire, episodes of dryness, and removal of weeds like reeds that may be necessary to maintain tropical floodplain wetlands.25 Such human use is usually excluded from protected wetlands to the detriment of many habitats while also causing an immense degree of antagonism among the people reliant of these systems.26
This ethos of open use of habitat to benefit wildlife is both ironic and an antithesis to existing conservation thought in this part of the world, but intuitively seems an effective direction to undertake wildlife conservation with minimal compromise of human use of the landscape. Large waterbirds and the productive agricultural landscapes they occur in are still below the radar of most conservationists. Improved scientific research to understand the intricacies of cropland-wildlife systems, and enable meaningful inputs into policy intervention is urgently required. Increased discourses that assist in explicitly including wildlife in decisions pertaining to farmed landscapes are the need of the hour.
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9. Personal observations, unpublished data.
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11. K. S. G. Sundar, 2003, op. cit.
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14. K. S. G. Sundar, ‘Are Rice Paddies Suboptimal Breeding Habitat for Sarus Cranes in Uttar Pradesh, India?, Condor 111, 2009, 611-623.
15. K. S. G. Sundar, J. Kaur and B. C. Choudhury, 2006, op. cit.
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17. Ministry of Rural Development, Department of Land Resources and National Remote Sensing Agency ,Wastelands Atlas of India. Ministry of Rural Development, Department of Land Resources, New Delhi, 2005.
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