Bengal florican: a bustard species from the Indian subcontinent threatened with extinction in the wild

April 3, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

The Bengal florican or the Bengal bustard (Houbaropsis bengalensis Gmelin) is an extremely rare species of bustard from the Indian subcontinent. The current IUCN status of the species is critically endangered and estimates of wild populations within the subcontinent is grossly overestimated as <~1,000. The species is grossly data deficient in India and the actual numbers could be as low as <200-300 in the wild. The distribution or natural home range of the species is described as stretching between extreme eastern Uttar Pradesh in north India (the western most distribution point) across the Terai tracts of the sub-Himalayas to the eastern and north-eastern Indian states of West Bengal, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh respectively (eastern most distribution point). The species has been reported from adjacent countries of Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh too as they occupy the continuous range distribution within the Indian subcontinent. They are officially reported to be extinct in Bangladesh now and the status of the bird in Nepal is doubtful and severely data deficient. Bhutan comparatively has a better profile of this species among the other subcontinent member countries, most possibly because of its undisturbed natural environment where the anthropogenic pressures have been reported to be significantly less. It could possibly be extinct in the wild in Nepal too, or realistically have population bases of <100-150 individuals.

Their current existence in the wild is extremely doubtful in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh (northern and eastern fringes), Bihar (northern Terai tracts) and West Bengal (Terai region in the northern districts). Sporadic observations have been reported over the last few decades with increasingly lower numbers over time. Unconfirmed reports estimate the population in these states to be as low as <50-100 individuals The best population distribution that has been recently updated is found to be restricted only to north-east Indian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, the extreme eastern most point of distribution of their former home range in the Indian subcontinent. They are most possibly now restricted predominantly to the foothills of Bhutan Himalayas and in isolated forest pockets of north-east India; and extinct in the wild elsewhere in the subcontinent. The most frequent and best documented observation of the species in the wild has been reported in recent times from the north eastern Indian state of Assam only.  A separate sub-population group is also reported from South East Asia (Vietnam and Cambodia); and it is quite unfortunate to state that both sub populations are threatened with the risks of extinction in the wild in Asia due to severe anthropogenic pressures.

The Bengal floricans are omnivorous, sexually dimorphic and terrestrial species. The species are characterized with strong and well built muscular legs, big toes with sharp claws, a strong beak and majestic broad wings. The flight patterns of the flocks are either in straight lines or V-shaped. The species is reported to have elaborate courtship displays and has been observed to feast on smaller mammals (rodents), frogs and toads, snakes, insects etc. Territorial aggression is also reported among adult males and in defending their harems of females from other contesting males and intruders into their territory. They are also known to be devoted parents taking good care of their chicks and constantly feeding them, helping them to grow faster. They are mostly fond of grassy plains with intermediate woods and forests and in semi or sub-aquatic habitats.  These are mainly ground nesting birds that forage, nest and raise their chicks on the ground. They are capable of sustained flights and take refuge in the trees for roosting and for security from ground predators. The biggest threat to wild populations has been humans.

Extensive anthropogenic pressures on the local ecosystems overlapping with the original home range of the species have marginalized the specie to the verge of extinction. Furthermore, illegal encroachments by humans in their wild habitats have drastically resulted in disturbing their wild habitats and fragmentation negatively impacting their premier foraging ground, courtship, breeding and nesting behavior. The situation has been so alarming that none of the Indian zoos have any florican species in display since the species is so rarely found in the wild. Some recent initiatives of breeding and reintroduction to the wild in the state of Assam have been successful; but, such initiatives need to be duplicated and multiplied across its range for the purpose of the resurgence of the species. Previously, indiscriminate hunting and illegal capture and poaching on the species have been so severe; that it has impacted the wild population base dangerously beyond the natural threshold limit of maintaining stable population for the future. The severe anthropogenic pressures on the species over the decades in the subcontinent have pushed it with imminent threats of extinction in the wild. The situations of the disjunct population from South East Asia are also similarly dark and grim putting question marks on the long term survival of the species in the wild in the continent of Asia.

Among other bustard species from the subcontinent are the comparatively bigger, critically endangered endemic Indian species (with <200 individuals in the wild) widely known as the Indian bustard or the Great Indian bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps Vigors) distributed mostly in western and central India; and the smaller species called the Little bustard (Tetrax tetrax Linnaeus) also restricted in western India and has the near threatened status. The Indian bustard is also reported from Pakistan where it is critically endangered too; but the status of the current population in Pakistan is extremely doubtful due to severe hunting pressures and may be almost close to extinction in the wild due to indiscriminate hunting. Another species reported from western India is the MacQueen’s bustard (Chlamydotis macqueenii J. E. Gray) and has the vulnerable status. The floricans are the bustard species predominantly from the eastern parts of the Indian subcontinent. There are two species, namely the critically endangered Bengal florican (Houbaropsis bengalensis Gmelin) of eastern and north-east India (as discussed above); and the endangered, Lesser florican (Sypheotides indica Miller) distributed sporadically across the subcontinent but more common in the eastern and north eastern states. These latter two species were previously grouped together as Bengal floricans in the past, but has now been split into two distinct and separate species. Another bigger (possibly the largest) bustard species, Great bustard (Otis tarda Linnaeus) is reported in some literature sources from north western Pakistan and Afghanistan. But unfortunately, local field data on the species from these regions are difficult to obtain; and their exact current status in these regions are doubtful due to severe hunting pressure and extremely poor conservation record.

Article submitted by: Saikat Kumar Basu

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