The Bengal florican – the rarest of the globe’s 27 bustards - is amongst 189 critically endangered birds being targeted by an initiative to find companies and individuals who will highlight each species’ plight and contribute funds towards helping them.
There are fewer than 1,000 Bengal florican’s left in Cambodia, India and Nepal, and conservationists have given the bird just five years if the destruction of its grassland habitat continues.
Three other birds - the Belding’s yellowthroat of Mexico, the Djibouti francolin and Brazil’s restinga antwren are also being championed at Birdfair, when the RSPB partner, BirdLife International, will launch its initiative, Preventing Extinctions: Saving the World's Critically Endangered Birds. Birdfair starts August 17 at Rutland Water and is co-organised by the RSPB and the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust.
Ian Barber, the RSPB’s South Asia officer, said: “The Bengal florican is now hanging on in only three countries and is under huge pressure in all three.
“It is only eight years since the bird’s rediscovery in Cambodia and already it is facing oblivion. Even in protected sites in Nepal, land is being taken for agriculture leaving no room for the bird. This initiative may be its last hope.”
Fewer than 700 Bengal florican’s – which resemble small ostriches - remain on the floodplain of the Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. Numbers there have fallen from 3,000 in ten years.
The Nepalese population, which is legally protected, has dropped by more than 50 per cent in 25 years to fewer than 60 birds. In India, only about 250 are left.
The Birdfair is targeting the Cambodian population and money raised will boost a government-backed scheme encouraging farmers on designated sites to resume traditional grazing and scrub clearance on grasslands instead of switching to dry-season rice growing.
Government official, Seng Kim Hout, has seen how crucial the project is to the bird. “These grasslands are disappearing before our eye,” he said. “On revisiting many of our survey sites, we found the landscape unrecognisable from previous years, squeezing the floricans into a shrinking landscape in which they cannot survive. I even once saw a male florican displaying on a dam wall because all the grassland had been converted to irrigated rice.”
Bengal floricans were rediscovered in Cambodia in 1999 and are named after the region of Bengal where the species was first identified. They depend on traditionally managed grasslands for food and for males to perform their elaborate parachuting courtship display.
Martin Davies, the RSPB’s Birdfair Co-organiser, said: “It is still possible to save the florican and all of the other critically endangered birds. What we need is more of the right initiatives in the right places. We are not talking about ridiculous amounts of money to make this happen and coming to support and enjoy the Birdfair this weekend is the most straightforward thing anyone can do to help.”
The Bengal florican, Houbaropsis bengalensis, is 67cm tall, with a black head and neck and long, mostly white wings. It has a long neck and long yellow legs.
The Tonle Sap floodplain is the largest of any lake floodplain in the world. The Cambodian initiative involves establishing five sites, called Integrated Farming and Biodiversity Areas (IFBAs), totalling 100 square miles of land.
The Bengal florican project, called Conserving Bengal Floricans and Improving Rural Livelihoods around the Tonle Sap, the World’s Largest Floodplain Lake, Cambodia, is a joint initiative of BirdLife International Cambodia Programme, the Wildlife Conservation Society - Cambodia Program and the Forestry Administration of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries with financial support from Fondation Ensemble and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Dry-season rice production involves the use of strip dams – deep ditches cut into the land that trap water as seasonal waters recede. This practice leads to wholesale conversion of grassland, destroying the florican’s habitat.
Floricans rely heavily on the traditional agricultural practices of grazing, burning and scrub-clearance. These methods expose areas for the birds to forage and for males to display to females.
Indian bustards are also known as floricans. Great bustards have been introduced to Salisbury Plain recently, from Russia.
The three main populations of Bengal floricans in Nepal are in Chitwan National Park, Royal Bardia National Park and Sukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve. About 100 hectares of grassland has been created at the Sukla Phanta and has been quickly colonised by floricans, proving that habitat availability is key. In India the birds are found in only three states, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
The restinga antwren is confined to a 10km square strip of beach scrub habitat in Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil. Its habitat is under intense pressure from clearance for beachfront housing and salt-industry developments.
Belding’s yellowthroat is found only on shrinking wetland fragments measuring less than 10 km square on Mexico’s Baja California peninsula.
The Djibouti francolin has declined by more than 80 per cent in the last 20 years because of overgrazing, firewood collection and other human disturbance in Djibouti’s small juniper forests.
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