Open or shut row

even as bird lovers are yet to come to grips with the Madhya Pradesh government's decision to close down the Shivpuri-based Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary, a forest official's statement has sent confusing signals.

The announcement to shut down the sanctuary was made by the state forest minister, Harvansh Singh, at a tendu patta bonus distribution function. The reason cited by the government is that no bustard has been seen in the sanctuary since 1994. Though he said that the step would be taken in the near future, forest officials denied this. Ram Prasad, the state's principal chief conservator of forests, said: "I am unaware of any plans to close down the sanctuary.'

When the 202-square-kilometre sanctuary was established in 1981, amid 22 villages, there were around 14 of these birds. But by 1986-87, the population declined. Asad Rahmani, director, Bombay Natural History Society, writes that even after the disappearance of the last bustard in 1994, the forest department continued to claim that there were still 14 of them in the sanctuary (see: Down To Earth, Vol 8, No 12, November 15, 1999). On the dwindling numbers of the bustard, Prasad says: "These birds require tall grass to survive, but intensive cultivation in the area has destroyed their natural habitat.' Ornithologists claim that poaching too has led to a fall in the numbers of the birds.

The bustard population in Son Chirya, another sanctuary in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, is equally threatened. Though there were 25 bustards when it opened in 1981, only three were reportedly sighted by 1998. At this rate, the end of the Great Indian Bustard seems to be near.