Grasslands and Godawans – a passage of time

A t the time Harsh V ardhan invited me to write this retrospective piece, I was sorting through a pile of archive boxes cluttering my garage. I came across the proceedings of the international seminar o n C o n s e r v a t i o n o f L o w l a n d D r y G r a s s l a n d B i r d s i n E u r o p e, h e l d a t Reading University (my alma mater) in March 1991 – just over 25 years ago. I flipped through the 130-odd pages and pondered. T h e m e e t i n g w a s o r g a n i s e d b y t h e S p e c i a l i s t G r o u p o n S t e p p e a n d G r a s s l a n d B i r d s o f t h e I n t e r n a t i o n a l Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP, now Birdlife International) of which I was then the secretary, together with L e o B a t t e n o f E n g l i s h N a t u r e ( n o w Natural England) and sponsored by the U K J o i n t N a t u r e C o n s e r v a t i o n Committee. It had 45 participants from 12 European countries. I was struck by how many of those participants are still w o r k i n g i n c o n s e r v a t i o n, m o s t l y i n s e n i o r p o s i t i o n s i n v a r i o u s or ganisations. Or if retired, they were still active in promoting conservation. A few, of course, had sadly passed away but even then their legacy could still be traced. Conservation is clearly an occupation that attracts devoted people, more a vocation than a job. And this is a good thing because it is now formally recognised in the tenets of the ecosystem approach that conservation is actually all about people:
it is a social construct in which l i v e l i h o o d s ( e c o n o m i c s ), s c i e n c e ( e c o l o g y ) a n d g o v e r n a n c e (politics and law) intertwine. While those proceedings have much to say about good governance in their recommendations, it is really only since the Rio conferences of 1992 that terms such as “ s t a k e h o l d e r ”, “ p r o – b i o d i v e r s i t y b u s i n e s s ”, “ c o m m u n i t y i n v o l v e m e n t ”, “ c o r p o r a t e s o c i a l r e s p o n s i b i l i t y ” a n d “anthropogenic climate change” have entered the language of conservation. The document demonstrated another feature of human society:
constant institutional change. This can range from creation to destruction, from the trivial to fundamental reform. Furthermore, the ways or ganisations work and achieve (or not) their objectives take place within the context of broader political and economic cycles. I have already mentioned the changes from ICBP to B i r d l i f e I n t e r n a t i o n a l a n d f r o m E n g l i s h N a t u r e t o N a t u r a l England. These were not mere rebranding exercises. Y es, they both got new names and logos, but crucially their very structures and aims were completely overhauled. In the case of ICBP, this was driven by its own constituency and ambition to improve its ef fectiveness;
English Nature was recast to suit new government priorities. At the time, the Specialist Group on Steppe and Grassland Birds w a s t h e o n l y h a b i t a t – b a s e d g r o u p i n ICBP (the others were all taxonomic);
it h a d b e e n r e n a m e d f r o m t h e B u s t a r d Specialist Group in order to widen its s c o p e ( t h e r e a r e n o N e w W o r l d bustards), and to finesse the zero-sum controversy over whether conservation should tar get species or habitats as best way forward (thankfully, that ar gument has itself become extinct with the advent o f p r o m o t i n g b o t h b i o d i v e r s i t y a n d ecosystem functions). In the course of time, however, Birdlife specialist groups w e r e i n c o r p o r a t e d f o r m a l l y i n t o t h e I U C N S p e c i e s S u r v i v a l C o m m i s s i o n (where they still remain) and the IUCN B u s t a r d S p e c i a l i s t G r o u p w a s resurrected, then disbanded for many years and now recently reformed. Such institutional changes have many consequences:
they can ener gise and/or d e m o r a l i s e t h e s t a f f;
c r e a t e n e w opportunities and/or lose momentum;
s e t n e w p a r a d i g m s a n d / o r f a d e t o o b l i v i o n . A s a s o c i a l c o n s t r u c t, conservation is particularly susceptible to these ef fects and their associated time lags (which grow longer the bigger the scale and scope of the or ganisation). Practitioners must always be alert and ready to take advantage of or mitigate the damage from changes that will inevitably occur . Carpe diem. I added the proceedings to the growing pile of documents I wanted to preserve in digital form and eventually make available on the internet. My automatic page-feed scanner would convert it to a pdf file in less than two minutes. It struck me that this mildly v a n e a c t i o n s h o w e d h o w m u c h c o m m u n i c a t i o n h a s b e e n revolutionised over the last 25 years. The original texts had been sent to me on paper . I had them typed into a word processor, printed and sent back for correction. Once ready, the proceedings were lithoprinted in 500 copies, and posted to a list of potentially interested people. The print cost alone had been £2, 500 (£3, 750 in today’s money). W ith advances in print technology, I could now have the same document printed, in full colour, for half the price. As a pdf, it would be available instantly, for free, on a pocket smart phone. The impact of the internet and its associated social m e d i a, e s s e n t i a l l y c o s t l e s s, h a s b e e n a s l i b e r a t i n g f o r conservation as for any other sphere of activity . Information whizzes around the globe in real time, with constantly improving precision. The Birdlife Data Zone web site gives me accessibility to sites, maps, photos, data and a host of other facts concerning birds that was simply unimaginable in the early 1990s. A wareness of the value of nature, and the desire to connect with it ( a p r i m o r d i a l h u m a n n e e d i n f a c t ), h a s s e e n t h e g r o w i n g popularity of ecotourism (properly practised according to WT O or IUCN guidelines) and with that the spread of bird fairs. The “Grasslands and Godawans – a passage of time” Paul D. Goriup* Paul D. Goriup, a Bustar d expert and writer of ‘Bustar ds In Decline’, displaying the woolen-felt souvenir gifted to all experts st at the 1 International Symposium on Bustar ds (1980, Jaipur). first and foremost of these is the British Bird Fair held at the Rutland W ater nature reserve every August since T im Appleton and his team launched it in 1989. The proceeds are donated to projects drawn out of the Birdlife conservation programme. T o date, nearly £4 million has been raised for these projects. It is particularly pleasing for me that the 1992 Fair, held the year after the Reading seminar, was devoted to raising funds for protecting steppe habitats in Spain and featured the Great Bustard as its th motif. I sincerely wish that the 20 Indian Birding Fair, or ganised by T ourism and W ildlife Society of India, will build on its achievements to date and soon achieve similar levels of success. Some things, however, have stayed pretty much the same – or got a l o t w o r s e . T h e s e m i n a r h a d f o l l o w e d o n f r o m p r e v i o u s international conferences focusing on bustards (Jaipur, 1980, or ganised by the TWSI), and on grassland birds (1986, ICBP W orld Conference, Kingston, Ontario, Canada). In all three cases, it transpired that avifaunas associated with grasslands and low- i n t e n s i t y f a r m l a n d h a d b e e n l a r g e l y n e g l e c t e d b y conservationists, and were in a much worse state than realised. There had been massive arable conversion of pastures, prairies, steppes, savannahs and vidis across the globe;
remaining areas were highly fragmented, often over grazed, af forested and subject to damaging burning regimes. Their value as a huge ongoing carbon sink was unrecognised, and indeed the ploughing of chernozem soils has contributed to significant greenhouse gas increases. The absence of birds, as ever, served as audio-visual signals of the decline of grassland ecosystems. The remedies were clear:
protect the most valuable and vulnerable areas;
maintain or introduce less-intensive land use systems;
restore connections between fragmented sites;
alter economic incentives towards more sustainable farming methods. In the face of ever – growing human populations, and the transition to more meat-rich diets, it appears the pressures have only grown stronger over the last 25 years. E v e r y w e e k, S a r a H a l l a g e r ( B i r d C u r a t o r a t t h e N a t i o n a l Zoological Park, W ashington DC and kori bustard enthusiast) sends out a digest of the latest bustard-related publications, whether academic or in the media, to the current members of the IUCN Bustard Specialist Group. These posts are invariably dominated by the plight of the Great Indian Bustard, sometimes also the Lesser and Bengal Floricans, and especially at this time of year by the annual wintertime hunting of Houbara in Pakistan by eminent Gulf falconers. These bustards were among those which launched my career in international nature conservation. I h a v e w a t c h e d w i t h d i s m a y a s t h e G I B p o p u l a t i o n h a s dramatically dwindled practically to the point of extinction. I can only hope that the new captive breeding programme in Rajasthan will bring positive results. It was the late T om Roberts, author of the Birds of Pakistan, who in the 1960s brought the world’s attention to the widespread and intensive hunting of Houbara in the deserts of Pakistan by Gulf falconers seeking new places to pursue their quarry after it almost disappeared from the Arabian Peninsula. This is not the place for a detailed analysis of the problem:
but it is a fascinating nexus of culture, high politics, big finance, international diplomacy, corruption, disinformation, bigotry, massive rear -and-release schemes, public outcries, legal actions, innovative research and brave ef forts to find a solution. It was so in the 1960s and lar gely remains so today .

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