The population of sarus cranes in India is unique because they primarily inhabit agricultural wetlands close to humans. The sarus crane (Antigone antigone) is a kind of conservation anomaly. Unlike many wildlife species, these striking birds, with their blood-red heads and statuesque figures, appear to have benefitted from the humanisations of landscapes. “During the Green Revolution, large parts of India were artificially wetted due to the building of canals and the introduction of irrigation,” explains Dr Gopi Sundar, a wildlife biologist with the Nature Conservation Foundation who has been studying the cranes since 1998. “In India, the population of this species has gone up tenfold, even twentyfold.”
Sarus cranes are known as a wetland species, but Dr Sundar is quick to clarify that while they do like water, they do not require wetlands specifically. “Fortunately for us, the sarus actually adjusts to artificial wet areas,” he says. “This is a good thing because natural freshwater wetlands have become the most endangered habitat in the world. If the sarus had been a super-specialist, restricted to undisturbed areas, we would have lost them.”
Today, these gangly birds are found in floodplains and seasonally flooded regions in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, eastern Rajasthan, in the rice belts of Anand-Kheda in Gujarat, and the Gondia region in Maharashtra. “They used to be found all the way down south in Karnataka,” says Dr Sundar. “We even have photos of sarus cranes nesting in Mysore and on the outskirts of Bangalore, but those images are decades old, and we don’t understand why they are no longer there.”
About 99 per cent of the population of sarus cranes lies outside protected areas — more specifically, in agricultural fields of rice and other water-loving crops. “In several places in India, the sarus has the highest breeding success of any crane species anywhere in the world,” says Dr Sundar.
The real danger, he says, is not from people that live alongside the sarus. “It is from government schemes, developmental plans, and itinerant profiteers that have no connection with the land,” he says. “This is true of most habitats, whether it’s grasslands, or the ocean, or the Amazon, or the habitats of the sarus crane.”
The people that do have a connection to their habitat do remarkable things. “Even really small-holding farmers will allow the birds to occupy their rice fields. They will not touch or disturb them, and they walk around them, even feed them,” he says. “It’s quite remarkable how much the farmer gives the sarus.”