Several years ago in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, things were not looking good for the lesser florican (Sypheotides indicus), a bird once common throughout the country's grasslands. The species had been declining for years, as human activities destroyed its native habitat. Yet these days the bird has been making a slow but steady comeback in the region.
An initial survey found that most people were unaware of the bird; now, many local people are taking pride in the florican, viewing it as a 'flagship' species for the region.
What has caused this change? In short: community support. Since 2005, a group of conservationists collaborating with the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department has been using a multi-pronged approach to raise awareness about the lesser florican among village leaders, farmers, school children and other community members. Thanks to support from the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) — a coalition of four organizations, including Conservation International — this small group of dedicated conservationists (now called the Ark Foundation) has made big strides in garnering local support for this remarkable species.
During monsoon season, male lesser floricans exhibit dramatic displays — leaping straight up in the air several hundred times a day in the hopes of attracting a mate.
Photo: © The Ark Foundation/Anirban Dutta Gupta
Why Should We Save the Lesser Florican?
Although the lesser florican spends much of its breeding season hidden in tall grass, the bird can often be spotted during monsoon season, when the males exhibit dramatic displays — leaping straight up in the air several hundred times a day in the hopes of attracting a mate.
Since the 1980s, the florican has lost much of its former habitat to activities like farming, livestock overgrazing and pesticide use. The migratory bird is now classified as Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species; there are thought to be fewer than 2,500 individuals left in the wild.
So why should we bother to save this one declining species? In addition to its intrinsic value as one of India's most unique birds, the lesser florican also eats insects that many farmers consider to be pests, and its presence helps to preserve the larger grassland ecosystem that provides critical pasture for domestic animals, sustains a healthy watershed and harbors plant species that could be valuable for food security in the future.
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A Campaign to Inspire Action
The Ark Foundation began its lesser florican campaign by conducting a survey about local knowledge of the bird with various stakeholders, including landowners, teachers, village leaders and farmers. This survey found that many people were unaware of the bird or the benefits derived from its grasslands habitat, and were skeptical of conservation measures that they expected would threaten their livelihoods. However, most landowners said they would be willing to set aside their land for conservation for part of the year if they were adequately compensated.
Working in 21 villages surrounding the Sailana Florican Sanctuary, the Ark Foundation then pursued three types of solutions:
Cash incentive scheme: The Ark Foundation is helping to popularize a reward-based cash incentive scheme started by the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department that compensates farmers and landowners if they protect their fields from grazing and other disturbances during the florican breeding season. The Forest Department pays landowners a certain amount if a bird is sighted on their land; an additional payment is given at the end of the season if there continues to be evidence of bird or nest. As an additional economic benefit, landowners can cut the grass at the end of the monsoon season and sell it for profit. The total reward is more than what the landowners would have earned normally; these financial incentives have helped to foster more positive views of the sanctuary for community members.
Community outreach and environmental education: Over 40 percent of people in Madhya Pradesh are illiterate, a reality which requires creative outreach methods. In the interest of reaching as many people as possible, the Ark Foundation has produced a range of educational materials, including posters, stickers, activity workbooks, comics and videos which were screened for free in local cinemas, shops and schools. The Foundation also gives presentations about the florican at schools, teaching children how to recognize it, why it's important and what they can do to help.
Empowering conservation leaders: The Ark Foundation has identified eight community members to help continue to spread the word about the lesser florican and the benefits of grasslands conservation. These individuals include sanctuary guards, teachers, students and farmers. These individuals are actively assisting the Forest Department and the Ark Foundation in their conservation endeavors.
Building on Success
"The CLP funding has allowed us to expand our community work and engage more intensively with 21 village communities," says Anirban Dutta Gupta, co-project leader for the Ark Foundation. "As of now we have reached out to more than 250 adults and more than 3,000 school children. Many local people are now taking pride in the florican, viewing it as a 'flagship' species for the region."
But the real question is: what does this mean for the florican? In 2004, there were only seven florican sightings around the Sailana Florican Sanctuary; in 2009, there were 32.
While this number remains low, it is only the beginning of the Ark Foundation's ambitious plans to continue to raise awareness and preserve florican habitat. Future endeavors include the expansion of organic farming techniques in the region, training in more sophisticated bird monitoring technology and exploring ecotourism opportunities. The organization also hopes to replicate these activities in sanctuaries in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra.
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The CLP is a capacity-building program that supports the efforts of young, "up-and-coming" conservation leaders through the provision of small grants, training and ongoing support. In addition to Conservation International, program partners are BirdLife International, the Wildlife Conservation Society and Fauna & Flora International. The Ark Foundation received CLP's Future Conservationist Award in 2008 and a Follow-up Award in 2010 to help them continue to expand their work.