The rare Great Indian Bustards have made nuclear test sites their home
Ever since my grandfather told me about the majestic Tilor or Tuktar, the generic vernacular names for the Great Indian Bustard (GIB) found in the desert areas of south-eastern Punjab, it was my earnest desire to see the great bird. By the time I grew up, the GIB, to my dismay, had been restricted to just a few pockets in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh.
Today, only 250 birds are left in India and the adjoining Cholistan desert of Pakistan.
The Thar and the adjoining Cholistan deserts were ideal habitats for the GIB. But hunting in Cholistan and the march of civilisation — roads and canals — in the Thar have led their habitat to shrink further.
The Pokhran Field Firing Ranges (PFFR), covering approximately 2,500-3,000 square kilometres, also did no favours to the bird. The PFFR includes the Indian nuclear test ranges where the “Buddha Smiled” twice, in May 1974 and May 1998.
When I heard about the 1974 Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) near Khetolai, Pokhran, my first thought was that it was probably the end of the GIB. Nonetheless, I was to write a thesis on the “strategy of nuclear deterrence and its application to India and Pakistan” during my staff course in 1981, 17 years before the two countries actually became declared nuclear states. But one was able to predict the current scenario, wherein, despite gaining in prestige, we have lost our strategic flexibility to force ‘compellence’ on Pakistan using our qualitative and quantitative conventional superiority.
In 1982, my unit was conducting field firing at the PFFR. During an interval, curiosity got the better of me, and, I set out to see the “crater” and also look for the GIB.
The GIB is a shy bird and sightings are rare. On the way, a young boy mentioned that I might find the GIB at the “bhyankar visfot wala dhora (the sand dune where a scary explosion took place).”
I was aware that sub-surface tests had been carried out, in shafts 700-1000 feet deep with further lateral cavities, avoiding damages. But to expect the area to be frequented by the GIB was stretching one’s imagination.
I logged nearly a 100 km in the desert wasteland and, although we did see a lot of wildlife, there was no sign of the GIB.
Disappointed, I headed towards the Peaceful Nuclear Explosion site. As I drove up a dune overlooking the crater, I heard a deep resonating call despite the engine noise. As I broke the crest, I saw a most fascinating sight. No, it was not the crater, but a pair of GIB in their mating ritual.
The GIB is one of the most handsome birds of the subcontinent. When India was deciding on the national bird, the GIB and the peacock were front-runners. One of the reasons cited for it to remain a close second was the possibilities of mispronouncing “bustard” as “bastard”.
The GIB is a large ground-runner bird with a height of about one metre. However, it can take short flights to escape danger. It is unmistakable with its black cap contrasting with the pale head and neck. The body is brownish with a black patch spotted in white. The male is deep sandy buff-coloured, and, during the breeding season, sports a black breast band. The crown of the head is black and crested and is puffed up by displaying males. In the female, which is smaller than the male, the head and neck are not pure white, and the breast band is either rudimentary, broken or absent.
Breeding occurs between March and September, when the fluffy white feathers of the male are inflated in full display. During courtship, the male inflates the gular sac which opens under the tongue, so that a large wobbly bag appears to hang down from its neck. The tail is held cocked up over the body. The male also raises the tail, folds it on its back and produces a resonant deep, booming call, periodically. I heard that call from a distance of nearly 300 metres.
The crater itself was a disappointment and no bigger than the one I saw caused by a 1,000-pound bomb at the Jessore airfield in 1971. I said to myself that to have seen a pair of the GIB at the edge of the crater was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Providence was to make it happen for me a second time, 17 years later.
I was linked to the “Smiling Buddha 2” by default. The project was top secret and only the Brigadier Engineers, who oversaw a unit of the Corps Engineers looking after security, deception, preparation of the shafts and other ground preparations under the overall supervision of the DRDO, were in the know.
I was the Brigadier General Staff of the Corps and nothing major could happen in the Corps Zone without my knowledge. No questions are asked on such matters and no explanations are ever given, but I knew that the Buddha was going to smile again on May 11 and 13, 1998.
At the precise moment, I was sitting in my office waiting for history to be made. But also in my thoughts was the GIB! The new test sites were also close to the old one. What was going to happen to the birds in the vicinity?
The next few days were very hectic. After the second series of tests, there was a flurry of visits and we were involved in coordination. I forgot about the GIB. But the yearning never left me.
In December 1999, a few days before my posting, curiosity again got the better of me. I drove down to Pokhran and enquired from the Engineer Regiment about any sightings of the GIB. The young officers had a big laugh and thought that the Brigadier had gone nuts. But I did not blame them since the crater sites are isolated and not frequented by anyone. The security itself is spread was over a wide perimeter.
Anyway, in the evening, I decided to visit the three craters. And, lo and behold, on the edge of each one, I found two or three GIBs busy with their evening meal. Eight GIBs in total!
From what I have read, sighting in such numbers last occurred in the early 1950s. Since the unit and the security guards were at a distance from the craters, they were oblivious to their presence. Even today, I make discreet inquiries and keep getting reports about their presence in the area.
The world hates the “bomb” and even those that have developed it call it a necessary evil, but the GIB has found a sanctuary, guarded night and day by none other than the Indian Army.