The Great Indian Bustard was formerly found in great numbers across India; today it has been reduced to isolated pockets of grassy habitat. The total population is down to 500 or less, the great majority in Rajasthan. And yet the endangered bird's habitat continues to be threatened.
The Maharashtra government had in 1979 declared an area of the 8,500sq km spread over two districts — Ahmednagar and Solapur — as the Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary with the sole objective of conserving this rare species which is facing extinction. The largely ground dwelling bird with a long neck and long bare legs which is somewhat similar to a young ostrich is locally known as Maldhok. It now faces the risk of losing more than 95% of its habitat as the Vilasrao Deshmukh government has impressed upon the Supreme Court the dire need for the rationalisation of the sanctuary boundary.
The state told the Forest bench comprising Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan and Justices Arijit Pasayat and S H Kapadia that "out of 8,496.44sq km area, only 347.63 km is the effective sanctuary area. Out of the effective sanctuary area, 250.64sq km was forest, 85.72sq km vacant land and 11.27sq km is private land."
There has been worldwide concern over the protection of the Great Indian Bustard. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that the total population of surviving birds in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka could be as low as 500.
Earlier this year The Supreme Court had permitted the Mukesh Ambani-owned Reliance Gas Transportation Infrastructure for laying a gas pipeline through the Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary in Maharashtra, on condition that five percent of the project cost would be spent for afforestation and educating people on the Great Indian Bustard, an endangered bird.
The court also specified that no forest land in the sanctuary would be used for setting up of the project and only the pipeline would be put underground. Reliance Advocate Mukul Rohtagi had said the company would lay a pipeline that would cover an area of 241.18 hectares in the sanctuary.