International Crane Foundation


Agriculture, rainfall and Sarus Cranes in north India: piecing together a complex puzzle

In Uttar Pradesh, India, farmers, and their methods of retaining small wetland areas, appear to be conducive for Sarus Cranes. Learning how to maximise these benefits afforded by ancient practices in this remarkable landscape will be most useful for crane conservation.
By K. S. Gopi Sundar, Research Associate

Wildlife conservation is rife with attempts to maintain “pristine wilderness” as we struggle to preserve Earth’s wonderful biodiversity. Efforts to conserve many crane species, however, require a very different approach. Sarus Cranes in north India, for example, are found mostly in a heavily populated and intensively cultivated landscape in the state of Uttar Pradesh. This landscape has had very high human populations for centuries, and was converted almost entirely to smallholder farmer systems at least 300 years ago. Clearly, in such an area, attempting to get land solely for wildlife is not possible given the very high human densities (> 800 people per sq. km.!), and their need for agricultural land.

Recently, the 7 billionth person on the planet was born, and many babies were symbolically identified across the globe as the one. In India, that child was from Uttar Pradesh. With 199 million people, and counting, Uttar Pradesh’s landscape (and wildlife) faces tremendous pressures in the near future as the growing population will require farming lands.

Global climate change predictions have identified the Ganges River floodplains in northern India as a region that will experience a much higher frequency of extreme rainfall events – super-wet and above-normal dry years. Sarus Cranes require wetlands, and good rainfall, to be able to breed each year. Predictions that combine human populations and climate change for the region posit that the Gangetic floodplains will experience large-scale immigration to this region. These people will very likely cause additional transformations of wetlands into agricultural lands.  An important question for ICF therefore is whether our efforts to conserve Sarus Cranes for the long term require large-scale efforts to retain and restore wetland areas, or whether the much larger issue of climate change is what will affect Sarus Cranes in north India the most. This question is particularly critical to the organisation as we are poised to begin a new long-term program, SarusScape, that will focus on Sarus Cranes and the conservation requirements on the landscape where they occur.

Map of study area showing locations of monitored pairs of Sarus Cranes
and Black-necked Storks. Maps by Swati Kittur & Gopi Sundar

Long-term data using carefully set up field protocols is critical to assess factors that influence important features of populations of species. Since 1998, the fate of breeding attempts of over 250 territorial pairs of Sarus Cranes in south-west Uttar Pradesh in the districts of Etawah and Mainpuri is being monitored. The monitoring also assesses the fate of wetlands in each pair’s territory every year. Rainfall data is being collated from the district offices annually. Data for eight years is available. During the time frame that this study was carried out, crane territories lost wetlands due to agricultural expansions and township development. The region also experienced dry years, two super-wet years, and some years with normal rainfall. In short, the conditions during the study match predictions of both populations and rainfall for the future. This data set is therefore greatly valuable to critically evaluate whether long-term conservation can be best achieved via habitat conservation or if Sarus populations are more strongly affected due to changes in rainfall patterns that appear to be due to global climate change.

The observed Sarus Crane pairs successfully raised over 700 chicks. The region is clearly very conducive to crane preservation, and an extremely important area for the species!

Sarus pairs that had more wetlands in their territories did better in raising chicks than those that had few or no wetlands. Matching this pattern, pairs that had wetlands in their territories converted to agriculture or other development reduced in their ability to raise chicks. Pairs did better in years with normal and high rainfall compared to dry years. Most importantly, township development was the only reason for permanently displacing breeding territories.

Satellite imageries showing winter land use change in the study area
from 2000-2009. Maps by Swati Kittur & Gopi Sundar

Using the actual field data, a computer simulation was set up to see how observed numbers translate to the longer term, and to understand which factor was most important for Sarus Crane conservation. Changes in rainfall were nowhere as important as habitat reduction, especially township development, for Sarus Cranes. The simulation suggested that if farmland conversions occurred at observed levels during the study, the Sarus population would be halved in a decade. Field observation and computer simulations showed that the storks had practically the same trends as the Sarus Cranes. Clearly, habitat conservation and even restoration to replace the pairs that were lost, is very important for Sarus Cranes and other waterbirds that live on SarusScapes!

The study also monitored another near-threatened bird species, the impressive Black-necked Storks, using the same design. These storks nest singly on trees and are known to raise 1-3 chicks with each successful attempt.

Fortunately, township development in the area has all but stopped due to changes in political powers. The simulated declines of Sarus Cranes are unlikely to occur, but do a very good job of underscoring the importance of retaining habitat for these birds in the farmlands of Uttar Pradesh. ICF’s efforts require focusing on working with the farmers to ensure that territorial pairs remain on the land, and that wetlands are maintained to help pairs with raising chicks each year. The Indian government currently has a bill pending parliamentary decision that prohibits conversion of multi-cropped agricultural land. This is the kind that exists in Etawah and Mainpuri. Should the bill be approved, cranes and farmers alike will receive a long-term reprieve from unplanned development activities.

The Indian Supreme Court recently announced that community areas, like the wetlands in Uttar Pradesh, cannot be converted to agriculture or other forms of development. This aids farmers and village councils to prevent roving developers from converting important wetlands.

Our work in the region has just begun, and clearly requires novel and locally-relevant approaches. However, our science is well-developed to guide our immediate and future efforts enhancing the chances of our ability to conserve and perhaps even improve Sarus Crane populations. The farmers retaining wetlands, the new laws and a potential new policy together provide a firm foundation for ICF efforts on the ground.

Want to learn more about Gopi’s research? View a listing of his recent publications.


One, two, three, four… During his research, Gopi has documented a number of pairs with four chicks, and one with FIVE! These numbers are unusual for a species that normally successfully raises only 1-3 chicks per year and illustrate how healthy agricultural landscapes can support healthy wildlife populations.