Deserts support some spectacular wildlife. But that is now threatened by massive solar and wind farms
On the afternoon of July 17, a large buff-and-white ostrich-like bird crashed into a 33 KV transmission line connected to wind turbines in Naliya, on the edge of the Lala Bustard Sanctuary in Kutch, Gujarat. This was no ordinary birdkill. The young female bird’s death was nothing short of an ecological catastrophe: it meant one less individual of a critically endangered species — the Great Indian Bustard — of which an estimated 150 remain worldwide today.
This particular bird was satellite-tagged. Information yielded by GPS transmitters showed that it regularly moved between Naliya and the coastal grassland of Dadamapar village 30 km away. But death was perhaps inevitable: the distance between the two habitats is densely packed with wind turbines.
At possibly around 15 individual bustards, this area supports the world’s second largest population of these birds. Today, they are threatened by a seemingly benign activity: wind and solar energy projects. Power line networks — many of them for renewable energy projects — have killed at least seven bustards in India over the last decade.
Bustards, which are one of the world’s heaviest flying birds, worldwide easily fall victim to power lines because of their relatively low flight paths and poor frontal vision, explains Sutirtha Dutta, Bustard Conservation Project Scientist, Wildlife Institute of India. “The situation is no different for the Great Indian Bustard. Their habitats are crisscrossed by dense power line networks.”
Wind turbines kill between 140,000 and 328,000 birds each year globally, according to a U.S.-based study. But a greater worry than this direct carnage is the loss of vital habitat — the single biggest cause of species extinction.
A few miles north of Kutch is one of India’s largest national parks, a mosaic of sand dunes, rocks, grasslands and agricultural fields. The Desert National Park, carved out of Thar desert, is home to some of the most spectacular wildlife. The last time I visited a ‘sevan’ grassland at Salkhan outside the park four years ago, I traced the tiny pugmarks of a desert cat. I spotted an Indian fox, I saw a flock of long-billed vultures hunched over a kill as a falcon circled overhead. I didn’t see the most famous of the grassland inhabitants, the Great Indian Bustard, but the then park director G.S. Bhardwaj told me he had counted 24 bustards in the course of a single morning in the summer of 2013.
In the next two years, the landscape was transformed with unending acres of wind farms, prompting Bhardwaj to write to the district collector in 2015: “If this kind of large-scale installation of windmills and associated power transmission lines (plus encroachment for agriculture) continues, the habitat of the bird and consequently the bird itself will be completely lost from the (Salkhan) area.”
Another bustard species threatened by wind power is the lesser florican, a striking bird known for its elaborate courtship ritual. I witnessed it one memorable monsoon — the male, with long, ribbon-like feathers on the sides of its head, leaping at least two metres into the air, descending, and then springing up again before floating to the ground. The florican is known to tirelessly repeat the yo-yo routine 500 times a day to woo a mate. This bird, endemic to the sub-continent, is on a rapid decline.
My visit to Ratlam and Dhar districts in Madhya Pradesh, previously a stronghold of the bird, came as a shock. The region was nearly kharmor-mukt, devoid of florican, I was told. And here, too, among the series of threats, is renewable energy. The grasslands favoured by the bird have been turned into wind power stations.
Deserts, often considered wastelands, are crucibles of spectacular wildlife, but they are threatened by India’s ambitious renewable energy generation target of 175 GW by 2022. The ecological footprint of an individual wind turbine or solar panel might be negligible, but massive wind or solar farms require huge swathes of land. Roads are constructed to lug turbines, and earthmovers rip through forests or grasslands, permanently altering the landscape.
In the Western Ghats too, a global biodiversity hotspot, windmills threaten to colonise the ridges and plateaus. For instance, 300,000 trees were destroyed for the construction of a road for a wind farm along the hills near Bhimashankar sanctuary in Maharashtra, habitat of leopards, pangolins and the Indian giant squirrel.
It is indeed ironical that these symbols of clean energy are also agents of ecological damage. As per the U.S. Geological Survey, one megawatt of wind capacity requires on average about 100 tonnes of steel, 400 tonnes of concrete, 6.8 tonnes of fibreglass, besides copper and cast iron.
Mining for iron ore and sand is both energy intensive, and also destroys prime forests and wildlife habitats. It’s environmental blasphemy to question renewable energy, yet its ecological costs cannot be ignored: Is a 'clean' source of energy truly ‘green’ if it destroys ecosystems and wildlife?
The share of renewable energy in our energy basket must be significant, but with requisite environment scrutiny and regulations. This sector currently gets a free pass, and is exempt from environmental impact assessments and public hearing. One way forward is to go for decentralised renewable energy. Certain critical areas must be ‘no-go’. To begin with, the home of the Great Indian bustard.
Though a city-dweller, the writer is at home in the forests she is committed to protect. Her book The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis was released in June 2017.