Concern over plans to downgrade Indian national park
The authorities in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh are under pressure to declassify a national park because much of its rare bird life is believed to have been lost forever.
Locals eager to have free use of the land complain the park's special status prevents them from doing so.
But critics say any move to downgrade Karera bird sanctuary - created in 1981, principally to help save the Great Indian bustard - would be an admission that conservation efforts there have failed.
If ratified by the central government and the Supreme Court, Karera will become the country's first national park to lose its official recognition.Conjugal success
The residents of 33 villages in the 200 sq-km (124 sq-mile) sanctuary argue the Great Indian bustard has not been seen in more than 10 years because of "habitat destruction".
The Great Indian bustard is one of the world's heaviest flying birds.
It lost out to the peacock when India's national bird was decided - reportedly because of its tricky spelling and the peacock's more attractive looks.
Apart from Madhya Pradesh, it is found in the states of Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat.
At Dihaliya, a village on the banks of Dihaliya lake, villagers explain how the sanctuary has affected their lives and livelihoods.
They are not allowed to buy, sell or make any significant changes to the land and cannot mine it, or carry out any kind of construction work - even building irrigation canals is not easy.
Jawahar Singh, the village head, says there are more than 35,000 people living in villages adjoining the sanctuary.
"Our sons cannot find brides as they cannot raise money by selling land if required," he said.
Manoj Siwari, from Phatehpur village, is 25 years old and says he has been turned down five times by prospective brides.
He blames the national park for his failure to marry.
"Please declassify this sanctuary so that we can organise our lives," he said.
"There are no rare birds here any more. We are being held to ransom unnecessarily. During marriage discussions, people criticise us for our inability to raise money. It is not fair."Hostility
Great Indian bustards were once found in great numbers in Karera - an area characterised by semi-arid grasslands.
In an attempt to save the 15 or so birds left, the area was classified as a sanctuary in 1981.
The population grew for a few years to up to 40 birds, but it has since dropped steadily and not a single Great Indian bustard has been sighted since 1994.
In view of this, the state government has sent a proposal to the central government to declassify the sanctuary.
GK Sharma, a forest officer, says villagers' hostility has affected conservation efforts.
"When we built watch towers, they tore them down. They do not kill the animals but do not report any illegal activity either. It was difficult to build relations with the residents as they felt forest officers were friends of the birds and therefore were their enemies."
However, it was not always like this. Asad Rahmani, director of Bombay Natural History Society in Mumbai, worked for more than six years in the sanctuary in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
"The bird does not mind farming land and there was no poaching in this area," he said.
"But constant habitat destruction is the main reason for its disappearance. We had given a detailed plan to protect it but nothing was done. In fact the figures of 35 to 40 bustards were inflated."'Fix responsibility'
The bird prefers walking to flying and requires undisturbed nesting areas. If the egg or offspring do not survive, bustards are known to desert that particular area - if the offspring survives, they will return to the same place.
Mechanised farming and over-grazing by cattle and sheep - combined with increasing human encroachment - are the main reasons cited for the bird's habitat being disturbed.
End Quote Alok Kumar, chief conservator of forests
The bird has disappeared over a period of time”
Its disappearance from the sanctuary is a cause of concern, wildlife experts say, and is an indicator of the health of the country's grassland ecosystems.
One of the recommendations in Dr Rahmani's plan is to "fix responsibility" for the disappearance of the bird. Activists say those to blame should be held to account.
"The bird has disappeared over a period of time. Something could have been done earlier. It is impossible to hold any one person responsible," says Alok Kumar, chief conservator of forests.
Dr Rahmani suggests protecting pockets of about 200 hectares in different parts of the park to rebuild a habitat after it loses its special status - in which only traditional farming methods not resisted by the birds would be allowed.
The conflict between conservation and promoting the needs of farmers has intensified because of government apathy over the years.
The vast expanse of the Karera bird sanctuary looks parched and barren in mid-summer. Herds of cattle and sheep graze every few kilometres. This used to be the bustards' breeding season in Karera but not any more.
The golden bird gave up on this home many years ago. It is a scenario which would be a tragedy if repeated in India's other national parks - home to some of the world's most endangered animals, including the tiger.