Asian Great Bustards: from conservation biology to sustainable grassland development
The Great Bustard (Otis tarda) is an iconic species of the temperate grasslands of Europe and Asia, a habitat that is among the least protected ecosystems in the world. A distinct subspecies, the Asian Great Bustard (O. t. dybowskii), is poorly understood due to its wary nature and remote range in Siberia, Mongolia, and northern China. This subspecies is now endangered by rapid development.
Using satellite telemetry and remote sensing, I investigated three aspects of the Asian Great Bustard’s ecology critical to its conservation: migratory routes, migratory cues, and habitat use patterns. I found that Asian Great Bustards spent one-third of the year on a 2000 km migratory pathway, a distance twice as far as has previously been recorded for the species. Tracked individuals moved nomadically over large winter territories and did not repeat migratory stopovers, complicating conservation planning. Migratory timing was variable and migratory movements were significantly correlated with weather cues. Specifically, bustards migrated on days when wind support was favorable and temperature presaged warmer temperatures on the breeding grounds (spring) or advancing winter weather (fall). On the breeding grounds, Asian Great Bustards used both steppe and wheat agriculture habitat. All recorded reproductive attempts failed, regardless of habitat in which the nest was placed. Agricultural practices are likely to intensify in the coming decade, which would present further challenges to reproduction. The distinct migratory behavior and habitat use patterns of the Asian Great Bustard are likely adaptations to the climate and ecology of Inner Asia and underscore the importance of conserving these unique populations.
My research indicates that conservation of the Asian Great Bustard will require a landscape-level approach. This approach should incorporate measures at the breeding grounds to raise reproductive success, alongside actions on the migratory pathway to ensure appropriate habitat and reduce adult mortality. To secure international cooperation, I proposed that an increased level of protection should be directed toward the Great Bustard under the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). That proposal, accepted by the Eleventh Conference of Parties to CMS, provides recommendations for conservation action and illustrates the transdisciplinary approach I have taken in this research.