To the natural world, the words we use to name things are largely arbitrary, so who could have guessed that a single vowel will likely lead to the demise of an entire species? Great Indian Bustards, among the largest flying birds, were once widespread throughout their native India, though now they number around 250 with extinction looming. There was a time, however, when bustards were the obvious choice for India's national bird, promising with it the strict protections that title entails -- but bustards lost out. It seems officials were concerned that 'bustard' could be too easily misspelled and mispronounced as 'bastard', so they basically doomed it to extinction.Great Indian Bustards are an imposing and noble bird, standing 3 feet tall and weighing in at around 40 pounds, yet still capable of sustained flight. For centuries the birds thrived in the arid grasslands all across India and in parts of Pakistan, noted for their stature and elusive nature. They were occasionally hunted by skilled locals, but even more so among British soldiers, who popularized the fowl as a delicacy.
By the middle of the last century, bustards were already in decline due to hunting, and in large part, habitat loss associated with expansion in agriculture.
In 1960, the International Council for Bird Preservation met in Tokyo to encourage governments around the world to designate a national bird, particularly among species in the greatest need of protection in each country. For famed Indian ornithologist Salim Ali, the choice was clear.
"This bustard is a large and spectacular bird, indigenous to India, whose numbers, in spite of the legislative ban on its killing, are dwindling at an alarming rate due to poaching by vandalistic gunners and also encroachment upon its natural habitats," argued Ali in 1962. "It needs an urgent nation-wide effort to save the bird from its impending doom."
In the end, the Indian government decided to place the title of national bird, and all the protections and funding entitled therein, to the peacock. The bustard was passed over, not for a lack of worthiness, but because its name was similar to a pejorative term for an illegitimate child.
"The bustard would have been our national bird, but for the wisdom of some babu who worried it might be misspelt as the Great Indian Bastard! Poor bird, doomed by its name, and otherwise as well."
- Tehelka Magazine, April 2009
Two years ago, there were around 500 of the bustards in existence -- now there's believed to be as few as 250. Recently, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List for Birds placed Great Indian Bustards among the most 'critically endangered' species, though there may be little that can be done to save them from extinction, short of relocating the few survivors to an non-irrigated region in India where no farmers would choose to settle.
Never before, perhaps, have the positive forces of conservation been so coldly denied for reasons as trivial as a vowel.
While certainly there was a chance that Great Indian Bustards could have occasionally been misspelled as 'bastards' if it had earned the nod for national bird -- those who withheld the title on such grounds are the rightful bearers of that derogatory term.
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