K S Gopi Sundar

Scientist, Cranes and Wetlands

Gopi thesandhill

PhD, Conservation Biology, University of Minnesota, 2011
MSc, Ecology & Environmental Science, Pondicherry University, 1997

The ability of wild animals to live amongst humans, and persist on landscapes that experience intensive conversion to fulfill human needs provides hope for long-term conservation of many species. I got a glimpse into this phenomenon while studying the Sarus Crane in Uttar Pradesh, and am now hooked. My primary interest is to understand how this coexistence can be achieved, where and when is this coexistence not possible, and to figure out if this coexistence can be introduced to areas where they may currently be weak. On the side, the natural history and behaviour of all wild things, particularly birds, fascinates and drives me to discovery. My current focus is the habitats and landscapes in south Asia where Sarus Cranes exist, and the many other species that thrive alongside. I run Program SarusScape of the International Crane Foundation that is implemented in collaboration with NCF as the Cranes and Wetlands Programme. With my friend and colleague Luis Santiago Cano, I also Co-chair the IUCN Stork, Ibis and Spoonbill Specialist Group which allows me to work alongside a fantastic group of people worldwide interested in this group of birds.


Bns sarus


Breeding success in croplands

Understanding limits to Sarus Crane and Black-necked Stork productivity

Iucn 20ssc 20sis sg 20logo

Introduction to the SIS-SG

Structure and goals



Of Storks In Farmlands

Asian Openbills and Lesser Adjutants feeding in a Nepali SarusScape


  • Journal Article
    In press
    Hunting or habitat? Drivers of waterbird abundance and community structure in agricultural wetlands of southern India
    Ramachandran, R., Ajith Kumar, K S Gopi Sundar, Ravinder Singh Bhalla
    Ambio, DOI: 10.1007/s13280-017-0907-9

    The relative impacts of hunting and habitat on waterbird community were studied in agricultural wetlands of southern India. We surveyed wetlands to document waterbird community, and interviewed hunters to document hunting intensity, targeted species, and the motivations for hunting. Our results show that hunting leads to drastic declines in waterbird diversity and numbers, and skew the community towards smaller species. Hunting intensity, water spread, and vegetation cover were the three most important determinants of waterbird abundance and community structure. Species richness, density of piscivorous species, and medium-sized species (31–65 cm) were most affected by hunting. Out of 53 species recorded, 47 were hunted, with a preference for larger birds. Although illegal, hunting has increased in recent years and is driven by market demand. This challenges the widely held belief that waterbird hunting in India is a low intensity, subsistence activity, and undermines the importance of agricultural wetlands in waterbird conservation.

  • Journal Article
    Factors affecting provisioning times of two stork species in lowland Nepal
    K S Gopi Sundar, Bijay Maharjan, Roshila Koju, Swati Kittur, Kamal Raj Gosai
    Waterbirds, 39: 365-374. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1675/063.039.0406

    The ecology of stork colonies in south Asia are very poorly understood. Factors affecting provisioning times by adults were evaluated at nests of two stork species, the Asian Openbill (Anastomus oscitans) and the Lesser Adjutant (Leptoptilos javanicus), in lowland Nepal where the landscape is dominated by multi-cropped agriculture fields. Analyses focused on understanding if provisioning times are influenced more due to colony-level variables, wetlands around colonies, or season. Using generalized additive mixed models and the information-theoretic approach, colony-level variables (brood size and chick age) showed non-trivial associations with provisioning times (substantially better than the null model). Univariate models with colony size and wetlands had poor support (worse than the null model). Season, which represented the changing cropping patterns, rainfall, and wetness on the landscape, was the most important variable for both species. The combination of season and wetlands was very important for provisioning Asian Openbills whose chicks fledged during the monsoon (July–October), but not for Lesser Adjutants whose chicks fledged in the drier winter months (November–February). Results strongly suggest that changing cropping patterns to a drier monsoonal crop, or reductions in wetland extents, will be detrimental to storks in Nepal.

  • Journal Article
    Wetland loss and waterbird use of wetlands in Palwal district, Haryana, India: The role of agriculture, urbanization and conversion to fish ponds
    Wetlands. DOI 10.1007/s13157-014-0600-8

    PDF, 1.15 MB

    Wetlands in tropical and sub-tropical landscapes
    are experiencing changes and loss due to urbanization and
    intensive human use, but there is sparse detailed understanding
    of how these affect use by wetland-dependent birds.
    Urbanization and conversion of community wetlands to private
    fish ponds are occurring rapidly in Haryana state in north
    India. We conducted a study in Palwal district, Haryana in
    2013–2014 to simultaneously understand (i) rates and reasons
    for wetland loss between 1970s and 2000s, and (ii) relative
    importance of location (towns/ villages versus those amid
    agriculture) versus site-specific variables on the winter abundance of 31 waterbird species in these fish ponds. Wetland
    extent reduced by 52 %, and average wetland size reduced by
    42 % between 1970s and 2000s. Expansion of urban areas
    converted 105 agricultural wetlands to town wetlands.
    Wetlands of different locations could not be differentiated
    using waterbird abundance suggesting that wetland conditions
    have been homogenized, in part due to conversions to fish
    ponds and in part due to urban expansions. Focal waterbird
    abundance was affected more due to human activities relative
    to location or vegetation. A complex combination of current
    management practices and historical determinants of wetland persistence appear to be driving waterbird use of wetlands in
    locations like Palwal.

  • Popular Article
    Survival of the fittest
    The Hindu (Young World), 8 July
  • Book Chapter
    Sarus Cranes, cultivators, and conservation
    In: Nature Without Borders (Eds. M Rangarajan, M D Madhusudan, G Shahabuddin), Orient Blackswan Pvt Ltd, Hyderabad and New Delhi.
  • Journal Article
    Can wetlands maintained for human use also help conserve biodiversity? Landscape–scale patterns of bird use of wetlands in an agricultural landscape in north India
    Biological Conservation 168: 49-56. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2013.09.016

    Wetlands in tropical agricultural landscapes are maintained largely by local institutions explicitly for human use, which is assumed to deter biodiversity. Conservation efforts have been biased towards protecting large wetlands that are assumed to be adequate to conserve the majority of species of focal taxa, usually birds. These assumptions remain untested, and landscape-scale conservation planning for wetlands is largely absent, as is a generalised understanding of wetland use by focal taxa. We designed a landscape-scale survey to understand patterns and processes determining beta diversity of birds using agricultural wetlands in south-western Uttar Pradesh, India where wetlands have experienced prolonged and intensive human use for several centuries. Observed bird species richness (99 species in 28 wetlands) is the highest known for any agricultural landscape in south Asia signifying that even intensive human use of wetlands does not necessarily deter their ability to retain biodiversity. Birds exhibited strong scale
    dependent wetland use underscoring the need to conserve wetlands of varying sizes and at varying densities on the landscape. Beta diversity was due largely to species turnover (0.877) with minimal effect due to nestedness (0.055) suggesting that conserving a few large wetlands will not adequately meet goals of conserving the majority of wetland bird species. Prevailing assumptions regarding biodiversity conservation in tropical agricultural wetlands require being revised, and a landscape-scale approach that incorporates ecological realities is needed. Incorporating local institutions alongside formal protectionist methods offer a potential win–win situation to maximise conservation of biodiversity in tropical agricultural wetlands.

  • Popular Article
    The great crane project
    The Hindu in School, 20 February

    Link: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-in-school/the-great-crane-project/article4433259.ece

  • Popular Article
    Bringing back a commoner
    The Hindu in School, 27 February

    Link: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-in-school/bringing-back-a-commoner/article4456817.ece

  • Journal Article
    Methodological, temporal and spatial factors affecting modelled occupancy of resident birds in the perennially cultivated landscape of Uttar Pradesh, India
    Landscape Ecology 27: 59-71. doi:10.1007/s10980-011-9666-3.

    Biodiversity persistence in non-woody tropical farmlands is poorly explored, and multispecies assessments with robust landscape-scale designs are sparse. Modeled species occupancy in agricultural mosaics is affected by multiple factors including survey methods (convenience-based versus systematic), landscape-scale agriculture-related variables, and extent of remnant habitat. Changes in seasonal crops can additionally alter landscape and habitat conditions thereby influencing species occupancy. We investigated how these factors affect modeled occupancy of 56 resident bird species using a landscape-scale multi-season occupancy framework across 24 intensively cultivated and human-dominated districts in Uttar Pradesh state, north India. Convenience-based roadside observations provided considerable differences in occupancy estimates and associations with remnant habitat and intensity of cultivation relative to systematic transect counts, and appeared to bias results to roadside conditions. Modeled occupancy of only open-area species improved with increasing intensity of cultivation, while remnant habitat improved modeled occupancy of scrubland, wetland and woodland species. Strong seasonal differences in occupancy were apparent for most species across all habitat guilds. Further habitat loss will be most detrimental to resident scrubland, wetland and woodland species. Uttar Pradesh’s agricultural landscape has a high conservation value, but will require a landscape-level approach to maintain the observed high species richness. Obtaining ecological information from unexplored landscapes using robust landscape-scale surveys offers substantial advantages to understand factors affecting species occupancy, and is necessary for efficient conservation planning.

  • Journal Article
    Agricultural intensification, rainfall patterns, and large waterbird breeding success in the extensively cultivated landscape of Uttar Pradesh, India
    Biological Conservation 144: 3055-3063. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2011.09.012

    In countries with high human populations, using agricultural areas as multifunctional systems to produce food for humans and retain wildlife may be an efficient conservation strategy for many species. Inclusion of natural habitat and species requirements on agricultural landscapes explicitly into planning processes are precluded by lack of information on drivers of species persistence. Climate change is an additional emerging complexity, and adaptation plans for agricultural landscapes are biased towards intensification to secure long-range food production. I examine the conservation potential of an agricultural landscape in two districts of Uttar Pradesh, north India where agricultural intensification and altered rainfall patterns are predicted to occur. I assess stressors affecting breeding success over eight years of two large waterbirds of conservation concern – Sarus Cranes and Black-necked Storks. Both species had high breeding success that improved with total rainfall and more wetlands in breeding territories. Agricultural and township expansions deteriorated territory quality and reduced breeding success. Sarus Crane populations were predicted to decline relatively rapidly if development activities continued to displace breeding pairs. Black-necked Storks appeared resilient over the long-term notwithstanding reduced breeding success in low-rainfall years. Waterbird nesting habitats (wetlands and trees) were retained in Uttar Pradesh as community lands by villages and by state government via legal provisions suggesting the utility of multiple conservation approaches. Incorporating species requirements explicitly, alongside traditional land use practices conducive for habitat conservation, into adaptation planning and conservation policy will be necessary to retain long-term multifunctionality of such agricultural landscapes.

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