Bengal Florican
(Houbaropsis bengalensis)

This otherwise reclusive bird is best known for its elaborate courtship display where the male’s black and white plumage is shown off to good effect in short arching display flights to attract females. Two thirds of the global population breed in the floodplain of the Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia; they migrate up to 100km annually to escape the floodwaters in the non-breeding season. Thousands of kilometres away in Nepal and India, there exists another population of the same species which occupies the duars and terai grasslands along the base of the Himalayas. Both populations are in decline and threatened by habitat loss and illegal hunting. The total global population has been estimated at fewer than 1,000 adults, with some studies suggesting as few as 500.

Urgent Conservation Actions
Protection of breeding and non-breeding habitat needs to be expanded and improved. Hunting has been reduced but needs to be eliminated.
There are two subspecies, one occurring in India and Nepal, and the other thousands of kilometers away in Cambodia
The Bengal Florican is a shy bird, except in the breeding season when males can be seen performing an arching display flight.
Media from ARKive
Arkive video - Bengal florican in grassland
Arkive image - Bengal florican, side view
Arkive image - Bengal florican walking
Arkive image - Male Bengal florican in grass
Arkive image - Bengal florican on ground
Arkive image - Bengal florican in flight
Arkive image - Side profile of Bengal florican in flight
Arkive image - Bengal florican in flight
Arkive image - Bengal florican in flight, rear view
Arkive image - Bengal florican in flight
Arkive image - Bengal florican in flight over habitat
Evolutionary Distinctiveness
Order: Gruiformes
Family: Otididae
The Otididae are collectively known as the bustards, but also include the floricans and korhaans. A poor fossil record means that there have been question marks hanging over the evolution of this family. A study in 1985 suggested that Palaeotis weigelti a fossil dating back around 45 million years, to the middle of Eocene, was in fact the common ancestor of the bustards. However on closer inspection this fossil turned out to be a small ostrich. A more recent study in 2002 placed the earliest ancestor in the Oligocene/Miocene period, approximately 30 million years ago.  The family consists of 25 species from 11 genera. The Bengal Florican is the sole member of the genus Houbaropsis. Two subspecies are recognised: Houbaropsis bengalensis bengalensis from India and Nepal and H. b. blandini from Indochina.
The tree below shows the evolutionary relationships between this species and all other birds. The colours of the tree indicate EDGE scores with the red shades indicating the higher priority species; the bright red leaves correspond to the top 100 EDGE bird species. Further information on every species can be found by zooming in to its leaf on the tree.
Weight: 1250g – 2250g
Males have a completely black head, neck and belly, with black eyes and bill. They sport long black neck plumes and a black crest, which hangs over the back of their heads. The white wings are conspicuous at all times, while the black wing tips only become apparent in flight. Sandy-brown plumage with dark barring covers the bird’s back. The species exhibits sexual dimorphism: females are larger in size and are covered in sandy brown plumage with fine dark barring. A patch of white on the wing is only visible in flight. The female has brown eyes and a sandy coloured beak with a brown upper-side. Both sexes possess strong, long legs, which are dull grey in colour. If disturbed, the birds may make a shrill chik-chik-chik and, during display, a croaking and humming can be heard from the male. There is some variation between the two subspecies: those found in India and Nepal weigh more than the Cambodian subspecies.
The bird is very reclusive except in March, April and May when males display in exploded leks of at least seven birds, widely spaced. The primary display is a short-arching display flight. Another element of the display involves the male strutting around with fluffed up neck feathers, exhibiting a head pumping action. The female is much more secretive and harder to see, blending into the background vegetation and only flying to breed with the males or find food. Typically, one or two eggs are laid, which are incubated for about 26 days. The shy nature of this bird has made it difficult to accurately assess the population size, but in Cambodia, birds are monitored by counting displaying males. Satellite tagging indicates that birds show strong site fidelity. The Bengal Florican is thought to be an obligate grassland specialist. It is omnivorous, feeding on insects as well as seeds, fruits and flowers. It has also been known to take small lizards and snakes.
In Cambodia, the Bengal Florican breeds on grasslands towards the end of the dry season. It undertakes a short migration to low statue open forest with a grassy understorey when the plains flood during the rainy season. The short plains of subtropical riverine grassland are considered to be the prime habitat for this species in India and Nepal.
There are two populations of Bengal Florican, separated by thousands of kilometres. The western population is found in the Indian Subcontinent; birds here occupy a thin, patchy strip of relict habitat along the base of the Himalayas in India and Nepal. The larger population is centered on Cambodia, concentrated in the floodplain grasslands that surround the Tonle Sap Lake. A very small number of individuals probably still breed in adjacent areas of Vietnam. The reason for this disjunct distribution is unknown.
Population Estimate
Both of the populations are in decline. Estimates from Cambodia and Nepal are reasonably accurate, but little accurate or recent information is available from India. Koshi Tappu is said to contain the largest population in Nepal where up to 47 birds were seen in a survey conducted in April 2012. The global population size is thought to be fewer than 1,000 mature individuals.
Population Trend
Critically Endangered
The principal threats to the Bengal Florican are habitat loss and hunting. In Cambodia, hunting was initially the greatest threat, but was rapidly brought to a low level by conservation measures and a reduction in the availability of firearms.

Loss of habitat on its breeding grounds is now the most significant threat to the Bengal Florican population in Cambodia. Satellite data indicate that since the mid-1990s there has been a massive reduction in floodplain grassland; between 1995/6 and 2005 46 per cent of floodplain grassland was lost. An increase in scrub cover accounted for 65 per cent of grassland loss. In the four years that followed, grassland declined by 19 per cent; of this loss 95 per cent was attributable to irrigated dry-season rice cultivation. Large companies that purchase quasi-legal concessions in grassland areas drive this trend, although, increasingly, small-holders are abandoning traditional agriculture and using dams and dykes constructed by companies to convert remaining grassland fragments.

The Bengal Florican is also a target of illegal hunting and collection of chicks and eggs for subsistence use; although small scale, this probably impacts populations that are already depressed. Habitat loss in non-breeding areas is poorly understood, but locally at least might be contributing to the decline.

In India and Nepal, Bengal Floricans are largely restricted to protected areas established to support Indian Rhinoceros. Although this provides protection for habitat, grassland management regimes which favor the rhinoceros may be sub-optimal for the Bengal Florican.

In Nepal, the species suffers mainly from habitat loss outside the protected areas, and habitat alteration and degradation within protected areas. The role of fire is little understood and this could be a possible threat. The other emerging threats facing the Bengal Florican include invasive plants and an unnatural increase of predators (Asiatic golden jackal and common grey mongoose).
Conservation Underway
The Cambodian government has established six Bengal Florican Conservation Areas (BFCAs); these protect 173 square kilometres of breeding habitat in the Tonle Sap grassland and 138 square kilometers of non-breeding habitat. Within the BFCAs, traditional livelihood activities are permitted, whilst activities that are detrimental to florican populations, such as dry-season rice cultivation, are prohibited. Bengal Florican populations are monitored annually inside and outside of the BFCAs. The BFCAs are managed by the Cambodian Forestry Administration, with assistance from Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). A small number of nests are protected annually under a nest protection scheme, although this had proved difficult to implement. The movements of almost 20 birds were monitored using satellite transmitters as part of a PhD project in 2007. This research revealed the location of several new non-breeding sites outside of the BFCAs; some conservation activities have been expanded to these sites. Awareness programmes targeting local communities have been ongoing since 2009, with at least 5,000 leaflets about the species being distributed to children and young adults. Farmers living in some villages close to BFCAs have joined a wildlife-friendly farming scheme and Bengal Florican focused ecotourism has helped to reduce hunting locally.

In India and Nepal, almost all remaining populations are in protected areas. In Nepal, the species is listed in the strictly protected species list under the National parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 2029 (1973). A Darwin Initiative funded project is currently working to develop a better understanding of the Bengal Florican’s seasonal movements, which will result in a species action plan for the country.
Conservation Proposed
In Cambodia, grassland loss and the expansion of dry-season rice are ongoing, both inside and outside of BFCAs. Upgrading the legal protection of the BFCAs might reduce encroachment and increase provincial and district government support for preventing and repealing illegal rice cultivation within protected sites. Patrolling and reporting of illegal rice cultivation should be improved, and agreements made with farmers to not encroach on the BFCAs should be monitored to ensure that they are respected. Active management of habitat in the BFCAs is now underway and should increase the number of floricans that they can support. Opportunities to expand the existing BFCAs or increase the area under protection in other ways are being investigated. Equally, means of integrating Bengal Florican conservation needs into dry-season rice cultivation are under investigation. Effective protection of non-breeding habitat is urgently required. The extent that hunting continues, particularly trapping of females at the nest, should be investigated.

Baral, H.S., A.K. Ram, B. Chaudhary, S. Basnet, H. Chaudhary, T.R. Giri  and D. Chaudhary (2012). Conservation Status of Bengal Florican Houbaropsis bengalensis bengalensis (Gmelin, 1789) (Gruiformes: Otididae) in Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve and adjoining areas, eastern Nepal. Journal of Threatened Taxa 4(3): 2464–2469.

Bengal Florican (2013) Wildlife Conservation Society. Downloaded from http://programs.wcs.org/cambodia/SavingWildlife/BengalFlorican.aspx on 29/01/2013

BirdLife International (2013) Species factsheet: Houbaropsis bengalensis. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 29/01/2013.

BirdLife International. (2012). Species Guardian Action Update: October 2012 - Bengal Florican Houbaropsis bengalensis. Downloaded from www.birdlife.org/extinction/pdfs/Bengal_Florican_Guardian_Action_Update.pdf on 7/03/2013

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Packman, C. E., Gray, T. N. E., Collar, N. J., Evans, T. D., van Zalinge, R. N., Son Virak, Lovett, A. A. & Dolman, P. M. (2013) Rapid loss of Cambodia’s grasslands. Conservation Biology 27: 245–247.

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Packman, C (2011) Conservation ecology of Bengal Florican in Cambodia. Wet season movements, habitat and threats (2008-2010). Preliminary Report. University of East Anglia.

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van Zalinge, R., Son Virak, Evans, T. and Hong Chamnan (2010) The status of Bengal Floricans in the Bengal Florican Conservation Areas, 2009/10 monitoring report. Wildlife Conservation Society Cambodia Program, Phnom Penh.


Text compiled by Michelle Harrison. Factchecked by Markus Handschuh, Hem Baral and Simon Mahood.

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