Decades of widespread hunting and poaching have taken a mighty toll on the great Indian bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps), an endangered bird once found throughout India and Pakistan but now limited to a few small populations totaling maybe 1,000 individuals. New research reveals that the species is in worse shape than previously realized.

According to a study published online April 3 in the journal Conservation Genetics, the great Indian bustard has an even lower genetic diversity than the Florida panther, Asiatic lion or cheetah, all species already known to face "genetic bottlenecks" that reduce their variation and make them less able to adapt to disease or other ecological threats. The authors warn that the bustards' genetic diversity is so low that the species could go extinct in as few as 15 to 20 years.

Although the birds are now legally protected in India as well as under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, "the low genetic diversity makes conservation efforts even tougher," co-author Yadvendradev Jhala of the Wildlife Institute of India told the Calcutta-based newspaper The Telegraph.

Jhala and his co-authors analyzed genetic material from egg shells, feathers and droppings collected in the six Indian states where the bustards can still be found. From the 78 samples they tested, they found that the birds have all descended from a flock of as few as "tens" or as many as 100 birds.

This near-extinction event wasn't recent, according to the researchers. Whereas they could not pin down the exact timing, they say it could have occurred 20,000 to 40,000 years ago.

The authors have recommended that the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which maintains the Red List of Threatened Species, update the listing for the great Indian bustard from endangered to critically endangered. They also recommend creating a captive breeding program for the birds and greater efforts to conserve their habitat.

That might not be a welcome move in some places. The existing bustard sanctuary at Nannaj in the state of Maharashtra has fueled resentment from villagers who live within its confines, which was created around their homes 20 years ago. A recent workshop between forestry officials and local residents found that the sanctuary has made life more difficult for the villagers, forbidding them from creating any new infrastructure inside its perimeter, The Times of India reports. The resentment has been furthered by poor communication from the government, which has resulted in misconceptions among villagers, including an incorrect belief that they cannot improve a local canal to enhance their access to water.

Other threats to the great Indian bustard include drought, changes in traditional agriculture that have altered their habitat, and what The Times of India calls a "flourishing illegal mining industry," which has all but wiped out the birds from the state of Karnataka.

Photo by Madhukar Bangalore via Flickr under Creative Commons license