Researchers tracking black bucks inside the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve (STR) had an unusual visitor last week. The cinereous vulture, usually found in parts of Eurasia, the upper reaches of the Himalayas as well as northern Indian states such as Rajasthan. “We were carrying out our usual fieldwork inside the STR when suddenly we noticed a juvenile cinereous vulture flying pretty low to the ground,” says R Venkatachalam, research associate with the Ashoka Trust for Research on Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) and vulture conservationist. “There had been a leopard kill on the ground and the vulture was probably trying to get its claws on it. Hence, we could spot it,” he adds.
Vulture conservationists and ornithologists are excited about this sighting since this is only the third known sighting of this enormous vulture in Tamil Nadu. While these birds can travel more than 200 kilometres on any given day, they hardly ever traverse below the Vindhyas and for them to be spotted as low as the STR, which is part of the 5,500 square kilometre Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve (NBR), is a highly unusual occurrence.
To put this in perspective, there have been sightings of the cinereous vulture at an altitude of 6,670 metres on the slopes of the Mount Everest.
A rare occurrence
“It’s very unusual to see the cinereous here. The bird is not only out of its usual habitat but they are also rare to sight in general. We’re all very excited about it,” says S Bharathidasan of Arulagam, a Coimbatore-based nature conservation organisation. Arulagam is known for its work on getting the harmful painkiller drug, diclofenac banned from veterinary use and its continued advocacy for vulture conservation. “It’s like a special guest has come to our house. We have to make them feel most welcome.”
There are only 4,500 to 5,000 cinereous vultures left and the bird is classified as a near-threatened species in the IUCN Red list. One reason why the bird could have travelled so far is in search of carrion, an increasingly rare occurrence in India now. “Lot of our human habits have changed in recent times. While earlier dead cattle or other carrion was easy to find for vultures, now it’s harder for them to locate food since people take to burying or incineration much more now,” says Bharatidasan.
The cinereous vulture’s visit last week is only its third sighting in Tamil Nadu. Previous sightings were a decade earlier in 2008, at Point Calimere and in 1987 at Puducherry. In southern India, the NBR is great vulture country. It’s the native habitat for the Indian long-billed vulture, the redheaded vulture, the Egyptian vulture and the oriental white-backed vulture, which are spotted on a regular basis.
Vulture population here, like elsewhere was severely threatened because of the diclofenac drug, which used to cause kidney failure in the birds upon consumption. After the ban of the drug in 2008, the population has seen a resurgence. “There are some vultures which die because the drug is used by some private clinics still. There is a need to tackle this problem more seriously again,” says Venkatachalam. He adds, “There is also a need for long-term monitoring of vulture behaviour. Then only will we understand why such rarely-sighted birds travel so far down south and what this means for our ecology and habitat.”
“One reason why the bird was here could be this. When you’re a child, you learn how to cycle and you want to keep on cycling for a while. Similarly, the juvenile might just be having a great time flying and being such a large bird has managed to traverse such great distances,” says Bharatidasan.
Vibhu Prakash, who has been working on vulture conservation since 1984 and is the deputy director at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) feels such sightings are very exciting for a multitude of reasons. “In a country such as ours, scavengers such as vultures play an important role since there’s no urbanised system of carcass disposal. If vulture populations diminish then not only will the risk of diseases increase for us but also population of secondary scavengers such as stray dogs will increase exponentially. This can prove to be a serious threat for people.”
(Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Chennai. This article was produced with assistance from FEJI-ATREE media fellowships 2017.)