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Eye level with the Vultures of Ranthambhore tiger sanctuary


Eye level with the Vultures of Ranthambhore tiger sanctuary - Photo Credit: Tom Kogut

Rollback the years to 1997 and in the month of February, I had started a months residency at the school of ‘hard knocks’ and tiger safaris at Ranthambhore national park. I ignored my friend Vipul’s pleas to buy one of his rare ‘antiques’ from his little shop at the Anurag Resort and instead ‘borrowed’ his moped to drive myself to the magnificent entrance steps of Ranthambhore Fort. This was my escape from the rigours of daily life as a poor backpacker; existing on a diet of dhal and chapatis and waiting for his chance to hijack some poor tourists jeep and snap a picture of one of Ranthambhore’s famous tigers with my precious throw away camera. I convinced myself there was every chance of seeing the tigress whose territory encompassed the main lake – Padam Talao – from the top of the ramparts of Ranthambhore Fort and became rather obsessed with my objective.

Hours passed high above the park with only the occasional request for the obligatory photo with an Indian family; most of whom, were heading to the famous Ganesh Temple to pray and be blessed – a ritual that was also to become part of my regular visits to Ranthambhore over the years; yes, I am a sucker for a Bindi and feel naked without my Ganesh pendant around my neck – thanks Vipul. As I positioned myself in a reclined position within the ancient rampart walls themselves, I heard a sudden ‘whoosh’ sound and that was my introduction to the white-backed (now white rumped) vultures of Ranthambhore tiger sanctuary. Not a pretty bird, but like the other 4 common species found in the Indian subcontinent, absolutely vital for a healthy ecosystem for wildlife and man alike.

Fast forward a few years into the early 2000’s and worldwide birding forums were full of news about the 95% decline in vulture numbers across India and a drug called Diclofenac became headline news. We learned this was an anti-inflammatory drug admonished widely to livestock across the entire subcontinent and in particular to cows. As you will probably know cows are sacred in the Hindi religion and are therefore left to die naturally (in most circumstances) and are therefore one of the main food sources for vultures. Sadly, Diclofenac was incredibly toxic to these majestic birds and in just a few years they went from abundant to critically endangered. It was probably one of the worse bird poisoning episodes in our history – and let’s face it, we have had a few bad ones! The population of White-Rumped vultures in India was estimated at 80 million in the 1980’s and now can be counted in the tens of thousands. It is very true and apt to say that this is a wild bird whose numbers have literally ‘fallen off a cliff’

Gyps species were the most affected by diclofenac; the white-rumped vulture’s Latin name, is Gyps Bengalensis and saw a population decline of 99.7%. In addition, the other two vultures most closely associated with substantial human populations, the Indian vulture (Gyps indicus) and the slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) fell 97.4%. Due to habitat not as suitable for livestock and much smaller human populations, the Himalayan Vulture and the Eurasian Vulture (a migrant), were relatively lightly impacted.

It is vitally important to remember that Vultures are known for having a ‘dead end’ metabolism; which means that potentially harmful pathogens transmitted via infected carcasses, such as rabies and anthrax, are destroyed and therefore ‘made safe’ for the human populations living in close proximity to their livestock. Such a dramatic drop in vulture numbers meant that there was a plentiful supply of carcasses for feral dogs and rats and their populations increased significantly. Unlike vultures, they can actually pass on these harmful diseases to humans and that is a significant additional problem for health professional dealing with poverty in both urban and rural areas in India.

When such dramatic decreases in wild animal or bird populations occur and the root problem is traced back to human activity, I am always amazed about how careless and arrogant we are as human beings; giving little regards to the other creatures which are part of our everyday world. We tell our children to ‘learn from their mistakes’; but yet, time and time again governments and large corporations do not………………….or will not, learn from their terrible decisions to licence unsafe drugs. A truly shocking epitaph to the India vulture crisis is that Spanish farmers (Spain is famous in Europe for its good numbers of vultures) are still using Diclofenac; despite safe alternatives being available and most countries in Asia banning the drug in 2006.

On a brighter note; if you would like the pleasure of following our footsteps and seeing India’s vultures in the wild, then I can highly recommend a visit to Ranthambhore tiger sanctuary with an add on boat safari in the gorges of the Chambal River from Kota. I wish you luck in having the chance to see a vulture from the top of Ranthambhore Fort, with its mesmerising view of Ranthambhore national park, laid our far below.

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