We start from the Sailing Club Forest Rest House around 3.30 in the afternoon. We decide to take an anti-clockwise tour of Sakhya Sagar, a reservoir in the core of Madhav National Park in Central India. The beauty of Madhav is the unique mix of natural and man-made history – Sailing Club, Sakhya Sagar and forest around are all part of this amazing mix.
Just to give you a brief idea of history, Madhav forests was a hunting preserve of erstwhile rulers of Gawalior State of India, before Independence. The then ruler of the State, Maharaja Madhav Rao Scindia, had developed permanent source of water by damming the Manihar river in the area in 1918. It’s a chain of three reservoirs – Jadhav, Sakhya and Madhav. Jadhav is just outside the Park, while Sakhya and Madhav are in the Park. These reservoirs are critical for people of adjacent Shivpuri town and wildlife of the National Park.
Sakhya Sagar is quite a sight with thick wall of the dam, canopies at two corners from where excess water spills, and a wooden hunting/shooting box tucked on the wall on the side facing thick forest on the outside. The wall is thick like a fort wall, wide enough for two persons to walk together. Yes, there are forested hillocks beyond the water body. Beauty of Madhav forest is it changes colour and texture with change of season – from lush green of monsoon to dull grey-brown of summer.
Forest Range Officer is with me. He suggests ‘let us take a stroll over the wall’. He wants to show me some management work in progress at the edge of the reservoir just below the wall. I am quite exciting. I have been thinking about walking on the wall for a long time but in every visit end up postponing. About century old, wall is strong though the broken railing and discoloured plaster and damaged wood work at places give away the age. We get a panoramic view of the forest outside the reservoir from the height.
I notice across the water-body, on the other side, in the water receded portion, lush with short green grass, there are cluster of large birds at two places – who can be these? Can they be vultures?
Let us go, I say, and we dash to the site about 15-20 minutes away. These days we have to lookout for vultures also. From being in millions two decades ago, they are in thousands today. This is what we have done to them! Some of them have become ‘critically endangered’!
We are careful, and slow down half a km before reaching to the first cluster. Noiselessly we make progress. Yes, they are vultures. I am excited. We notice there are about a dozen vultures clustered around a kill. As we reach closer, I notice the carcass is that of a spotted deer stag – probably a natural death going unnoticed by a leopard or crocodile.
We inch forward, stopping every 40-50 metres, watching and taking photos and moving on until we are just opposite the cluster and much closer, may be 20-25 metres from the birds.
My god, they have eaten so much that they are not even able to fly. Here and there, one or the other, make small moves limping on their small feet. Some raise open wings only to threaten weaker ones to give way. One flies low, 20-30 metre, to be in peaceful area with great effort.
At the cluster, some vultures are busy feeding while others are relaxing on the outer ring and some scattered in the area around. I try very hard to take mental note of unique features to be able to clearly identify the species. This is rather strange, that in spite of vulture being so big bird and not shy either, there is always confusion in identification between ‘Griffon’, ‘long billed’, ‘white rumped’ … vultures. Anyway, I decide the lot includes mostly ‘Griffon vultures’ – white head, whitish neck ruff, yellowish bill, very broad wings and short tail feathers, buff body and wing coverts contrast with the dark flight feathers. The size is huge – looks more so when it spreads broad wings – more than two metre long wingspan!
If I am not wrong, I see one ‘long-billed vulture’ in the cluster and two others resting far away from the lot. Long-billed is a typical vulture – bald head, pale-yellowish bill, stout blackish neck with pale down, large white neck-ruff, buff back and upper-wing coverts, and very broad wings and short tail feathers.
The lot is busy in their usual job of cleaning – finishing away dead animals! I wonder what would happen without vultures. In large part of rural India and in some urban areas as well, there is no method of disposing off dead animals. People just drag them to the edge of the village / town and leave by road side for vultures, jackals, feral dogs etc to finish it up. For several years, in the recent past, the carcasses used to rot for days, making area unlivable with nauseating foul smell because of few takers. The paradox is that in spite of a major service to mankind, vultures are ‘looked down upon’ because of being scavenger.
Oh! Scanning the landscape further around, I see one ‘King vulture’ alone far away. In another direction, there are two scavenger vultures, also, far away.
King vulture is king. It is not part of the crowd. Must have eaten first and is now relaxing far from the madding crowd. Though the bird is sitting farthest, there is no mistake in identifying because of its prominent naked red head, pale grey /whitish band at the base of flight feather and black body. It’s unbelievable, the bird has wing span of about two metres. Furthermore, it is unbelievable that the species is ‘critically endangered’! While we hang around, for once, it comes to the carcass, maybe to have another bite.
Scavenger vulture has a more respectable name of Egyptian vulture also. I see they are just cool. During our more than an hour of hanging around, there is not even slightest of action. They are resting in a depression partially visible but easy to recognise because of conspicuous naked yellow head and dirty whitish plumage.
The sighting of about a score of birds of several species of vultures overwhelms me. There is need of many many more of them for nature as well as man. I pen down,
Vulture, vulture where are you all gone
Come back, come back, we hate you no more
You sacrificed life as deity Jatayu to save Goddess Sita, we do remember
No Swachh Abhiyan (Cleanliness Mission) without you
Come back, dear vulture, come back
Important Vulture Species in India
King Vulture or Red-headed vulture or Black vulture
King Vulture also known as Red-headed vulture or Black vulture, is a medium-sized vulture with a wing span of about 2 metres! It has a prominent naked head: deep-red to orange in the adult, paler red in juvenile. It has a black body with pale grey band at the base of the flight feathers. The sexes differ in colour of the iris: males have a paler, whitish iris, whilst in females it is dark brown.
King vulture used to be declining, but only slowly; in 2004 the species was up-listed to Near Threatened from Least Concern by the IUCN. The widespread use of Diclofenac in veterinary medicine in India has caused its population to collapse in recent years, however. Diclofenac is a compound now known to be extremely poisonous to vultures. The King vulture population has essentially halved every other year since the late 1990s, and what once was a plentiful species, numbering in the hundreds of thousands has come dangerously close to extinction in less than two decades. Consequently, it was up-listed to ‘Critically Endangered’ in the 2007 IUCN Red List.
Egyptian or Scavenger Vulture
Egyptian or Scavenger Vulture has contrasting under-wing pattern and wedge-shaped tail which make it distinctive in flight as it soars in thermals during the warmer parts of the day. Egyptian vultures feed mainly on carrion but are opportunistic and will prey on small mammals, birds, and reptiles. They also feed on the eggs of other birds, breaking larger ones by tossing a large pebble onto them. The use of tools is rare in birds and apart from the use of a pebble as a hammer, Egyptian vultures also use twigs to roll up wool for use in their nest.
The adult’s plumage is whitish, with black flight feathers in the wings. The bill is slender and long, and the tip of the upper mandible is hooked. The neck feathers are long and form a hackle. The wings are pointed, the tail is wedge shaped. The legs are pink in adults and grey in juveniles.
Egyptian vulture populations have declined in most parts of its range. In India, the decline has been rapid with a 35% decrease each year since 1999. The exact cause of the decline is not known, but has been linked with the use of the NSAID Diclofenac, which has been known to cause death in Gyps vultures.
Indian Vulture or Long Billed Vulture
The long-billed vulture is a typical vulture, with a bald head, very broad wings and short tail feathers – Weighing around 6 kg, measuring around 1 metre long and about 2 metre of wings. Adults have pale-yellowish bill; pale eye-rings; large white neck-ruff; and buff back and upper-wing coverts. The stout blackish neck has pale down. Juveniles have dark bill; pinkish head and neck covered in pale down and dingy heavily streaked under parts. In flight thighs are heavily feathered and con-colourous with the rest of the under parts.
The Indian vulture has suffered a 99%–97% population decrease in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. Between 2000-2007 annual decline rates of this species has been sixteen percent. The cause of this has been identified as poisoning caused by the veterinary drug Diclofenac.
This species is classified as ‘Critically Endangered’ because it has suffered an extremely rapid population decline as a result of mortality from feeding on carcasses of animals treated with the veterinary drug Diclofenac. It is so listed since 2002 in spite of about half dozen assessment reviews.
The white-rumped vulture used to be present in large numbers, in Southern and South-eastern Asia until the 1990s and declined rapidly in numbers since; up to 99.9% between 1992 and 2007. In 1985 the species was described as “possibly the most abundant large bird of prey in the world” and often considered a nuisance.
This is the smallest of the Gyps vultures, but is still a very large bird – weighing around 5.5 kg, 90 cm long and 2 metre wingspan on average.
The white-rumped vulture is a typical, medium-sized vulture, with an naked head and neck, very broad wings, and short tail feathers. It has a white neck ruff. The adult’s whitish back, rump, and under-wing coverts contrast with the otherwise dark plumage. The body is black and the secondaries are silvery grey. The head is tinged in pink and bill is silvery. Juveniles are largely dark and take about four or five years to acquire the adult plumage.
The griffon vulture, also known as the Eurasian Griffon, is widely distributed in Europe and Asia. It’s found in large number in India also. On an average, it’s more than a metre long with wingspan of about 2.5 metre and weighs around 8 kg. It has white head, very broad wings and short tail feathers. It has a white neck ruff and yellow bill. The buff body and wing coverts contrast with the dark flight feathers.