[Ian Barber is the RSPB’s Senior Partner Development Officer for Asia and he has just returned from a work visit to Nepal. Read all about his trip, below. Ian’s companions on this trip are Jyotendra from Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN), Suraj Mahato who is paid by BCN to monitor Bengal florican areas, Kewal Chaudhary who is in charge our Vulture Safe Feeding site in Chitwan, and DB Chaudhary who the overall manager of the Vulture Safe Feeding site.]
When I woke at 6 am little did I know what excitement the day held.
I was all set to venture within Nepal’s premier National Park - Chitwan. Here, I was trying to take a look at the work being done to save the few remaining Bengal floricans where a project funded by the Darwin Initiative is in its second year. In the first year surveys identified the location of grassland areas that have the potential to be new habitats for the rare birds. Additionally, satellite tags were fixed to two birds and we have been checking out where they have been going.
Bengal florican, Shambhu
After breakfast of sweet tea, rotis (flat bread) and omelette we set off to look at the grassland areas where the community has established some trial management plots to help us tease out exactly the type of habitat the birds prefer. We will then try to replicate these on other grasslands. The team has been busy removing scrub and small trees that has been overrunning the grasslands and making them more open areas for the birds – which they like! One plot, a control plot, had been deliberately left uncleared to double check that the birds did indeed ignore these areas. Disappointingly, a discarded cigarette had accidently burnt this whole area which means our theory could not be proved this year.
As well as a fine selection of birds including honey buzzard, chestnut-headed and green bee-eaters, dark-throated thrush, pied hornbill and a single cinereous vulture, we had the good fortune to see several hog deer and a jackal galloping across the grassland. But as the mid-morning sun beat down on us it soon became too hot to be wandering around exposed grasslands so we headed back to the village for a welcome cup of chai followed by an early lunch of rice, lentils and curried vegetables. We rested for a few hours until our batteries were sufficiently recharged to head back out again around 3 pm when the heat was beginning to drain from the day.
As we re-started our work in a second area we came across a small herd of four rhinos. We spotted two adults and two sub-adults quietly grazing about 50 metres into the distance. It was a wonderful sight seeing these monsters with their armour plating and small horns at such close quarters. BUT... they were directly in the way of where WE wanted to go. So we had to sit tight a while and hope they moved off. They had been blissfully unaware of us until the wind directly changed and they caught our smell. One adult and two younger rhinos soon disappeared into cover but the last and the BIGGEST one stood ground. We then had one very slow, careful walk along the grassland area keeping a close eye on the forest on both sides for angry rhinos deciding to take a fancy to coming closer to us!
The Gang of Four - Kewal Chaudhary
None shall pass! Kewal Chaudhary
Thankfully, our careful voyage was well-received and we began mapping the second area. However, soon we spotted a large tree ahead of us FULL of vultures. This didn’t sit right with me as it wasn’t a known roosting vulture. We approached and then one of the team stumbled over a dead spotted deer. This was obviously the cause of gathering vultures, who were wary of coming down until we had passed. The deer itself had not been dead very long as there was no smell or signs of decay. And, as it appeared to be a healthy male just starting to grow its horns for the mating season our hunch was that it had been poisoned. A poisoned deer in a vulture safe feeding zone could spell a disaster for these vultures congregating and other wildlife, so we contacted the community forest members.
Poisoned spotted deer, Ian Barber
While we were waiting for the community members to arrive we found another dead deer and concluded that local poachers had set some poisoned bait. In poor areas such as this, additional food or income is welcomed. When the locals arrived they said they had found two deer the previous day which they had buried so the vultures could not be tempted.
Informing the Community Forest leaders about the poisoned deer, Ian Barber
After completing our grassland survey we returned along the same path and came across a small scrapping in the ground which looked like a deer mineral lick. This provides a source of trace minerals important for maintaining a deer’s health. On closer inspection of the lick, our team agreed it smelt like rat poison. We quickly covered the area to prevent any more deer getting near it and left it for the members to dig it over later when they buried the deer.
At the end of a long hot day we headed back to the village for a welcome cup of tea. We also wrestled with the fortune of seeing such wonderful wildlife while at the same time thinking how best to work with the the local people who are so poor that they have to poison such dignified animals as spotted deer to survive.
Toby Galligan is a conservation scientist in the RSPB’s International Research Section. He works with RSPB partners in India and Nepal to establish and maintain Vulture Safe Zones through research, monitoring and conservation. In this post, Toby talks about his work with India's red-headed vultures.
RSPB science has shown that the Indian population of red-headed vulture Sarcogyps calvus crashed by 90% between 1992 and 2007, but we do not know what caused this decline.
During the same period, four species of Gyps vulture also crashed in India and RSPB science helped determine the cause: specifically, we showed that the drug diclofenac, known to be toxic to Gyps vultures and widely used to treat ailments in livestock in South Asia, could persist in livestock carcasses and was thereby poisoning large numbers of vultures.
The toxicity of diclofenac to Gyps vultures was revealed through experimental and observational data ; but we lack these data to say whether or not diclofenac is toxic to the Sarcogyps vulture.
We might assume that diclofenac is toxic to the red-headed vulture and that the successful actions that we have implemented to save South Asia’s Gyps vultures will benefit this species as well, but if that assumption is wrong and we have overlooked the real threats, then we might see this species slip away.
The RSPB is not in the business of making assumptions; rather we aim to determine the cause of decline in the red-headed vulture through sound conservation science.
Image 1: red-headed vulture by Rohan M. Shringarpure.
The cause of decline is not the only thing that we do not know about the red-headed vulture. In fact, there is little known at all about this naturally scarce and elusive species.
We do know that it does not behave like Gyps vultures – Gyps vultures are gregarious and specialise in rapidly de-fleshing a carcass; the redheaded vulture is solitary, possibly territorial, and seems to pick at its food.
So how do we learn about “redheads” – as I like to call them? How do we learn about their secrets and threats?
The answer is: we let them take us on a guided tour of their day to day lives.
We can do this using telemetry. More specifically, we can use devices nicknamed “tags” that we attach to redheads to transmit data via satellites to our desk top computers.
This data shows us the location, movement and home-ranges of “tagged” individuals; coupled with on the ground tracking, we can also find roosting, foraging and nesting sites.
Further, if one of our tagged redheads dies, we can pinpoint the location and recover the corpse for post mortem examination to determine the cause of death.
A better understanding of the ecology and the causes of death of tagged redheads will better inform our conservation actions to save this Critically Endangered species.
Image 2: releasing a tagged redhead by Rohan M. Shringarpure.
I would like you to follow our redhead research, and the red-heads themselves, through a series of blogs. Over the upcoming months, I will describe the process of trapping, tagging and tracking; provide maps of redhead movements; and share our findings and photos. My aim is to show you a part of how RSPB science works overseas for global species conservation and to engage you in vulture conservation in South Asia. But it will be the redheads themselves that will show both you and me their secret lives.