Conor Jameson, RSPB Development Manager, is visiting our project in India and Nepal, Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE). This is his latest blog.
If you like birdsong, visiting a new place like this is a little bit like going to a festival and hearing a ton of great new music. Toby and I go for an early morning walk, enjoying what for me is a whole new range of birds. It’s pretty quiet, but there are a few joggers about. One man stops when he reaches us. He doesn’t look dressed for jogging, and he seems quite happy to have an excuse not to be jogging any more. He is grinning broadly.
“Do you want to know something?” he offers, helpfully. “Or do you know everything?”
Toby and I can only aspire to such a state of being.
People in general are very helpful here. I had been looking at a peacock perched on the top of a bare tree. It’s nice to see India’s national bird in its native land. It isn’t rare here, but it still gets priority protection, because it’s a peacock. I have already enjoyed views of the red jungle fowl, ancestor of every one of the world’s trillions of chickens.
Toby has been trying to get a good view of - and identify - something much smaller and - for him - more interesting.
I can’t really speak for giggling, but Toby handles it well.
“We’re looking at birds,” he explains, pointing up at the tiny shape flitting through the nearest tree.
“You know... birds.” Our guide peers up into the tree. “It’s a sparrow,” he announces.
“I knew you were going to say that,” Toby replies.
A short while later we are on the road with Vibhu, a man who probably does know everything, about vultures in India, at least. He is going to show us the site for the proposed release of the first vultures, into what we hope is now a safe environment, free from the drug threat.
We wind along one side of a spectacular forested valley. It is spring here, but it feels vaguely autumnal. At the top of the valley we pause for a view. Looking upwards, we realise we have been joined by a group of vultures, sailing slowly overhead, hanging on the wind. It’s a group of Himalayan griffons. We count 26 birds in total, a few of them Egyptian vultures. We take it as another encouraging sign. Vibhu explains that at one time this valley would have had many vulture nests. We might even have seen some from the car. Now, there are none.
Vibhu and Toby survey the proposed release site. Photo by Conor Jameson.
Watching the vultures at the top of the valley. Photo by Conor Jameson.
The final destination is at the junction of two valleys, and a clearing close to a the site of pines on a steep slope. There is a building here to house staff, and room to build a release aviary. As we inspect, we realise that another vulture is riding on the updrafts high above the ridge. The scene is being set for the launch of the final phase of putting the vultures back into the skies here.
Find out more about our work to Save Asia's Vultures from Extinction.
Our vulture recovery programme is generously supported by Boehringer Ingelheim.
Today I have had a chance to visit the Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre at Pinjore, in Haryana state. I am struck by the serenity and tranquility of this place, in marked contrast to the frenetic activity you experience along India’s roads and urban places.
We have met Vibhu Prakash, who manages the centre. Vibhu was instrumental in first identifying the full extent of the decline of vultures in India. He had been counting the vultures from the time they were numerous, and had vital data to back up the widely observed disappearance of the birds.
There are around 200 vultures here, in safe keeping, and breeding successfully. Human contact with the vultures is kept to a minimum, to prevent the birds becoming too tame. When they are finally released, this will stand them in good stead. I was able to spend a meditative hour watching the colony aviary on the closed-circuit television screen here. It is a bit like 'Celebrity Big Vulture', except the participants seem to be rubbing along quite happily. They tend to do everything in synchrony – bathing, eating, sunning, nesting, even laying eggs – and form closely bonded pairs.
We did get to meet a batch of chicks, though, albeit from a safe distance. Nikita Prakash is in charge of the rearing of the second clutch chicks. The vultures usually lay just one egg, but a technique has been developed to encourage them to lay two. The second egg has to be hand-reared – Nikita’s job, and one she clearly relishes. Nikita puts the chicks out each day for an hour’s direct sunlight, which is important for their development.
There are three species of chick here, easy to tell apart by their colour or relative baldness.
The hand-reared vulture chicks are given an hour in the sun each day, to aid their development. Photo by Conor Jameson.
While we sat and chatted about the project, we had an unexpected and very welcome visitor. A wild vulture landed in a tree, just 30 yards or so away from us. It was obviously attracted by the vultures in the huge enclosures here, called colony aviaries. Of course it can’t have a share of the food provided.
Still, it posed quite calmly while we watched and took photos. This is one of the most threatened species, a white-backed vulture. Its presence offers further hope that we can restore these birds to the landscape, joining up the birds we release with survivors out there to re-establish viable colonies once again. Tomorrow we will be visiting the proposed location of the first releases of these lovingly nurtured captive birds. We hope to trial a release later this year, with further releases next year.
A wild white-backed vulture joined us during our meeting. Photo by Conor Jameson.
Conor Jameson, RSPB Development Manager is visiting our project in India and Nepal, Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE). This is his latest blog.
When I told friends and colleagues that I was taking annual leave to tour the carcase dumps of India and Nepal, a few of them thought I was joking. I’m in step with RSPB conservation scientist Toby Galligan.
Toby and I have met up with Khimu Balodi, a conservation scientist studying the ecosystem value of vultures, and what it has really cost us to lose them.
We have been to survey a dump in the north of the country, counting vultures present, if there are any. We’re also looking for any bird corpses, which may then be checked for diclofenac poisoning.
Diclofenac is the drug that, when given to cattle and then ingested by vultures from cattle carcases, is lethal to the birds. It has caused their near extinction, and that is what we are working urgently to prevent.
Although I’ve been working on this project, from my desk at home, for 15 years, in communications and fundraising, I had little idea what lay in store for us today. I think Toby and Khimu have been a little bit shocked too.
The good news part is that there are a lot of vultures at this site, though mainly Himalayan griffons, which winter in these lower lying areas when they are young. There are also cinereous (formerly black) vultures, Egyptian vultures and lots of steppe eagles and black kites. The less good news is that there are none of the three resident Gyps species that are most in danger of extinction.
And the really bad news is that we very soon found a dead vulture. Soon after, we found another. Live birds circled above and around us, and sat in rows on a pylon nearby. We were looking from a little way off at the birds gathered at the most recent buffalo carcase, alongside a pack of well-fed feral dogs.
Himalayan griffon vultures gather on a pylon. Electrocution happens when they touch a cable with an outstretched wing, while still perched. Photo by Conor Jameson.
And then, an odd thing. And a genuine shock. There was a huge bang, like a mortar exploding, some distance away but enough to send most of the birds in the valley, including dozens of raucous crows, into the air. We looked across in time for Toby to notice a vulture falling to earth. It took a second or two for us to register that it had been electrocuted.
We searched along the line of these poles, and it quickly became apparent that there was carnage. The death toll mounted.
Another loud bang. Another vulture killed. I couldn’t believe that we were not only finding so many dead birds, but witnessing them die in front of us.
We reached the first of the freshly killed birds, some of its plumage singed by the voltage, otherwise pristine, downy ruff riffling in the light breeze, eyes still moist, half closed. A bird weighing almost 10 kilos, with a wingspan of 10 feet, that takes five years to reach adulthood: extinguished in a split second. Such a needless waste. There were ten other corpses around this pylon alone.
By the time we left we had counted 28 dead griffons.
“That was a tragic scene” said Toby afterwards, as we contemplated next steps. “We don’t need these additional threats, when we are now moving towards releasing some of our captive-bred birds into the wild.”
Toby and Khimu with one of the dead Himalayan griffons that we witnessed being electrocuted. Photo by Conor Jameson.
The carcass dump falls within the 30,000km2 proposed release area for our captive-bred oriental white-backed vultures. This is actually good news because local governments have agreed to do more to protect vultures prior to releases. The RSPB and our partners in India are currently negotiating the relocation of the carcass dump away from the power lines.
Tomorrow Conor will be blogging about his visit to the vulture recovery centre at Pinjore, in Haryana state.