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.
Find out more about our work to Save Asia's Vultures from Extinction.
Our vulture recovery programme is generously supported by Boehringer Ingelheim.