Seeing all of India's vultures

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2010-05-20

When I was very little, we lived in a house in Alipore (near Calcutta) where we used to see (and smell!) many vultures, and I never outgrew my fascination for these huge birds. Now, many years later, I consider myself very fortunate to have seen every species of vulture that occurs in India, because these birds that used to be everywhere are now critically endangered, and may be on the verge of extinction.

The introduction of Diclofenac (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) for veterinary use in the late 1990s was responsible for a catastrophic decline of vultures in India and Pakistan. The drug, ingested through the carcasses of livestock, causes renal failure in vultures. The veterinary use of Diclofenac was eventually banned (but is still prevalent, because the alternative drugs are more expensive), but 99.9% of the population—tens of millions of birds—was already gone by 2008.

Vultures play a critical role in the ecology, and their sudden absence will mean—at the very least—that rotting carcasses pose a much greater risk to human health than before. There are many vulture conservation efforts across south Asia now, including captive breeding programmes in India and vulture restaurants in Nepal and Cambodia. Some of these have had promising results, and there is some reason for hope. Nevertheless, I find it terrifying that such a common bird has been all but wiped out, not just within my own lifetime, but in a single decade.

This post is about all the vultures I've seen.

The species

The species worst affected by Diclofenac are the White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis, Long-Billed Vulture Gyps indicus, Slender-billed Vulture Gyps tenuirostris (which was considered a subspecies of indicus, but was recently shown to merit full species status), and the Red-headed Vulture Sarcogyps calvus. These species are all restricted to south Asia.

The Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus, the largest bird of prey in the world, is a scarce winter visitor to north-west India, where it's treated with respect by the other vultures, and always has first pick of every carcass. It faces a number of threats throughout its vast range, extending from Spain to Korea, and has become especially rare in Europe. The Eurasian Griffon Gyps fulvus also has a range that extends to Europe and north Africa, and is found in small numbers across north and north-west India. It, too, has suffered a decline in many parts of its range. The closely related Himalayan Griffon Gyps himalayensis, which is only slightly smaller than the Cinereous Vulture, is common everywhere in the Himalayas.

Two other species that are lumped with the vultures: the Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier Gypaetus barbatus, whose range extends westwards to Europe and North Africa, is one of the rarest raptors in Europe, but still relatively common in the Himalayas. The Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus used to be very common, but has also suffered a decline in recent years.

Here are links to photographs of each species on OBI:

The sightings

I saw hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of vultures while I was growing up in West Bengal. After I moved to Delhi in 1993, I did not see a vulture for many years, until I learned to recognise Himalayan Griffons on my visits to the Himalayas. (I also began to see a few Egyptian Vultures outside Delhi around the same time.)

I see Himalayan Griffons every time I go to the mountains, and I find it very relaxing to watch them soaring high above. As they come in to land, their wing feathers make a loud rattling noise, and until you see them at that range, it's easy to forget that their wingspan is usually wider than many mountain roads. In the higher mountains, I've also seen the narrower-winged and heavily-bearded Lammergeiers fairly often.

I first saw Long-billed Vultures in Orchha in the monsoon of 2008. There is a small breeding colony there, which roost on the domes of the many temples there. I saw a distant Red-headed Vulture en route to Munsiari in December 2005. Next year, on a trip to the Morni hills in northern Haryana, I saw a family of three (two adults and one juvenile) hovering kestrel-like above a valley. I have not seen them since.

While returning from a trip to Sat Tal in 2009, I almost drove past a huge congregation of vultures in a field near Corbett without noticing them. There I saw dozens of Himalayan Griffons, a few Eurasian Griffons (which I may have seen in flight earlier, but which I was able to conclusively identify only when I saw them on the ground next to the larger and paler Himalayan Griffons), my first Cinereous and Slender-billed Vultures, and a few White-rumped Vultures.

I wonder if Ammu's children will ever see such a large congregation of vultures.