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,
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.
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:
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