February 25, 2017

Vulture conservation at Bejjur, Telangana

I had written earlier about the fact that vultures are an endangered species in India and other parts of Asia. These posts can be found here and here. We had seen a wake* of vultures on a road trip across Himachal Pradesh in 2011, that gave us great happiness considering that by then we already knew that vultures were an endangered species. Actually, I remember seeing wakes of vultures feeding on carcasses here and there during my childhood, especially on the outskirts of a city or town while travelling by train. I also remember hating that sight, and thinking that they were scary, ugly and cruel-looking birds.

Today, I am writing the fourth blog post about vultures! What have we done to the world?

These cliffs are called Palarapu and the waterbody is called Peddavagu. They are located in the Bejjur forest, in Komaram Bheem Asifabad district, close to Kagaznagar in the northern part of Telangana, bordering Maharashtra. Apparently there were more than a hundred long billed vultures (Gyps indicus) here earlier, but owing to several reasons, the numbers dwindled. Some of the reasons, apart from deaths caused by feeding on diclofenac-injected cattle, were: water pollution because of effluents from Sirpur paper factory, lack of carcasses because most farmers sold their cattle away and never waited for them to die a natural death, and predators such as the peregrine and shaheen falcons.

This habitat was discovered in 2013. At that time, there were only about eight birds. The present count is about 24 adults and 6 chicks, taking the total to 30, which was very encouraging. When we went, we spotted three adults and one chick. Perhaps it was the time of the day - we reached the spot at about 11 am. If we had gone early in the morning, perhaps we would have seen more. The birds are up on the cliff, and are well camouflaged. It is therefore very difficult to spot them even through the binoculars. Here's a photo taken by S. Harpal Singh - The Hindu's Special Correspondent from Adilabad (full article here).

We met Mr M Ram Mohan, Bejjur Forest Range Officer, who is spearheading this effort along with Ravikanth Manchiryala, field biologist-researcher. He told us they did not want to open up this site for tourists because they would spoil the tranquil environment and that would not do the birds any good. They said that birdwatchers and people with a serious interest would be escorted to the site by the Forest Department. When we went, we were accompanied by the team, who set up a machan near Palarapu cliff. They have all the equipment to keep track of a record of the vulture numbers. The hatching of eggs and birth of every new chick is a reason for celebration, and encourages them to persist in this mission. It is a painstaking effort, but the conservation project now seems well established. 

As is done at other similar sites across India and elsewhere, there is a 'vulture restaurant' - basically a feeding site where carcasses are placed for the vultures to feed on. At first the vultures did not come to eat the animals placed there, but there was some success subsequently. This is what the site looks like -
The remains of a carcass at the feeding site
The area surrounding this is pristine and beautiful, proclaiming the absence of a certain intrusive species called homo sapiens. Peddavagu, which we had to wade through, to get to Palarapu, is clear and unpolluted, and eventually flows into the river Pranahita. You can see the Sahyadri mountain ranges from this spot - very dry at this time, but the trees of many shades made it look like a watercolour painting. 

Similar efforts have been on for much longer at the Chamorshi forests in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, about 70 km from Bejjur, and have been very successful, as mentioned in this report. 

Being in wilderness does great things to one's soul. A break from the city is always welcome! 

Our grateful thanks to Harpal Singh for his help and to the Bejjur Forest Department for considering us serious enough to be allowed into the jungle. I do hope that this mission is hugely successful, and that the vulture numbers continue to increase on the Palarapu cliff. 


*'wake' refers to a group of vultures that are feeding; 
'kettle = vultures in flight; 
'committee', 'volt' and 'venue = group of vultures resting in trees

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