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A Penchant for the Wild

Traversing through the four-lane highways from Nagpur feels quite unusual. Especially if you belong to the kuchha roads of India, or have travelled the beleaguered roads long enough to remember the coordinates of the potholes on what was once pukka. When I travelled through this exact same road as a kid, I felt the road. It was just a busy single-lane strip of tar meant for to-and-fro traffic, and we lumbered across craters that are probably the reason why slipped discs are so common in India, until we reached a ghat that bent gracefully, offering us verdant views of Central India’s ancient Satpuda Ranges. A few more miles ahead lies Pench Tiger Reserve, a lesser-known stronghold of tigers and countless other life-forms of India.
On the way to Pench National Park
Lovingly called Pench or Mowgli’s Land, this tiger reserve lies in the hills and valleys of the central Indian highlands, surrounded by a sea of agricultural fields and human settlements, save a narrow channel up north that carves around its own path to join the much larger Kanha Tiger Reserve like an umbilical cord. My journey to this land as a child was solely to see wild animals, and we reaped the rewards of enduring a painstaking tour through the old road only in Pench. I distinctly remember sitting on top of an elephant, probably over four-decades old, thumping on the forest floor through dense thickets to a spot where a family of tigers sat for an afternoon siesta after a wholesome meal. And I remember a vulture that took off from a bare Teak tree as our fuel-guzzling Sumo approached. And I also remember the pains the earnest Forest Guards and Nature Guides took to show us what we were here for. It was my first ever visit to a National Park and a Tiger Reserve along with my family.
On a nature trail with the Nature Guides of Pench
More than ten years later, I had the opportunity to spend a week in the lap of Pench, where I met, talked, and walked with a wonderful group of people keenly and deeply interested in the biodiversity and conservation of their forests. I was a part of The Corbett Foundation’s team, and during our sojourn in Pench, we interacted, shared information, and learned a legion of things from the Nature Guides of the Tiger Reserve.
A Jungle Babbler hunting for crickets
We were stationed at a really old rest house at Karmajhiri Gate, the same place I had visited as a kid, and we trod on one of the finest kuchha roads in the black of the night and light of the morning star, seeing Chital, signs of tigers, and owls wearily watching us move.
A path through the Teak forests of Pench
Having spent a year roaming Kanha’s wilderness, I was deeply curious to explore the Teak (Tectona grandis) forests of Pench – those broad-leaved, translucent, half-eaten trees emerging from a bed of the most lush green grass that I have ever seen. This forest and its inhabitants reminded me of the forests of the Sahyadri, particularly the dry-deciduous regions of escarpments, and the golden-green light that bathed the ground from noon to evening was reminiscent of spring time in the Carolinian forests of Canada.
Light filtering through the Teak forests of Pench
I believe I share a bond of some sort with Teak trees that is different from my bond with Sal trees. While I look at Sal trees and the forests they dominate as mighty and a little intimidating, although in a sort of a way that awakens awe and praise, Teak trees with their small stature feel homely, for I have seen them almost throughout my life, and they remind me of the little time I’ve spent in westward forests.
A Common  Rose puddling along the banks of Pench River
This training-session was to serve as a refresher course to Nature Guides, and emerged as a great learning experience for me. We talked a lot about insects and spiders, and snakes and frogs, trees and mammals, and the forests and all its inhabitants and their roles. And we walked through the old Teak plantations of Pench, through tall grass following tiger pugmarks, and stalked butterflies on our knees on riverbeds.
Pench River, after which the Pench National Park and Tiger Reserve is named
Nature Guides are the torchbearers of conservation and are a vital link between people and nature. Nature has entrusted them with knowledge, as an accolade for their years of experience, both cultural as well as natural. The job of Nature Guides is to inform people about the biodiversity of a place, entertain them with all sorts of information – from a little spider to a mighty tiger, and at the same time ensure that they cause minimum disturbance while passing through forests. They bear the burden of a researcher and a manager, and they bear the brunt of economic and social requirements of their families.
Pench is said to have the highest density of Chital deer than any Tiger Reserve
Most of the Nature Guides from India come from local communities living around Protected Areas. And although it is a great opportunity for employment and also ensures their participation in wildlife conservation by creating public awareness, their lives are very different from what they share with tourists who have rarely ever visited forests before during their brief safari rides. And what they live with and experience near a forested area can be startlingly contrary to what they speak about.
A mother Sloth Bear with her two cubs
Living with animals such as the tigers, leopards, bears and the deer raiding your cattle and your crop for years evokes a feeling that is very different from that of awe and wonder. Nature Guides, who may be facing damages from wild animals, have to often suppress this feeling to evoke feelings of excitement and thrill amongst tourists to spot the tigers and deer. And that job, I think, is the most difficult, for it is in deep conflict with their emotions. I however think that this also shows a strong connection and commitment towards nature and its conservation, for if the measure of resentment towards wildlife was higher amongst these people, we wouldn’t have had such a strong and dedicated team of Nature Guides with us. And this fills me with hope.
Two mother Northern Plains Langurs with their infants
If you would like to visit Pench Tiger Reserve, here are two links you can go through:
Pench National Park (Madhya Pradesh): www.penchnationalpark.com
Pench Tiger Reserve facebook page: www.facebook.com/penchtrmp?ref=ts&fref=ts

If you would like to know more about the work of The Corbett Foundation, visit www.corbettfoundation.org and www.facebook.com/thecorbettfoundation
Edited by Janhavi Rajan

The Plight of India's Vultures

First Saturday of September is celebrated as International Vulture Awareness Day (www.vultureday.org; it was celebrated on September 6, 2014 this year) to raise awareness concerning vultures, and especially their threateningly declining numbers. An article exploring the rapid decline of vultures of India was published in The Hitavada’s Insight supplement, which I am reproducing here with some elaborations. You can read the online version here or here.

Insight, The Hitavada
Sunday, September 7, 2014
The Plight of India’s Vultures
When was the last time you saw a vulture soaring high in the sky? We asked every forest guard and every villager we met as we traversed through the forest villages of Kanha Tiger Reserve, and their answers were all exactly the same: many, many years ago. Only a handful of forest guards see vultures soaring in the skies today, and all of them mostly in the core-zone of Kanha Tiger Reserve, far from any human interventions where they feed on carcasses of wild animals. However, these numbers too have drastically dwindled compared to what was two decade ago.
A White-rumped Vulture (Gyps benghalensis) soars over the meadows of Kanha
Villagers recall instances of seeing hundreds of vultures on their village peripheries over a decade ago, especially in places where carcasses of dead livestock animals were dumped. Today, there are none, and the carcasses remain there rotting under the sun, attracting a number of other aggressive scavengers like feral dogs, and these spots have become potential breeding grounds for harmful bacteria. People across the country may not remember vultures very fondly, but we are beginning to miss them terribly.

The declining populations of vultures of the Indian subcontinent came to the notice of the world around the early 1990s, and as further research was undertaken, a grim picture came to the forefront: that the vulture extermination was not caused by any contagious disease, but by a medicine created by man for treating livestock.
A lone Long-billed Vulture (Gyps indicus) from Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve
Within a decade about 99% of Gyps Vulture populations crashed, with as much as 99.9% of White-rumped Vulture, and 99% of Slender-billed and Long-billed Vulture populations dying off at an unstoppable pace across the Indian subcontinent. The sole cause of their extermination was found to be a Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug (NSAID) diclofenac sodium, a painkiller commonly used to treat livestock (Shultz et al., 2004). It is toxic to vultures, affecting their kidneys and resulting in dehydration, renal gout, and kidney failure within 24 hours of consuming carcasses treated with the drug. Scientists recorded hauntingly depressing scenes of trees full of ailing vultures, with their necks drooping – a forewarning of their terrible fate. Experts warned that vulture extinction was imminent unless diclofenac was banned and stringent conservation measures were put in place.

The effects of man-made medicines on wild animals and birds are little understood, and the tragedy of India’s vultures serves as a wake-up call to the entire world. It exposed the lack of knowledge and awareness about the effects man-made drugs and other compounds may have on animals. The furor about diclofenac led scientists to study other related compounds, such as aceclofenac and ketoprofen, which are now proven to affect vultures negatively as well. A recent study has also conclusively proven that diclofenac affects eagles in much the same way as vultures (RSPB media release, May 2014).
The White-rumped Vultures was said to be the most common bird-of-prey,
now it is one of the Critically Endangered species.
Vulture extermination opened a large lacuna in one of the most important ecological functions, that of efficient disposal of dead animals. As their populations declined, feral dogs and crows, which are primarily synanthropes, took over the empty niche left behind by vultures. Dogs and crows are two extremely adaptable opportunist scavengers, whose populations remained in control with the dominance of vultures at carcass dumping sites. Today, the roles are reversed. Their populations grew, and unlike vultures that seldom ever live in human settlements, dogs returned to their human abodes now even more aggressive, and brought with them bits and pieces of rotting flesh which can pollute waters and spread harmful diseases. Studies have shown a significant increase in rabies cases and feral dog populations as vulture populations have declined (Markandya et al., 2008).

The only safest alternative proven to have no side-effects on vultures is meloxicam (Swarup et al., 2006), another NSAID which was promoted after the ban on the veterinary use of diclofenac imposed by the Government of India in 2006. However, it is almost twice costlier than diclofenac, making it difficult to be accepted for regular veterinary use. What further compounds to this problem is that diclofenac is readily available for human use, and large vials are still sold over-the-counter, making them easily accessible at a much cheaper rate for their misuse in treating livestock (Cuthbert et al., 2011).
Four of nine vulture species of India are as critical as the tiger
Today, vultures are as threatened as the tiger, and are given the same status of protection as the latter. Where we’re lacking in knowledge is that we do not know where our remaining vultures have vanished. Are they eating diclofenac-free carcasses, are they breeding well, or are they still dying out – are some questions that largely remain unknown. But what has been done in the last decade to bring back the vultures, the kings of our skies, is nothing short of astonishing. A number of governmental and non-governmental initiatives have been undertaken. Captive breeding programmes at Haryana, West Bengal, Assam, and recently in Bhopal, have been established by institutions like the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and the Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB), and the respective Forest Departments. Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE), a consortium of like-minded organizations and individuals working for conservation of vultures, have come up with a protocol for setting-up Vulture Safe Zones (VSZ), where it is ensured that an area of at least 30,000 sq. km around villages and known vulture roosting and feeding sites is kept free of any traces of diclofenac through active participation of local communities.

New challenges lie ahead, and there are many more miles to tread before we start seeing substantial results. Policy interventions to phase out diclofenac are crucial in addition to ex situ conservation to ensure the long-term protection of vultures. In order to reach out to the citizens of the country, the first Saturday of every September is celebrated as International Vulture Awareness Day, and as more and more people become aware of the plight of India’s vultures, scientists are now more optimistic about effectuating a radical change in the conservation of this bird we fondly remember as Jatayu from the Ramayana. And as new batches of captive-bred vultures fly free to reclaim their original habitats, mankind has proved that what has been done can indeed be undone (also read Prakash et al., 2012). And with consolidated efforts, vultures can reign over our skies once again.

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As a part of The Corbett Foundation’s initiative for vulture conservation and awareness, we have published posters on vultures of Kanha Tiger Reserve in English and Hindi, as well as on vultures of India in English and Hindi, with translations in other languages on their way. These posters are the efforts of the researchers, organizations, and photographers who have contributed for awareness of vultures. If you are keen on obtaining these posters, do write to me.
Posters on vultures are an effective way of spreading awareness across schools, institutions, and masses.
These posters are created by The Corbett Foundation with the help of various contributors.