Barefoot Notes: Where are Kanha's vultures?

It is the coldest day of the year. I’m riding with Omprakash on his motorbike scanning for signs of one of Kanha’s enigmatic species – other than the tiger – the vultures. And there are none to be seen. We are scanning the Kanhari beat as three other teams scan different areas of Kanha known for their vulture populations. A beat is a small unit of a range, but it can be large enough for a team to explore within a few hours; and we have only two of those.

It is .7 degrees below zero, and the grass is white as bone. The frost grows on it like fungus, crippling the movement of Kanha’s singing grasslands and turning them into silent tombstones. I am cold and cursing myself for not bringing hand gloves along as my breath turns to clouds.

Our beat adjoins Kanha, from which the tiger reserve gets its name. It is one of the first villages to be relocated outside the park. Since then Kanha has seen a dramatic land use change. Agricultural fields gave birth to grasslands, and sal trees grew taller. Kanha turned into a large mosaic of grasslands and sal forests, and the old roads that connected the village now cross over these maidans, and enter the minarets of sal, and meander through and over small streams that arise from the rolling hills.

We’re exploring a small waterhole and a saltlick site for signs of vultures. Two jackals cross our paths – they raise their heads to see us, and scuttle away in annoyance – who likes to move on that frost-ridden grass anyway?

The bund that separates the waterhole from the saltlick acts as a vantage for this wetland-cum-grassland. We stand and glue the binoculars to our eyes, scanning the tall stumps of old sal trees that drowned when this waterhole was created. They visit here regularly, Omprakash says. There are none. The waterhole is too big to be called a pond, but is smaller than a lake. The mist rising from it shimmers like dust of gold, and the sal wraiths cast long, ominous shadows over the still waters.

There are no vultures. But this place is not void – it is teeming with a flock of what looked like Common Teal and Northern Pintails wading in the ice-cold waters. The Indian Cormorants and Pond Herons and Egrets are perched, wings tightly held, on the sal stumps. It is cold.

We decide to explore other parts of Kanhari – a name that gave Kanha its title. Kanhari is the name of the ochre river sand rich in mica – it shimmers under the noon sun, and is an ideal type of soil for sal forests to flourish. The trees are tall in this part of the beat, and the dead ones stand out like islands in a sea of leaves – some died of old age, some because of the sal-borer beetle.

The piles of dead grass are heaviest with frost, their graves appear bluish white, whereas the frost on the living grasses carries a faint green or brown tint. I wonder why that is – perhaps the life that pulsates timidly inside those that live is keeping them warm just enough to stop them from freezing over? Most of the times though my eyes are up in the canopy, especially up among those tree islands favoured by vultures to roost in.

Just as we come up from the Desi nullah, I see something on a tree, and ask Omprakash to stop. The cold morning breeze has made my face numb. I am barely able to form words. Giddh? I ask, and see through the binoculars. Ibis! I say to myself. No! A Black Stork! I say out loud. They look a lot like white-rumped vultures when they sit hunched on trees. From there on we saw nine of them on trees and near waterholes. There is still not a single vulture in sight.

We take a pause on a gentle climb to check the horizon. A flock of pipits scamper over the maidan at our approach. And what is that, asked Omprakash, perhaps to pique interest. I figured that uttering pipit with one’s mouth numb and heavy with cold is the hardest. And I repeated it thrice to get it right myself, because he just couldn’t understand what I was trying to say, and I finally spelled each alphabet one by one – and he said yes,  that’s better, because spellings cannot change.

We improvise. We start following the direction the Jungle Crows are going in to get a hint of where the kill is – they’re headed westwards beyond our beat, some are headed towards the sun, and some seem to be literally flapping their wings from treetop to treetop but getting nowhere – perhaps they’re trying to warm up to the rising sun?

Then we hear alarm calls of chital, and we decide to investigate. But the calls soon disappear, and all that remains is a faint mist rising from the grasses. They were here! Omprakash says, his face showing a hint of exasperation.  Were they not? He even asked to gain reassurance.

I wanted to touch the frost all this while, and after three winters, to really assure myself that it is ice, I rub my finger against a grass blade. Tiny ice crystals stick to my finger, and I press them between two. It’s solid! It was ice all along, and no powdered dust. Imagine walking through a blanket of frost on a carpet of grass barefooted. No wonder the animals weren’t moving. Even the birds like the Shikra and the Crested Serpent Eagle did not budge when we walked beneath them – and I walked on the frost, Omprakash leading the way, straining to listen to the subtle crumbling sounds – but I walked wearing shoes – and my eyes barely left the skies.

Then, when it became warm enough to get my hands out of the gloves which Manish so kindly lent to me, the microphone buzzed. It was time we reported. I came back relentlessly exclaiming wherever, after all, are Kanha’s vultures!

I have been asking this question to many people living in and around Kanha for the past two years. They all say the same: a long, long time ago. It is not surprising to see no vultures around carcasses of domestic animals anymore – they all were a victim to diclofenac sodium and a number of other compounding effects. In fact carcasses of domestic animals itself are hard to spot nowadays.

[Read The Plight of India’s Vultures, written in September 2014 on the occasion of International Vulture Awareness Day]

The vultures are far too less to come by in a single day. My friend saw several nesting pairs, and another team saw several more – some have seen as many as 20 together along the northern fringes of Kanha – but these numbers are far below of what used to be. And the question still remains, but what’s also important is the consequences of such low populations – the feral dog population is on the rise, their attacks on wild animals like chital and langur is on the rise, and the risk of the Canine Distemper Virus infection getting transferred from feral dogs to tigers and other carnivores haunts conservationists. And all of this, I think, somewhere leads us to the question: where are Kanha’s vultures; and if they aren’t here, what do we do to bring them back.

The one-day census we were involved with is a part of a larger project of the Government of Madhya Pradesh, headed by IIFM (Bhopal) which should provide answers as well as solutions to the vulture depletion crisis we are facing today.

On the way back we traversed the silent paths of Kanha, Kisli, and Mukki, and were amazed to see the spread of the Bauhinia lianas covering entire hillsides, giant Katang bamboo groves flowering amass, a lone single-antelered Barasingha I think I had photographed two years before, and, at last, a lone white-rumped vulture riding the air that was slowly warmed by the rising sun. There it is.

Three Seasons

That yellow tint to leaves is forlorn. It is sad to see them shrivel, shiver, and fall off. I’m standing in front of a line of bamboo islands I’ve been watching for three winters. The cold January breeze helps them shuffle and shed their green coat – it is time, it whispers as it blows the leaves away onto the hardened ground. They say winters of Kanha are the shortest. But I found that we age faster in winter. Kanha’s winters are louder because of the rustling leaves, and the sound picks pace as the seasons age.

The longest is summer that proceeds winters with such subtlety that you don’t realise it advance like the winter – winter grips you through your bones, summers are hard to comprehend. No one — man or woman — feels an angel when the hot weather is approaching, stated Rudyard Kipling in the classic Plain Tales from the Hills. And it remains, and lingers, and makes one endure, or yearn, for a better season.

Then it happens, the sky bursts under pressure, rain tears through the clouds, lightening splits the horizon, and the bereaved ground is kissed. A cloak of green, dark and thick, shrouds Kanha’s landscape – the streams trickle to rivers, and a network of vessels breathes new life.

But Kanha, all through the three seasons, never really dies. Its ebbs and flows, pulsates high and low, breathes in deep, exhales long. It does not become still except for a moment in between the seasons when you feel time stop still, suddenly there is a profusion of flowers, or insects, or vegetation, and you feel the rawness in it, fearful and overwhelming at the same time.

Three winters are too short to learn of Kanha’s secrets. And observing this wilderness not only through the eyes of an outsider, but as a dweller of this place, among the people, among insects and spiders, reptiles, birds, and mammals, is the only way to decipher the secrets of nature – to see it, smell it, hear it, feel it, touch it, love it, fear it, dream it, to let it consume your body and soul, is the key to understanding nature.

In the past three seasons I could explore a bit of three different landscapes – the Garhwal Himalayas, the flatlands of Kutch, and the granite stone hills of Hampi, along with the central Indian highlands where I dwell. All these ecosystems are facing anthropogenic pressures – all of a different sort, but all with surprisingly similar solutions.

I’m looking back at the previous year with curiosity. It seems to be full of pessimism, of dying landscapes like grasslands, forgotten giants like elephants and tigers, of the disbelief that our forests are endless, of how all these dreadful scenarios are the result of our reign on Earth; but I also found solace in the company of a tree, in rescuing a bird and see it fly free, in rehabilitating several snakes, and in looking into the eyes of spiders as well as tigers. Here’s a look at the last year’s journey with fellow travellers, friends, and loved ones. Some already featured on Sahyadrica, some are new, but all of them are frozen memories that taught me something I’d never forget.

Wishing you all a very Happy New Year!
January | Sunset over Kanha
Kanha Tiger Reserve
The sun has set over this horizon for eons; the hills and the fields in the foreground belong to a cluster of villages that are seeing a humongous surge in modernization through technology. This habitat today is still home to the tiger.
January | Teach them young
Kanha Tiger Reserve
A group of curious students look keenly at the fresh scat of a tiger being dissected by Mr Khan, a nature guide of Kanha. Local residents are clueless to what Kanha really is about, and this is one of the sole opportunities for students and teachers to really get to know the natural richness of the place they call home.
February | Indian paradise flycatcher
Kanha Tiger Reserve
A post-winter visitor of Kanha, the paradise flycatchers are rather commonly seen flittering in the early evening hours during the months of February to April, dancing as they impress females and catch flying insects.
February | A pollen powdered make-up
Kanha Tiger Reserve (read more)
The months of February and March are sort of in-between seasons, a combination of spring as well as autumn. By the look on the faces of this Greater Racket-tailed Drongo pair, they seem to have fed contently on the large saucer-shaped flowers of the Semal and then moved onto this Palash tree in full bloom.
March | Hailstones
Kanha Tiger Reserve
A freak pre-summer storm turned violent one warm March day, raining hail over a vast area of Kanha, damaging winter crops ready for harvest, and shedding flowers of the summer trees.
March | A Barasingha
Kanha Tiger Reserve
A bold Barasingha stag peers on as we pass through a meadow. Recervus duvauceli branderi, the only subspecies found in Kanha, was successfully relocated to Satpuda Tiger Reserve by the Forest Department of the Government of Madhya Pradesh in 2015.
April | Two sides of the same coin
Corbett Tiger Reserve (read more)
Forests and agricultural fields, although at odds since man learnt to plough land, are sources of direct livelihood for a majority of India’s populations – and the interface between the two, as seen here in Corbett Tiger Reserve, needs to be as porous as possible.
April | Indian cabbage white
Corbett Tiger Reserve
A small Pierid butterfly of the north, the Indian cabbage white is among my first butterflies that deepened my interest in insects – by identifying it wrong! Light pierces the waxy wings of this individual as it seeks shelter among the ripe wheat heads.
May | Shades of blue
Kanha Tiger Reserve (read more)
A bird fond of perching on electricity wires alongside agricultural fields, the Indian Roller is a lesser-known farmer’s friend. This close-up of the primaries belongs to a rescued fledgling which took to wing as soon as its torn feathers grew back.
May | A sleeping spider
Kanha Tiger Reserve (read more)
A young jumping spider, Phintella sp. appeared to be sleeping every time I switched off the torch. As I turned it on, it scrambled up its web and sat under the leaf, but after a while it again climbed halfway down by a thin line and lied still – certainly a comfortable and a safe position to rest in.
June | A cloudburst
Kanha Tiger Reserve
The hot and humid air of the month of June suddenly announces the arrival of monsoon – a horde of dark clouds and a clamour of lightening serve as the ultimate intro of any music ever composed. This year, however, the rainfall was scarce, but just enough to reap rice.
June | The Hymenopterans
Kanha Tiger Reserve (read more)
A potter wasp defends her mud-nest from a parasitic cuckoo wasp which intends to lay eggs on the nest of the potter so that her offspring feed on the food collected by the potter wasp. In this fight, the cuckoo wasp succeeded in laying several eggs on the nest.
July | A flower visitor
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Compared to the well known pollinators such as the bees, butterflies, and birds, flies are the least appreciated – in fact least appreciated insects in almost all aspects – in the world. A Rhiniid fly sits quietly nibbling on the pollen of a garden lily.
July | A spineless pursuer
Kanha Tiger Reserve
A Phorid fly is a parasitic fly, stealing food, spoiling food, and even laying eggs in dead and living tissue of other animals – it is also one of the most diverse insects alive today. A small individual rests on the back of a giant forest millipede to lay eggs on a small wound on its back.
August | The largest of them all
Kanha Tiger Reserve (read more)
This giant daintily took its position up a tree stump when we were informed by people of a large aajgar (a python in Hindi) lurking in the backyard of a village. Rescuing this six feet individual, six feet above ground was no easy feat – but seeing it slither back into the forests away from the harm humans can cause the snake was rewarding.
August | The smallest of them all
Kanha Tiger Reserve
A Brahminy Blind Snake, all of 8 centimetres from head to tail, was observed during a forest restoration activity – these small snakes are the predators of the undergrowth, feeding on invertebrates and rarely, if ever, emerging to the surface.
September | Rousettus leschnaultii
Kanha Tiger Reserve
A small frugivorous bat of Kanha, they’re silent winged and rather shy than their larger cousins the Indian flying fox. One individual here clings comfortably to a bunch of bananas hung intentionally for bats to feed on. Frugivorous bats are crucial seed dispersers of forests.
September | Rhinolophus pusilus
Kanha Tiger Reserve
A small insectivorous bat of Kanha, they feed on a multitude of flying insects – and especially nocturnal moths and mosquitoes, providing us with a silent service of pest control. They dwell in traditional houses which provide them with plenty of places to roost in, but they are also being silently eradicated as houses are replaced by the new, stone-cold cement structures.
October | Bhima
Kanha Tiger Reserve (read more)
Individual tigers today are being increasingly baptized. This trend, although inconspicuous and unconscious, marks the beginning of a rather different era of tiger conservation in India – it is not restricted to tiger as a species, but has now become more individual-centric, which could, I think, lead to bias in protection measures to non-descript individuals.
October | Nameless
Hampi, Karnataka (read more)
The halls of Hampi, a world heritage site in Karnataka, is full of stories carved unto stone, some of them of shikar. They depict people on elephants and horses hunting what appear to be tigers – nameless and faceless – with a spear. The feelings in this (nearly) 500 year old carving and in our generation of seeing a tiger are somewhat similar, albeit vastly different in context.
November | Winds of change
Kutch, Gujarat (read more)
A tern turns in the wind at the wetlands of Kutch. Wind is considered as one of the solutions to our energy problems, and many flatlands and bald mountains are being converted into wind farms to harvest its power. However, some are also protesting against such farms especially because of the damage they do to birds such as cranes, vultures, flamingos, and many others.
November | An accident or a murder
Kutch, Gujarat
As power-lines spin a trap of heavy-duty metal wires over our heads, birds crash into them and fall lifeless on the ground. A greater short-toed lark lies still on a mudflat after such an incidence.
December | A curious toddler
Sanjay Gandhi National Park
What went on in his head as our eyes met, I wondered. Obviously he was wondering if we had anything for him to eat, but that little one-eyed gaze seemed to be saying something more we could not understand.
December | Nature protects
Sanjay Gandhi National Park
A view of Mumbai’s ever growing skyline as seen from Kanheri caves. The way the trees appear to frame the skyline is no coincidence – nature extends its protective arms all around us, buffering us from harm – but how long can it protect us like this if we’re the one ready to break that frame?