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.