Hope takes wings as vulture colonies thrive in Uttarakhand, by Anupma Khanna

The Pionner, October 5, 2009

In a major boost for environmentalists, vultures were sighted in Uttarakhand after the recent discovery of the near-extinct birds in Himachal Pradesh.

Over 150 vultures of five species can be found nesting and feeding at three locations around Ramnagar in Uttarakhand — Van Gujjar village of Tumeria, Ringora and Hatidagar. The three sites fall under two categories:

Regular nesting sites (Ringora and Tumeria): Vultures are consistently seen roosting and occupying nests throughout the year and these are likely to be important breeding sites;

Regular feeding sites (Hatidagar): Cattle carcasses are regularly left here and vultures feed on them.

Ringora is an “encroached” village with around 25 families on either side of NH-121, about thee km north of Ramnagar in Nainital district. Earlier, Ringora residents used to keep a large number of cattle. However, at a time when the natural scavengers suffer a population catastrophe triggered by medicines; at Ringora, Indian white-backed vultures are seen roosting virtually every day on four trees, all of which are large kadam (Adina Cordifolia) trees. In a monitoring research undertaken recently by a Corbett-based vulture conservation NGO, 235 white-backed vultures were recorded in 60 observations spread over a month. Vultures in groups of 15 or more are often sighted here.

Significantly, the slender-billed vulture (SBVs), which is even more threatened than the tiger in India, has also been roosting occasionally at Ringora. A captive breeding scheme in India, run by a coalition of conservation groups, including the Royal Society for Protection of Birds and the Zoological Society of London, has seen successful hatching and fledging of two slender-billed vultures for the first time this year. Given that there are just 1,000 slender-billed vultures left in the wild, even the five resident SBVs recorded by researchers is good news for conservationists. Besides, Cinereous or black vulture and red-headed vulture have also been spotted at Ringora.

The second colony borders Tumeria dam, 22.5 km south-west of Ramnagar in Udham Singh Nagar. It is a village of Van Gujjars with about 15 families. Their general attitude is quite pro-vulture and, interestingly, the village also has an old Government poster dating at least 10 years with information on Rajasthani vultures. Well-known for their large holdings of buffaloes, these Gujjars have herds of hundreds grazing in and around the reservoir.

The village is surrounded on three sides by degraded sal forest (Shorea Robusta) and on these trees can be seen large numbers of white-backed vultures and their nests. The villagers say the vultures have been constantly roosting in the village for a couple of years now.

According to Tumeria residents, around 40 vultures can be seen roosting after 4 pm just about every day. Corroborating it, Sumantha Ghosh of Corbett Tiger Reserve in interactions with The Pioneer recounted having observed 49 vultures on August 24 and 39 vultures on August 2 this year.

The vultures found at Tumeria roost in the upper canopy of the sal trees in the village and appear to nest within the approximate boundaries of the village. Forest officials attributed the presence of the very large number of vultures in the area to frequent presence of carcasses nearby.

The third location is a regular feeding site of the white-backed, Egyptian and slender-billed vultures. Hatidagar is a scattered village 9.2 km south-west of Ramnagar in Nainital. The place where these vultures are being sighted is not situated within the village, but is close to a gurdwara by the side of a drying riverbed, where cattle carcasses are regularly left. On July 23, 17 SBVs and 12 WBVs were recorded (the majority observed feeding on the remains of a carcass) and on August 24, 17 WBVs were present at this site.

Information from local naturalists indicates that the vultures have been frequenting this place regularly in the last couple of years. Both slender-billed and white-backed species appear to use the Bombax Ceiba trees, popularly known as cotton trees, as temporary roosting spots while there is food available at the site. With their breeding season at its peak starting October, dedicated monitoring and preservation of these vulture colonies must be taken up on priority; for their extinction is likely in the next 10 years. We do not have any time to waste.

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