Life & Style

Salvaging a scavenger

Bharathidasan remembers seeing vultures in large numbers in his childhood. “Now, vulture sighting is very rare, except in The Nilgiris Biosphere,” he says. S. Bharathidasan is the secretary of Arulagam that works with vulture conservation in The Nilgiris Biosphere. He formed Arulagam in memory of his mentor “Arul” who is a conservationist.

He continues, “Vultures are often reviled for their appearance and its feeding behaviour. But it is these scavengers who do the work of cleaning up after death, and keeping the ecosystems healthy.”

In Tamil Nadu, one can still spot the Long-billed vulture, the Red-headed vulture, the White-backed vulture and the Egyptian vulture. “We need 600 pairs of vultures in each species to sustain a healthy population of the birds in South India. Right now, we have under 300, put together all the four species. The count of Red-headed vulture is less than 20 while the Long-billed ones are a little over 20 and the Egyptian vulture is less than 10 and the White-backed vulture is 200 plus.” Across India, nine species of vultures have been recorded. Of which, four are ‘critically endangered’ as per the IUCN Red list. “Our members sighted the migratory Cinereous Vulture in Kuluthuraipatti near Thengumarhada, and the Himalayan Griffon in Sirumugai,” says Bharathidasan.

Restoring the population is an uphill task, he says. “Vultures are slow breeders. We need long-term monitoring and continuous efforts. According to scientific studies, a veterinary non- steroidal anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac, administered to cattle, led to a catastrophic decline of vulture species in the South Asian region. Though diclofenac is banned, other equally harmful drugs still in use. Poison-laced carcasses also played a role in its decline. We have to work towards removing the harmful carcass from the vulture food chain.”

More on Arulagam
  • Bharathidasan won the ‘Biodiversity Hot Spot Hero’ by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), US., for his contribution towards vulture conservation and eco-restoration with indigenous tree species
  • Arulagam’s project on vulture conservation was selected for the best project award by the Oriental Bird Club (OBC), UK. and the March Conservation Fund of Tides Foundation, US
  • Arulagam is an associate partner in Saving Asia’s Vulture from Extinctions (SAVE) and a partner organisation in the Indian Bird Conservation Network (IBCN).
  • It plans to approach milk societies and set up ‘Wildlife-friendly Milk Society’ to eliminate harmful drugs from the vulture food chain and promote an organic, healthy maintenance of cattle in the Moyar region
  • Arulagam nursery stocks over 60 varieties of endemic and endangered plant species
  • The team went on a 500-km biking rally with TITA (Tiruppur Information Technology Association) starting from Tiruppur covering Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka to spread awareness on vulture conservation

Bharathidasan and his team tours from village to village recruiting volunteers who monitor local vulture communities (watching nests, counting breeding pairs and reporting any fatalities). As part of his awareness drives he has puppet shows that have become very popular. “We have completed 13 puppet shows in tribal hamlets. While the traditional puppet artists take inspiration from the Ramayana and use Jatayu to convey how vultures die because of poisoning, the second team of college students and teachers bring a contemporary, scientific approach and talk of the role of vultures in maintaining the balance in nature.” To reach out to the youth and rope in volunteers, they also conducted ‘Vulture Trophy Volleyball Tournament’.

Arulagam’s puppet show

Arulagam’s puppet show   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The team uses street theatre too. They have performed at over 150 villages in and around the Satyamangalam and Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. They motivate farmers to raise a healthy livestock and to leave safe carcass for the bird . “We sensitise local communities. We need a speedy mechanism to help cattle owners claim compensation for their losses. There has to be provisions for transporting the dead animals to the forest. This can mitigate man-animal conflicts, like pig menace at farms.”

The vultures have been given an image makeover by Arulagam . “ In Sangam literature and even now among the Irula tribals, vultures are called Paaru. We came up with ‘Naan thann Paaru Paesugiraen’ a recorded audio message campaign.

A Paaruvudan selfie cut out was placed at the Botanical Gardens in Ooty to spread the word among tourists. A carnival called Pals of Vulture was hosted at several schools. “We had specialists talking about science, physics and the chemistry of vultures, touching upon the birds’ keen eyesight, unbelievable flight capability, disease resistance, enormous appetite, their harmless nature, etc. Children got themselves tattoos of vulture and made vulture masks. We reached out to over 30000 students.” They also developed a game of paramapadham (Snakes and Ladders) on vulture conservation.

Recently, they initiated a vulture-friendly tree planting drive on the Moyar River banks in Sathyamangalam and Mudumalai Tiger Reserve to commemorate Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. “ Planting of 150 saplings of species like the towering marudha maram which vultures prefer most for nesting have been planned at 10 different locations by collaborating with the Forest Department.”

Bharathidasan is hopeful that the vultures will be back in large numbers, circling the blue skies. “A multi-dimension approach involving all the stakeholders will safeguard the species. A positive impact created by our campaign is a good beginning.”

How to save an injured bird

An injury, a chick’s first unsuccessful flight, or scorching heat might bring down the vulture from its nest

If you see a bird in distress, keep stray dogs away

Do not disturb the bird by photographing or taking selfies

Feed them if you must with only small pieces of meat dipped in water. Avoid sprinkling of water on them

Inform the nearest forest department offices Erode division- 0424 -2291876: Ooty - 0423 - 2444098; Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History Society: 094431-01589; Arulagam: 09843211772/ 0422 4346772, Visit: www.arulagam.org

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Printable version | Oct 30, 2020 11:53:41 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/s-bharatidasan-of-ngo-arulagam-spearheads-awareness-drives-on-vulture-conservation-at-the-nilgiris-biosphere/article29673208.ece

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