Late last year, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) held its World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, Hawaii. A dhoti-clad man walked up to collect an award for his work in saving vultures from extinction in the Mudumalai region of Tamil Nadu.
S. Bharathidasan, 45, started life as an organic farmer, got interested in birding and then, as his concern deepened, became a passionate conservationist. Now, for the past few years, he has been working to protect vultures from oblivion through his organisation, Arulagam.
The vulture is not a popular bird — it looks ugly with scrawny neck, long beak and bald head — and it feeds on carrion. To be a ‘vulture’ in popular parlance has always been a derogatory reference. In reality, the ecosystem would suffer if these scavengers, nature’s garbage workers, were lost.
Peninsular India has four species of vulture — the Indian, the white-backed, the red-headed, and the Egyptian vulture. (The last one, the smallest, is the fabled bird that used to regularly visit the temple at Thirukazhukundram near Chennai till about 50 years ago.)
Once abundant in India, the birds could be seen in flocks by the highway feeding on carcasses or soaring gracefully in the sky in circles, riding the spiralling thermals.
But suddenly their population plummeted. Birders noticed this and started looking into the cause. By the time they found the reason, the birds had been pushed to the very edge of extinction. Scientists zeroed in on the veterinary drug Diclofenac, a cattle painkiller, as the culprit. The residues of the medicine in cattle carcasses affected the kidneys of the vultures, and they perished in large numbers.
The ecosystem will suffer if these scavengers, nature’s garbage workers, are lost.
In just 15 years, 99% of the bird population was gone. The pace at which the vulture was hurtling towards extinction in India was much faster than that of the dodo, and could only be compared to the equally rapid disappearance of passenger pigeons in North America.
After a long campaign, the Bombay Natural History Society and other agencies managed to get Diclofenac banned. But by then, the damage had been done: vultures disappeared not just from India but all of South Asia. BirdLife International lamented the “ecological disaster occurring in Asia”.
Bharathidasan noticed a small relict population of Indian vultures nesting in a cliff in the Moyar valley of Mudumalai in the Nilgiris. He realised the importance of his find and started his conservation campaign. He worked with the forest officials, persuading them not to bury the carcasses of elephants or gaur found in the forest but to leave them as feed for the vultures.
He interacted with the forest-dwellers to prevent forest fires and taught them not to disturb the nesting birds. He worked with vets and conducted workshops for pharmacists. He created innovative games to teach children the interconnections in nature. He even conducts a volleyball tournament to create awareness among schools in the Nilgiris. Simultaneously, he is fighting the makers of Diclofenac in court, as they want the ban lifted.
Meanwhile, a captive breeding centre has been set up in Pinjore in Haryana, a method of fighting species extinction that has produced a few success stories, notably with the Oryx in the deserts around Dubai and the Nene geese in the volcanic islands of Hawaii.
In the last century, we saw the cheetah go extinct in these parts, not so far from the home of the vulture. With efforts such as Bharathidasan’s, it is tempting to hope there is still time to save this magnificent bird.
S. Theodore Baskaran, nature writer, is the author of The Dance of the Sarus .