Conservationist H Byju writes why vultures are indispensable to bio-diversity in his book

Vultures in roosting   | Photo Credit: H Byju

“Picture this,” he says. “Layers and layers of misty hills, dense with greenery, ...and a river.” Photographer H Byju is describing the dramatic Moyar Gorge, one of the oldest gorges in Peninsular India, carved out of the Moyar River in the Nilgiris Biosphere of the Western Ghats. “It is here I saw the vultures for the first time,” he recollects. His new book, Valley of Hope—Moyar and Vultures, published by Don Books, Kottayam in Kerala, captures his expeditions in the Moyar Valley as he tracked nesting vultures for over two years. Byju is a part of the Vulture Conservation Working Group - South India. He is a core member of vulture studies in Mudumalai and Satyamangalam Tiger Reserves that fall under the Nilgiris Biosphere. “The Moyar Gorge dates back to 2.5 billion years and maximum depth is 260 metres. Did you know that the Moyar Valley is the only place South of Vindhyas where a viable reproductive population of vultures are breeding naturally and thereby protected from going extinct?” he asks.

H Byju

H Byju   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Rendezvous in the wild
  • The book recreates his special moments in the wild. Once, he witnessed live, a pack of wild dogs, about 30 of them, attacking a spotted deer. And, he also spotted a tiger for the first time in his 20 years of trekking where he has been to over 90 wildlife reserves across India. “ I saw a tiger in the wild. Four of them,” he says without hiding his joy. “We were in one of the core areas of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. The air was nippy. As I sipped my black coffee taking in the breathtaking view of the morning landscape, a majestic tiger with three of her cubs walked into the frame. It was an unforgettable moment.”
  • Byju participates in forest surveys in Kerala and Tamil Nadu regularly. One of his major projects was an all India campaign on road kills, named PATH ( Provide Animals safe Transit on Highways) as the co-ordinator. He and his team covered 23000 kms in 43 days by road creating awareness along the way at schools, colleges, forest reserves and sanctuaries.
  • The book is available at book stores in Kerala and will soon be available online. You can buy a copy at https://imjo.in/hh8jvV or e-mail: byjuhi@gmail.com

In his book, Byju narrates how just a few decades ago, thousands of vultures circled the sky over these forest ranges. “Now, the numbers have dwindled to just 200 or 300. Of this. Ninety per cent of the population is that of the White-rumped vultures and the remaining is the Red-headed vulture and the Long-billed or the Indian vulture. We traced the history of the Moyar Valley landscape and rebuilt it by understanding traditional wisdom and knowledge from tribals who lived there. This, in an effort to protect the existing population and arrest further decline.” The Valley also attracted vagrant species like Cinereous vulture, the Egyptian vulture and the Himalayan griffon that came all the way from The Himalayas and North of India.

White-rumped vulture

White-rumped vulture   | Photo Credit: H Byju

Byju heard stories of the vultures and what they meant to the indigenous people.Some believe that the Egyptian Vulture ( that resembles a common crow) as the moodadiyar (their ancestors) who come down to bless them. The Todas call the Red-head vulture or the King vulture poosari kazhugu that breaks open the carcass with its strong beaks for the other vultures to feast on.

“Maari, a 60-year-old tribal from Bhoothanatham Village reminisces about the 100s of vultures that he saw in his boyhood coming to feed on dead cattle that villagers left in the open. There were rows of cattle pens in Mudumalai and Satyamangalam forests remembers Nanjan from Moyar. Things changed, learnt Byju, when cattle was banned from the forests in the 1970s. Krishnan from Theppakad hamlet in Mudumalai reconstructed how the landscape, the grassland that was once open with only intermittent trees was now overgrown with weeds and tigers, leopards and dholes hid their kill in the bush. The carcass was no longer visible to the vultures and the lack of food drove them away. “ I wanted to document all these fascinating stories and that led me to write the book.”

Moyar Valley

Moyar Valley   | Photo Credit: H Byju

There are scientific studies on how a veterinary non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac, administered to cattle, proved to be catastrophic to the vulture population in the South Asian region. Diclofenac in the carcasses were poison for the vultures when they fed on them. Though diclofenac is banned now, there are other equally harmful drugs still in use. “Vultures are often reviled. But it is these scavengers who clean up after death, and keep the ecosystems healthy and free from zoonotic diseases like human anthrax,” he says.

Byju is happy that they found over 30 live nests which indicates the possibility of so many juveniles. While he admits that restoring the population to its former glory is an uphill task, he still has hope. “And, the core forests are still intact which is a good sign.”

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 9:31:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/photographer-independent-researcher-and-conservationist-h-byju-writes-about-why-the-vultures-are-indispensable-to-the-bio-diversity-in-his-book-valley-of-hope-moyar-and-vultures/article31839790.ece

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