It was a high-profile but an anti-climactic release. Last June, at the Bir Shikargah Wildlife Sanctuary in Pinjore, Haryana, the then Union environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, tugged at the pulley — but the vultures did not fly. About 24 hours later, A20, a male Himalayan griffon, took off first, but the female, A19, stayed back — unsure, apprehensive. She wasn’t ready for freedom, as yet, but for the folks at the Jatayu Conservation Breeding Centre (JCBC) at the sanctuary, a lot was hinging on that single flight.
It’s been 11 years since India banned the use of diclofenac, a painkiller administered to cattle, following the catastrophic decline in vulture populations. “Vultures develop visceral gout (a white crust that arrests the kidneys causing a quick death) after feeding on cattle treated with diclofenac,” says Nikita Prakash, who, along with her husband Dr Vibhu Prakash, run JCBC — a joint effort of the Bombay Natural History Society and the Haryana Forest Department. But, the last census done in 2015 brought some palatable news: the population is not declining. “It’s either stable or going up a bit but we can’t be complacent about it,” say Dr Prakash.
A19 and A20, who had come to the JCBC as rescued birds nearly a decade ago, were “test birds”. The duo had lived among Gyps vultures in a concrete aviary on a five-acre plot. The centre houses 226 Gyps species vultures, including white backs, slender bills and long bills — all three are critically endangered in India. The birds do everything they could in the wild — perch on jute platforms, concrete ledges, or poles mimicking branches, and feed on goat carcasses — except soar to great heights. The aviaries, five in all, are open to the sky except for a protective netting.
When A19 finally took flight, 10 teams tracked her for 45 days. Earlier, they had distributed flyers in the surrounding villages alerting the villagers to the bright orange wing tags on the birds. They watched the bird hop across the walls of the aviary that was her home for eight years. Then 10 days later, she flew to the nearest village. The villagers, who thought the birds had escaped, phoned to say, “the bird is sitting here, ‘aa jana (come here)’”. The watchers slept when she slept, they woke up before she did at the break of dawn. And then, it was time to say goodbye. The Himalayan griffon flew towards the Morni hills, never to be seen again.
The team could have stayed in touch if there had been a Platform Terminal Transmitter (PTT) on A19. She would have worn it like a backpack with an antenna sticking out and the team could have monitored the bird via GPS coordinates for three years, till the device went dead. But permission was tangled in bureaucracy over 250 km away in New Delhi. Today, the husband and wife’s hopes revolve around eight white backs, which they are on the cusp of releasing. Six of those are two-year-old juveniles bred at the facility. All that is left to do is to wait for cooler months and for the elusive PTT to arrive.
They are eyeing November 2017 as a target to release the eight birds into the wild in Haryana. “It will make us happy if we keep breeding them in good numbers, and we release them so that they establish themselves and breed in the wild,” Dr Prakash says. But this time, getting permission to put transmitters on the birds is a crucial step. “We will monitor them over a couple of years and then make plans to release more, based on what we learn from them, and how they survive in the wild,” he says. A successful release programme will see the doors open to the sky for 20-25 vultures each year.
“We will also wait for winter when the Himalayan griffons return to India. Those birds will act as a guide and tell these juveniles where to eat.” It will be a ‘soft release’”, says Nikita, walking around the facility that houses the “pre-release aviary” where the eight birds have been moved into. “The idea is for the captive birds to interact with the wild ones, and hopefully, when we release them, they will form a flock with their wild friends, and will be guided towards the food,” she says.
Carcasses are placed both inside and outside the aviary; a thin mesh that separates the birds. Nikita shows videos of what she means when she says vultures are “social birds”. They hop and waddle towards each other and feed together. “It has to be a gradual process so they get used to the dangers. Otherwise, if we just open the gate, they will escape and keep flying till they are exhausted, and put themselves in danger,” she says.
Dr Prakash, who wheezes severely around birds, never imagined dedicating his life to the famed scavengers: the bald, ugly, uncharismatic raptor that vomits when threatened. He had spent much of the 1980s studying bird populations in Keoladeo National Park (formerly Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, where in 1984, he first documented over 350 nesting pairs of vultures. “They were the commonest birds of prey in the world. But then, it was the fastest, steepest decline, across the world, across any species,” he says.
At the interpretation centre, the only part of the Pinjore facility that’s open to the public, the birds can be seen via closed-circuit television. Outside, a board announces the names of the vultures christened by visiting dignitaries. There is the first nestling that was hatched at the centre, Vibhu, who is now seven, and looking for a partner. Then there is Plum, Safal and Sambhav named by Indian bureaucrats, and George and Jurgen after German visitors. “In 1998, I held a sick vulture in Keoladeo National Park for the very first time. We have 226 birds here now, so clearly, I have fallen in love with the entire species,” says Nikita.