Updated: February 3, 2021 9:20:37 am
A flurry of vulture deaths in a cluster of four villages in Assam’s Tinsukia district last month led its residents to honour the birds in a unique way — by holding a ‘shraddh’ or a prayer meeting. “If we can grieve for human beings, why can’t we do the same for birds and animals?” asked 30-year-old Nibul Bora of Dhulijan village, who helped organise the ceremony.
On January 18 and 19, the carcasses of as many as 36 vultures, including the threatened Himalayan griffon (Gyps Himalayensis), slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) and white-rumped vulture (Gyps Bengalensis), were found poisoned in a paddy field, close to the four villages of Dhulijan, Betoni, Borgura and Tamuli.
“These were reported to us and we immediately rushed to the spot,” said Krishna Kanta Gogoi, a junior assistant officer in the wildlife wing of the Doomdooma Forest Division. “We suspect they fed off the carcass of a poisoned cow.” On January 31, a prayer meeting— complete with priests, traditional naam (worship songs) for the departed to rest in peace, lighting of diyas — was held, with more than a hundred residents in attendance.
At least six kinds of vultures —scavenging birds of prey — are found in Assam. However, since the 1990s, there has been a significant decline in vulture population due to poisoning.
Happy to release 6 Slender billed and 2 White rumped #Vultures in Assam after treatment for unintentional #poisoning. Paid homage to the 36 that died with villagers who had kept a wake ( Shraddh) for vultures. Indian values and challenges in nutshell #conservation pic.twitter.com/DrID0WzF59
— Vivek Menon (@vivek4wild) February 1, 2021
According to Samshul Ali, a veterinarian with the Wildlife Institute of India (WTI), most deaths are a result of deliberate or unintentional poisoning of carcasses with inorganic agricultural pesticides. “It is usually secondary poisoning,” he explained, “It is common for villagers to poison carcasses of cows with the intention to kill feral dogs, jackals or leopards. Unfortunately, vultures feed on carcasses and become victims.”
In this case, the forest department’s Gogoi said, a cow was poisoned, and it is possible that the vultures fed on the cow.
In Assam, the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) in Kaziranga, jointly run by WTI, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the Assam Forest Department, has rescued and rehabilitated a number of poisoned vultures since 2003. A Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre in Rani on the outskirts of Guwahati, run by the Bombay Natural History Society in collaboration with the Assam Forest Department, has existed since 2007.
According to Rathin Barman, Joint Director, WTI, 9 vultures were saved in the recent incident. “We released them on the day of the Shraddha, which was held close to where the other vultures were buried,” he said, adding that it was a “commendable example set by the villagers.”
The event was also a means to raise awareness about vultures and causes of vulture deaths, said Barman.
In 2017, a similar ceremony was held in the same area for a Hoolock Gibbon. “When we spoke to Mr Gogoi from the forest department, he suggested we do the same for the vultures,” said Dhalijan’s Bora. “Some of us readily agreed and made the arrangements.”
According to Gogoi, vultures do not have a “good reputation” since they are birds of prey. “When we work with such birds, it is common for some villagers to view us with some suspicion — like we are dealing with something inauspicious. That is why I thought this would be a good idea to change attitudes,” said Gogoi.
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