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Thursday, April 22, 2021

Following their broken wings

He has been filming vultures for 30 years. Then they vanished. Mike Pandey tells how he finally traced ‘the masters of the sky’ dead on the ground

Written by Mikepandey |
April 22, 2006 11:06:07 pm

It was winter. Heinz Seilmann, the eminent wildlife filmmaker and adventurer from Germany , was in India. “I am here looking for vultures. I found only two in Spain in the last six months. Can we get some vultures here?” he had asked. I remember smiling at him and saying, “This is India, Heinz, how many thousands do you want?” — not realising that a few years later, my words would come right back to me.

That vulture shoot was an experience of a lifetime. The next day at the Ghazipur carcass ground — 20 km from Delhi — the camera and crew had taken position behind a tree. It was nine in the morning, a truck had just finished dumping some fresh buffalo carcasses. As it moved away, all hell broke loose. Hundreds of screeching vultures erupted from all directions, literally falling from the sky, flapping, charging, plummeting down to reach the skinned carcasses.

I was caught right in the middle of the storm. Suddenly enveloped by thousands of wings, I could hardly see the sky. I heard faint cries — my crew shouting for me. I turned to look, I saw Heinz standing transfixed — jaw hanging and hands spread in amazement. Instinctively, I sat down to avoid being hit by the landing vultures; I had never seen so many in all my life. I could hardly move, the air was thick with vulture smell.

I could hardly breathe. But amazingly, each bird swerved around me. There was no aggression, no accidental brushes, nothing. They may look aggressive and formidable but vultures don’t bite or attack humans. But my crew did not know that, they had panicked, thinking I was being attacked. We managed to get some spectacular shots for Heinz who could not believe his eyes and just kept repeating: “Unbelievable! Unbelievable!”

The next day the location shifted to Delhi’s Sainik farm. At ten in the morning, we were waiting with cameras ready under a clear sky. Then, far away, we could see hundreds of circling vultures moving towards us from two directions. Below them, we could see two tiny moving figures. They were following two cycle-rickshaws carrying dead buffaloes to the carcass grounds. Heinz had expected to shoot in India for six weeks but we had all the sequences and the story we needed in just four days.

Today, several years later, I was at the same carcass grounds. I had been waiting for more than four days and I had not seen a single vulture. Hundreds of tattered carcasses lay scattered on the grounds, all in different stages of decomposition.

Instead of vultures, hundreds of crows, rats and dogs pecked and tore at the putrefying carcasses. The trees that years ago stood populated with hundreds of vultures stood barren and bleached.

The hide collectors colony nearby hadn’t seen vultures for nearly three years. I could not believe that all the vultures had gone. Now, I’ve travelled across India for over seven months, looking for vultures. Etawah, Panna, Aligarh , Jodhpur, Kaziranga, Junagarh, Bikaner and Mehsana in Gujarat — the story all over the country was the same.

Vultures were the most prolific bird species in India. Let alone villages, even trees along the highway were full of them. Animals run over by vehicles would be wiped clean in minutes by these silent sentinels. But throughout my 8000-km journey, I saw thousands of carcasses littering highways and roadsides in villages and towns, their stench and the thousands of flies around them posing a potential health hazard.

But I wouldn’t give up easily. I decided to move on to Bikaner where I had filmed thousands of vultures almost 10 years ago. Surely this remote desert place would still have some vultures. The stench and decay hit us while we were still five kilometres from Bikaner.

Hundreds of kites, crows and dogs surrounded the area. I scanned the horizon for vultures, and suddenly I saw a cluster hovering in the sky. Their shape was unmistakable.

They all landed a little distance away in slow motion. We meandered through the carcass grounds and headed for them, hoping to film a good sequence of the polishing up of a carcass. What I saw will never leave my eyes.

Hundreds of broken wings, dead vultures lay on the ground decomposing along with the carcasses. They were everywhere, especially around the big trees once their home.

The story I had heard in Delhi from Dr Asad Rahmani and Nita Shah of Bombay Natural History Society was correct. Diclofenac had decimated the population of vultures everywhere. I was lucky I was able to film a few of them, maybe the last ones.

But the vultures I saw were not the White Backed or Slender Billed vultures. These were Griffin vultures, a migratory species that come every winter from Nepal. It was March, time for these Griffin vultures to return home. Maybe they were having their last meal.

Our next halt was Mehsana in Gujarat. The scene here was even worse. Especially in Junagarh, near the Gir forest, there were no vultures in the sky or the trees. Many shrivelled and dried carcasses, some dumped in culverts by the roadside made me roll up my car windows.

For the first time, the entire team was suffering from various degrees of discomfort from food poisoning, loss of appetite, nausea. It was when we stopped to refuel that the petrol pump owner warned us of the anthrax breakout near Deoli — a threat not only to the thousands of livestock but also to humans and the last of the Wild Asian Lions in Gir.

Anthrax breaking out was evidence enough for us that nature’s most powerful scavenger had lost the fight for survival.

None of the farmers we spoke to anywhere in India had any idea why the vultures were vanishing. They were shocked to learn that one simple drug was responsible for the disappearance of a species. Resilient against the most powerful and deadly viruses, vultures had proved helpless against one manmade chemical — a drug not used in the western countries for their animals.

Our survival depends on the harmony of the intricate and complex web of life. We disturb its balance, endangering ourselves and all other life-forms on this planet.

A conservationist, Pandey filmed his first vultures at Ranthambhore in 1976

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