Death to Diclofenac

The ban of the veterinary drug Diclofenac comes as a relief to conservationists. The drug, administered to domestic cattle and water buffalo, has been blamed for the Great Asian Vulture Crisis. Diclofenac enters the food chain when vultures feed on livestock carcasses, causing kidney failure.

Ornithologists the world over have been concerned about the sharp dip in the population of vultures of the Gyps genus, particularly in southern Asia. In the 1990s, within an alarmingly brief span of three years, the numbers of three species of Gyps vultures fell by 95%. Over the last 15 years, their numbers are believed to have reduced by 97%. Terrifying, considering that in the late 1980’s, these vultures were common on our birding checklists.

The Gyps vultures in the spotlight are:

Slender-billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris)
Indian Vulture (G. indicus)
White-rumped Vulture (G. bengalensis)

The crisis is so serious that Chris Bowden of the Royal Society for Protection of Birds remarked: “The decline of these Asian vultures has been quicker than any other wild birds, including the dodo.”

The ban on Diclofenac is a vital first step. We have more ground to cover before we can save the vultures from extinction. Time, as always, is running out.

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California dreaming with gulls and squirrels

Six years ago, I stopped at a viewpoint on the California coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It was a sunny afternoon, about 4 pm. A great flock of assorted gulls were feeding on scraps thrown to them by motorists.

Along with the gulls were Brewer’s Blackbirds (Euphagus cyanocephalus) and that cute, confiding rodent known as the California ground squirrel (Spermophilus beecheyi). Bird and beast ate tamely out of our hands. And while the spectacle touched the animal lover in me, I couldn’t help fearing for the creatures’ health for eating all that salty and fatty food.

Posted from Santa Maria, California, United States.

Iruppu-Brahmagiri on foot

The trail begins at Iruppu, a picturesque waterfall where pilgrims to the Rameshwara temple are eager to strip to their barest and enjoy a shower. It is also perhaps the noisiest place in a radius of about 10 kilometres – and not because of the cicadas. Mercifully, as we begin the trek to Brahmagiri, 1350 m above MSL, the human voices fade behind us. Butterflies with startling blue wings sail past, while turquoise dragonflies dip their pointed abdomens in the limpid pools. As we round the bend in the hillside, the shrill crescendo of cicadas hangs in the air like white noise. Birdsong is patchy – an occasional Hill Myna or White-rumped Shama calls in the canopy. The climb is steep but steady, and soon my lungs balk and my heart pounds in my face, my jugular pulsing like a bass drum. The forest transforms suddenly, turning into dense groves of that monstrous grass, bamboo. The tall, ancient stalks creak in the wind. Far away, really far away behind us, we can still hear the waterfall’s ghostly whisper. But it’s a memory, and its place is in the past. As for me, I must only look ahead, and climb what’s left of the trail. Which, dauntingly, is most of it. Four kilometres to go, announces our guide Lakshman, named mysteriously after the holy spot of Lakshmanatheertha that we have just passed. It is warm in the bamboo forest, and the exertion pumps the water out of me. I have driven most of the night without a moment’s shut-eye and the strain begins to tell. Our guide has loped ahead, and soon I can’t even see the backs of my fellow trekkers. Only Froggie sticks by me, faithful but equally exhausted. The bamboo forests give way to thin deciduous forest, the leaf litter paving the path with a mosaic of red, black and russet brown. My shoes slip on the smooth leaves. The climb is steady. Cicadas screech around me – I can see them clasping the tree trucks, crying to bring down the rain. Robber flies buzz about my ear, while its several smaller cousins are already gorging on generous samples of my blood. My backpack feels heavy – weighed down by the two 2-liter water bottles. After the hardest stretch, the trail begins to level out. Not discernibly, but my thighs and lungs can feel the easing strain. We hear the gurgle of a stream but it disappears from earshot, like a mirage. The trees are larger here. Strangler figs are wrapped around some of the older forest trees. With sunlight hidden by the canopy, the woods are dim and cool. Butterflies cavort in the glades. Brilliant red stink bugs swarm the leaf litter. The earth is moist. I look about for signs of the promised lion-tailed macaque, one of the most theatened primates in southern India, but there are none. We reach a pool under a tree. A spring, with water bubbling into it from some source beneath the ground. Pond skaters walk its surface. The water is cool, clear and sweet. The forest ends after an abrupt 20-foot ascent. Then the grassland begins. This is the great wide open that Tom Petty sang about, with magnificent views on all sides. Above us only sky. And stream-cooled evergreen sholas in the valley below us. The rustle of reptiles in the grass and undergrowth – mostly skinks and small lizards. And birdsong – bulbuls, woodpeckers, barbets, thrushes. Even the freewheeling song of a Malabar Whistling Thrush that must be heard to be believed. Dried elephant dung is scattered about – this region is one of the last strongholds of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) but I am not eager to run into any just now. There is more to the trail but no climbing for a while. The track meanders through lush shola, with magnificent views at every bend. Mysterious birdsong echoes in the woods, but the birds are all well camouflaged. Revived by deep draughts from a bottle of Electral in water, I am recharged again. But not for long. At the next halt, I drink greedily from a forest stream. And the group wolfs down methi rotis with pickle. We pause to examine a beautiful Bronzed Frog by the stream. It sits still, flecked with droplets, as we scramble to photograph it. It is some 26 degrees here in the forest. Air-conditioned. And the sweat drying on your skin makes it cooler. The air is fragrant with the fresh scent of green foliage. Can you get high from too much oxygen?

The birdwatcher at home

I had walked these fields as a child. First with sharp eyes straining to pick out smudges on the landscape, or to find names for things that moved. Then, with field glasses, I enjoyed the Ashy-crowned Finch-larks and the Paddyfield Pipits, and the Red-wattled Lapwing’s broken-wing charade to lead the inquisitive Marsh Harrier away from its nest. And now, armed with video camera, and with wife for amanuensis, I stroll the fields exactly as I did as a child.

A jumbo-size problem

“Tusker!”

The cry stopped the safari vehicle in its tracks. About 20 tourists gawked at the picture of splendour, like a dark raincloud in a starless sky, chomping on shoots in a grassy verge beside the bamboo forest.

On our drive through Nagarahole National Park, we had spotted Elephas maximus earlier in the day, but each time we had cried “Elephant!” at females and young adults.

Before you lynch me for my male chauvinism, consider this: For the last two decades or so, the population of the Asian elephant has been destablised by rampant poaching. Several gangs and politicians were involved in this insidious plunder of the forests and the bloodless killing of thousands of bull elephants for their ivory. But the most notorious was Veerappan, a wiry bandit with a big moustache and a penchant for abducting and murdering over 100 hostages. Add to this encroachment and habitat destruction, particularly in the form of development and non-subsistence agriculture along the critical ‘elephant migration corridors’ between areas of human habitation and designated forest areas.

Apart from wiping out the sandalwood forests in which the elephant has its home, Veerappan is blamed for killing over 2,000 tuskers – big bulls with tusks measuring five to six feet in length and weighing nearly a hundred kilograms each. With many of the alpha males gone, the Asian elephant’s gene pool started to degenerate alarmingly. Herds, led by matriarchs, had fewer and fewer males. Even with Veerappan’s death at the hands of a police task force in October 2004, the poaching of elephants has not ended. His evil empire has fallen into the hands of smaller, more obscure gangs. Today, there are only about 50,000 Asian elephants across the species’ range, with several races already extinct.

Project Elephant, a state-funded conservation campaign, was kicked off by India’s Department of Environment and Forests in 1991-92, but without the stellar patronage that Project Tiger received (championed as it was by none less than Indira Gandhi) in 1972. Human-animal conflict is also a big reason for the pachyderm’s decline. In the sensitive borders between farmland and forests, which only humans recognise, farmers fearing damage to their crop – paddy, sugarcane, banana and wheat – often poison the animals where shooting them is illegal.

And so, heedless to this tale of struggle and survival, here was a tusker powdering himself with red dust after his evening bath, chewing cud and ignoring the chattery tourists popping flashbulbs at him.

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