Category Archives: India

An idea is born

With my newfound passion for birds of prey, it was obvious that Simon and I would be crossing paths again. I was working at Kipling Camp by Kanha Tiger Reserve at the same time as Munir, Pat and Simon were planning their twice-a-year vulture census in India. As you might already have read from Simon’s entry, vultures have suffered a disastrous decline in South Asia due to poisoning by diclofenac. I was invited to join the team for part of the expedition and jumped at the chance. It turned out to be another great experience. We took a boat down the Chambal River, with cliffs on both sides on which we saw vultures, peregrines, eagles and owls. We also spent time in Ranthambore (where I saw my first wild tiger) and Bandhavargh National Parks.

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A Brahminy Kite fishing in Kerala, India

Another continent. A few months later. This time, I was studying primates in the tropical rainforest of the Osa Peninsula in south-western Costa Rica and helping to manage a lodge there. Simon had long been interested in seeing the birds of prey of the New World, for reasons that he can explain in his own entry. I thought this to be a good opportunity to repay Simon for his kindness in looking after me so well in Kenya. Knowing him to be going through a transition stage, with his mind open to travel, I invited him to come and stay.

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The stunning New World King Vulture

During the frequent rainy afternoons at Terrapin Lodge, Simon painted birds of prey as I went through photographs and attempted some of my own paintings (which I will not be showcasing). We started talking about producing a book, full of beautiful photographs and paintings, on the birds of prey of Africa, and what began as the germ of an idea started to take root and grow. As we bounced ideas off each other and started to make plans, we realised we would be embarking on an incredible adventure that would take us through much of Africa. More about that in my next post.

Indian Raptors

Raptors of India.
Species account and abundance.

There are some 66 diurnal species that occur within the mainland Indian sub-continent, of which 38 could be said to breed within its geographical boundaries. Some 24 owl species occur, which is remarkably diverse despite many being restricted to small pockets. The numbers of breeding resident diurnal raptors is not that numerous and there would seem to be empty niches. There is for example no very large eagle south of the high Himalayan range. There are very few resident accipiters and Buteos south of the northern highlands.
One of the things a visitor to India is constantly reminded about is that the country is enormous and in some respects is more diverse than the continent of Africa with which its fauna is somewhat obscurely often compared. It has high temperate Alpine habitat (E.G. Kashmir) to is far north and true sand dune deserts such as the Thar Desert on the Pakistan border. To its north east lies a merging zone of fauna and flora between China and India (Arunachal Pradesh), where Clouded Leopards, Red Pandas, Gibbons and forest falconets still occur in dense moist jungles. In the core of the Indian peninsular are the highland wet mountains or the Western Ghats. It has every conceivable habitat and species of raptors that go with it. The only problem is that these places are very far apart and difficult to get to….requiring a fair amount of red-tape and reliance upon others, be it local authorities, a driver or a guide.
There is a division in the distribution of raptor species to “highland” regions and “the rest” of India. There are those highland species, those that dwell in cold rugged mountainous terrain, which include the “typical” Eurasian counterparts like the Golden Eagle, Booted Eagle, Eurasian Griffons, Lammergeyer, Eurasian Kestrel, Hobby, Common Buzzard, Long-legged Buzzard, Eurasian Goshawk and Eurasian Sparrowhawk. These species may prefer the higher latitude and the cool climate where tundra, Alpine, temperate broad-leaf and coniferous forest merge. Some may, like their more western European relatives, undertake a migration south and these may scatter throughout the peninsular. If the distribution maps in the guide books are a true indication there would seem to be a back and forth movement between these highlands and the vast interior of continental Eurasia to the semi-arid plains of southern Pakistan, the Punjab and western Rajasthan. Presumably the Himalayas themselves provide such an obstacle that raptors are obliged to fly around them. They share their summer breeding grounds with ‘true’ Asian and far eastern species such as the Lesser Fish Eagle, Himalayan Griffon , Red-napped Shaheen, Collared Falconet and the Oriental Hobby. Other highland species occur both in the Himalayan highlands and in the “Ghats”, highland ridges of high rain-fall on the East and West of the peninsular. These include the Indian Black Eagle, Crested Goshawk, Besra, Rufous-Bellied Eagle, Mountain Hawk Eagle and possibly the Grey-headed Fish Eagle. The North Eastern corner squeezed between the Himalayan Mountains and Burma and allowing passage into China, while rich in mammal and avian diversity has a few special raptors which include the Jerdon’s and Black Baza and Pied Falconet.cheagleblog.JPG

Changeable Hawk Eagle bathing in Bandhavgarh.

‘The rest’ includes Black Shouldered Kite, Black Kite, Brahminy Kite, White Bellied Sea Eagle (Marine only), Pallas’s Fish Eagle (possibly restricted to northern Indian inland wetlands), Egyptian, White rumped and Long-billed Vultures, (the Slender-billed is apparently restricted to the Gangetic Plain, although its distribution is still unclear), Red Headed Vulture, Short-toed Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle, Shikra, Oriental Honey-Buzzard (breeding status unclear), White-eyed Buzzard (apparently an inter-Indian migrant/opportunistic breeder)., Bonelli’s eagle, Changeable Hawk Eagle and Red-necked Falcon. These occur across a broad area of fairly monotypic habitat. shikrasm copy.jpg

The Shikra (Accipiter badius)

There are two Eagles, the Tawny and the Indian Lesser Spotted Eagle that are supposed to occur across the country, although the Lesser Spotted has a more northern in distribution. These two species are poorly known, and certainly very rare. The Tawny Eagle looks and behaves so very differently to the African Tawny that is deserves much more attention, especially as it is in our experience incredibly rare. Blogtawny.jpg

The Indian Tawny Eagle.

The Indian Lesser Spotted, newly described may easily be confused with both migrant Spotteds and thus be subject to confusion. Again its status requires cautious examination. Two Large falcons the Lugger and Peregrine Falcon look on the distribution maps to cover the entire region. However the Lugger, based on what are now quite extensive field trips must be considered either critically endangered or perhaps even regionally extinct. True it occurs still in the dry deserts on the Pakistan border, but elsewhere in the heart of its previously known distribution none were seen. The Peregrine Falcon in India is divided by 3 sub-species, F.peregrinus babylonicus; F. p. peregrinator and F. p. calidus. But this seems overly simplified because our team have seen what appears to be year-round breeding peregrines inseparable from the nominate race F. p. peregrinus. So different are they from the Black Shaheen with whom they share their environment that the possibility for racial intergrades seems unlikely. Could there be yet another race of Peregrines residing within India?flacosblogsm.jpg

Black Shaheen behind a typical Peregrine we saw in the Chambal river. (note this ‘normal’ Peregrine is “pasted” into the picture for comparison). The vast difference between these races is readily observed. There remains a question as to the status of these races.

Similarly the owls are divided in distribution by those that prefer high cold temperate ranges, conifer and deciduous forests, moist dense forests, semi-arid and ‘the rest’. As an example of the extremes in climate, rarities include Arctic strays like the Snowy Owl and Boreal Owl that occur in the same country as the Oriental Bay Owl! The profusion of Scops and Glaucidium Owlets is particularly impressive.

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Collared Owlet (Glaucidium brodiei) . and The Indian Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo bengalensis).

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Brown Fish Owl (Keputa zeylonensis)

Inevitably we were to err in making comparisons with Africa. In Kenya where Munir and I live we could not but be surprised at the similarity of terrain, but the absence of common conspecifics, or the prevalence of those species we would least expect to see. For example, the Lugger Falcon (very similar to the Lanner Falcon) remained a dramatic example of apparent super-abundance of available habitat that was empty of its presence. Much to my chagrin Munir and Pat went to western Rajasthan after I left them in Delhi on the 9th Dec 07 to see Luggers aplenty and the migrant Himalayan and Black Vultures. Munir believed that some of the Luggers nested in old crow nests on pylons, implying that their nesting tastes were not that demanding and that the vast areas on Uttar and Madhya Pradesh in which we saw none boded a malevolent reason.
The Bonelli’s Eagle similar in most respects to our African Hawk Eagle was surprisingly often recorded in habitats admittedly under some form of protection, but still in areas of proximity to humans. But the African Hawk Eagle in Kenya has seen vast regional extinctions, and is even very rare in our smaller parks and reserves. It simply cannot mix with people, and is one of the most sensitive species even more so than the Martial Eagle. Why is it then that the Bonelli’s seems to be doing quite well and the Lugger so badly?
In Kenya we are used to enormous habitat variety within a very short space. We can drop from Alpine areas, through conifer, broad-leaf forests, down to open grass savannas, through Acacia dominated riparian areas criss-crossing semi arid landscapes in less than a morning’s drive. Each habitat has its own raptor specialists, and maybe of some significance, each biome may or may not be currently favoured by rainfall. These mixed habitats and discordant rainfall distributions do not help in pigeon-holing breeding seasons or timing migrant raptor visitations. In more temperate India, within less congested habitats in small areas we may fail in meeting some of our ‘spoiled’ expectations. Pat for example, coming from both South Africa and mid West America commented that he saw about as many raptors per kilometre in South Africa, but admitted that mid west USA had much more.
Whatever the potential for misconceptions, the fact that one can travel for so far and see so few resident raptors is disturbing. That one may encounter migrant species in greater abundance than resident species is a poor index of relative abundance, but it is helpful in describing the overall picture. In Kenya for example we see considerably more migrant Pallid Harriers (in the region of some 100 to 1) than the local resident African Marsh Harriers. One of these is acknowledged as threatened by IUCN criteria, the other not. It is actually a poor example because it is the opposite of what one would hope, but it does illustrate the need to think things through and to be cautious and precise before blowing the whistle.

Nevertheless there remains an uncomfortable feeling that some raptors are very much rarer than they were.

India Raptors

21st Nov 2007.

India trip. Background.
21 Nov to 10th Dec 2007.

To many the word ‘Africa’ has a warm timbre, but I guess because I was born in it, it has nowhere near the same resonance as ‘India’. As a child I remember Riki Tiki Tavi, The Jungle Book and the Man-eaters of Kamoun. These were the standard English literature reading of my generation. Kipling and Corbett’s world portrayed the natural history side of India, perhaps now superseded (from the westerner’s point of view) by a spiritual hankering for personal betterment. I guess the westerner is greatly impressed by the sight of millions living in total poverty in terrible conditions. So was I but for different reasons. We have the same problems at home, and it is very rapidly expanding. One year the plains may be filled with zebra, the next it is covered in shanty dwellings and desperate people. In India the difference is that it has history and the poor seem to accept it with astonishing peace. I suppose they do have spiritual lessons for us all if, as is the inevitable prediction, the whole world will be a shuffling herd of back to back humanity. The spiritual side of things is likely to continue for a while and I have a panicked urgency to see its nature before it goes.

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I am an infrequent traveller because I can seldom get away from the captive collection of raptors and animals at home. But now with so few it is possible to do so. My last overseas trip was in 2003, again to India. Then I was a bit of a mess, having just survived being shot at in my living room on two separate occasions. That trip greatly helped, and gave me time out to look back on my home and situation. I vowed then to leave my home and work, but four years on I remain in much the same situation simply because I know of no other way to live. It had to take another personal ‘shake-up” to justify this trip. Perhaps after-all I believed that I would have clarity in India that would not be possible to have at home. Although it was not to be a working trip in the usual sense I had clear goals to set. First, to catch up on Indian raptor affairs, second to be with friends. Third, to think and to make plans regarding my birds, home, work and personal life.

In the last few days before leaving I put some of the birds, such as the Lammergeyer in a small shed. The Black Sparrowhawk with the spinal fracture (who is doing so much better……but flies sideways) was put in another walled-off enclosure. I rushed around giving instructions and counter instructions to Mwanzia and Jonathan who patiently took in everything (or erased it as the case may be). During my absence they had to make one trip to a nearby chicken farm to get day old chicks, the staple food for the hawks. This was to be the first time in more than seven years that I entrusted my vehicle to be used for the once a week (or sometime once a fortnight) trip to collect bird food. After staff and volunteers had wrecked a total of 5 vehicles supposedly doing this simple chore in the past, I have reasonable cause to be terrified of this small favour. It is vital of course and has moulded my life for decades. They assured me endlessly that all would be well and that I should go in peace and not fret.

The flight.
I have the perennial misfortune on planes to sit next to the person with the most highly contagious chest complaint of all the passengers. The moment I looked down the aisle my eye caught sight of a spluttering swarthy character and I knew without checking my boarding pass where I was destined to sit. The second I sat down he was immediately discombobulated with limbs disjointed and covered all three seats. My best threatening smile did no good. Despite firmly taking possession of the arm rest and pushing my elbows a fraction into “his” space, he remained unmoved and smiled pleasantly back between heaving coughs which he made no effort to cover. Damn I thought; I’m going to start this trip sick. Consciously I breathed in as little as I could, assuming that this would be a sure way to avoid the germs. But hours into the flight and feeling slightly ill I resumed breathing, only to have him remove his shoes. Man alive! I kid you not, the stench swivelled the heads of those in all rows around us. He knew no known language of course, and was immune to body language and gestures that even a horse would understand.
I resumed the “battle for space” again, filled out my frame and took some command. I even experimented by keeping my elbow on the rest against his, and pushed infinitesimally harder. Although our eyes were firmly fixed on the dirty overhead TV screen placed at an awkward angle to our right the struggle achieved full-fledged arm wrestle standards, until the stewardess arrived and asked if I preferred vegetarian or non-vegetarian.
I landed at Mumbai and then caught a plane to Delhi at dawn. Looking out the window at the diffuse orange glow the sun barely permeated a sulphurous haze stretching from ground level to far above the plane. This smog was with us uninterrupted the entire way. This is one of the most polluted places on earth. In Delhi I was met by Manjeet Sharma our “agent”, and swiftly driven away, through near choking acidic fumes and unbelievably busy streets humming with 3 wheeler taxis, road-side kiosks, ambling cows, defecating dogs and children and massive billboards with pictures of gorgeous green-eyed Indian ladies and handsome fellows with shades and torn shirts. You have to physically flick a switch in your brain and not dwell on a fleeting glimpse of a crippled destitute, a dog licking something suspicious on the road, a sari clad group of women, glitzy city types, the crows and dull cows holding up traffic. Affluence and effluence all in one frame. The driving is special though. The idea is that you floor it as fast as you can to the rear end of the vehicle in front of you, then slam on your brakes, violently jerk the steering wheel and hit the horn. Although it is now against the law to hoot in Delhi the lorries all have painted signs on the back saying “Please hoot the horn”. It is madness.

In 2003 I went to join The Peregrine Fund to meet up with my Kenyan colleague Munir Virani, and Pat Benson. They were busy working on the vultures that had suffered some 95% population declines during the preceding 7 years or so. It is now common knowledge that this decline was due to a pain relieving drug called diclofenec. It is commonly used globally for humans, but the veterinary use allows it to be ingested by vultures. Formerly vultures numbered in their thousands in cities and towns as do the still roaming cattle. Should an ailing cow be encountered the Hindu especially may feel a religious obligation to help. For only a few rupees the cow can get pain relief, but should it soon die it has the ability to kill 100 or more vultures. Why? Birds and reptiles have very efficient kidneys. Diclofenec like many non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs affect kidney function, and can if used incorrectly destroy human and mammal kidneys too. Some 1000 people die of related problems each year. But in birds a tiny amount will stop kidney function. Crystals of urates fill the joints, and body cavities and the bird dies in agony. What little that can be said in defence of the use of this drug is that at least it was done in the hope of lessening animal suffering. It was not deliberate, as is the case of wanton poisoning in much of Africa. But the use of this drug in veterinary care is so widespread and so much part of the cultural approach to animal care that it will result in the extinction of vultures, and many scavenging bird species. It isn’t the first time that an animal welfare concept has back-lashed and caused such havoc for wildlife, I suspect it is the rule.

This catastrophe equals, if exceeds the global effect of persistent agro-chemicals on raptors during the 1960s, but still struggles to be given the same public acknowledgement. Perhaps because the subjects undergoing declines are scavenging birds, pariahs of wildlife, and the unglamourous undertakers few care. Or perhaps people are suffering from “caring fatigue”. We just have too much to consider and worry about these days. But put in their rightful perspective, there can be no other group of animals more valuable to the environment (and rural human life), than those that clean it up. Now that I personally have stepped out of the conservation arena and can allow some unbiased objectivity I can imagine no more important field in raptor conservation than this. It should rank very high up the global agenda for conservation as a whole. We are not talking of species conservation here for nice ethical reasons; we are talking of ecological health of an environment shared with a billion and more humans that are expected to be adversely affected.

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The Peregrine Fund was in large part was responsible for discovery of the cause of vulture loss in India and Pakistan and Munir and Pat continued to play a critical role in monitoring the vulture numbers. The RSPB too contributed enormously to the awareness and support of the ban on the veterinary production of diclofenec. Now after the ban the hope is to see a recovery. It occurred to me during a soul searching moment that in a field in which happy endings and positive outcomes are so rare (conservation), to be there and witness a recovery is too good a thing to miss.
In 2003 I was able to tag along a see for myself the vultures and other raptors for myself. My impressions then were mixed. India is huge. It is surprisingly well wooded. For example an area nearly the size of Kenya is protected indigenous forest land, mostly on hills to conserve water supplies. This is quite separate from the protected wildlife parks and sanctuaries. Land use is more communal, orderly and productively managed. For the most part people live in villages or communities and move out each day to till the land and tend to livestock, rather than stake a land claim and pitch a house in the middle of a tiny fenced-off area. There are almost no fences. That’s a good lesson for most of Africa. The country-side and valleys do not reverberate with the sound of incessant tree felling as is the case at home. Most of the food is cooked on efficient stoves using cow pats and grass. People plant trees, indigenous ones mostly……..not soil killing and thirsty eucalyptus. Attitudes to wildlife are one of high tolerance. Langur Monkeys sit side by side with people on busy streets and roof tops, Nilgai antelope graze cereal crops without harassment, mynas, crows and treepies sit within arms reach. Leopards are given names and walk through villages and towns at night. Tigers and elephants aren’t considered a problem until they have killed quite a few people. This level of reverence for wildlife is something we in Kenya simply do not have today. But I have learnt not to be naïve and assume that all is well and that there is a Utopian world in which people live in harmony with wildlife. It is said of Kenya, repeated ad nauseam until one must believe it or fall out of line, despite the facts indicating the very reverse. Wildlife poaching is silent and rampant in India, conducted perhaps even more undetected because of the exoskeleton of seemingly harmonious cultural attitudes. But whether or not poaching exists is largely immaterial to the whole. India like Africa faces no future for wildlife if is continues to have a burgeoning human population. One cannot help but be impressed that despite the numbers of people tigers do still roam their jungles. There is hope, and we can learn from them many important lessons for African conservation.

We ‘did’ the famous reserves not because we enjoyed being sidetracked by leopards and tigers, but because we wanted to see vultures.
There are 3 Gyps species very similar to the 2 species we have in East Africa. They are the Oriental White-backed, Long billed and Slender billed Vultures. The Oriental is perhaps too readily compared to the African White-backed, and the other two are more like our Rüppell’s ‘Griffon’ Vultures. The smaller Oriental White-back has declined the fastest, and is virtually extinct in a vast area of its former range. For no very good reason the Long-billed appears to be still holding on, relatively speaking, at its breeding colonies. It was odd to stand looking up at a cliff face in Bandhavgarh and see more vultures than would be encountered in even the largest colonies in Kenya. That could mean that Kenyan Rüppell’s were not doing so good or that Indian vultures weren’t doing so bad. Or that one had a heck of a lot more work to do before one could offer a reasonable opinion.

The “team”.

Tomorrow I hope to be meeting up with Munir and Pat again. Munir is very organised and thorough and has the energy necessary to drive the process. Munir and I worked together in Kenya on raptor projects for many years. Munir knows India well, he was a keen cricketer and has visited for many years. He has played an important role in the vulture conservation process. I was at first scared of Pat. Someone in India said he looked like a professional wrestler and I knew he has a reputation for zero frivolity in the field. But Pat is actually a soft-hearted man. He has done a tremendous amount of work on the Cape Vultures in South Africa. Munir and Pat together are a formidable team. Laila Bahaa-el-din is joining us too. Laila is already in India working at Kipling Camp in Kanha. She was my last volunteer at home in Kenya in August who despite being discouraged from turning up ignored my warning and still came. Laila helped fly the birds, went on many field trips and helped catch vultures in the Mara. She wishes to do a PhD soon and this may prove a great learning experience although I suspect her calling is more for big cats. I also hope to learn a lot on this trip. We make an odd team to be sure.