There are nine species of vultures in India, almost all of which are classified as threatened or endangered. The primary reason for the decline in vulture populations in the Indian subcontinent has been the abuse of the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac in veterinary medicine, which is fatal to vultures that ingest it while feeding on cattle carcasses. Vulture numbers have seen a steep decline by more than 90 per cent since the 1990s. The good news is that vulture conservation projects have taken shape across India with different plans and ways of implementation.

The White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis) is one of the species found in the Western Ghats and the coastal areas of south Maharashtra. One of the reasons behind the increase in their numbers, specifically in coastal Maharashtra, has been the work done by the Society for Eco Endangered Species Conservation and Protection (SEESCAP). I was fortunate to visit a few of their sites in December last year, during peak winter, which is also the breeding season of White-rumped Vultures.

White-rumped Vulture     TD DSC      | Nature Infocus
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(Left) Photo of a White-rumped Vulture in flight illustrates its wide wingspan. (Right) Adult male vulture with prominent red patches and white feathery coat around the neck.

Traveling to the Western Ghats has always felt like arriving home. The main purpose of my visit was to learn about White-rumped Vultures, though I was excited about seeing other bird species too. With a dark grey body and a prominent white collar on the neck, the White-rumped Vulture has a wingspan of up to 6-8 ft and usually nests on tall trees. The first birds I spotted, soaring high above the plateau region of Mangaon, a small town in the Raigad District, were two White-rumped Vultures. I was ecstatic!

Premsagar Mestri, the founder of SEESCAP, has been involved in vulture protection for more than two decades. He has worked tirelessly with the local community to build a positive image for these endangered raptors. During my brief visit, I was able to understand the significant impact the organisation has had in the region and how their determination has contributed to the higher survival rates of these vultures. SEESCAP started working on vulture conservation in the early 2000s. Today the population of White-rumped Vultures stands at a whopping 340 individuals. It is hard to believe that there was a time when the area had just 20 vultures.

Nest of a White-rumped Vulture
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"If there were droppings it meant that the tree was used for nesting, and if the branches were just arched with no prominent droppings, it was a roosting tree."

I spent the first few days counting the nests in the coconut orchards around Shrivardhan Beach. By the second morning, I was able to count around 16 nests in an area of just a few kilometres. Mestri explained the different methodologies his team used for the vulture census in 2019. The trees that the vultures used as nesting trees were marked with an “N” in white paint and the trees they used for roosting or resting were marked with an “R”. I learnt that the easiest way to differentiate between nesting and roosting trees was by carefully observing if there were any droppings on the branches and coconut fronds. If there were droppings it meant that the tree was used for nesting, and if the branches were just arched with no prominent droppings, it was a roosting tree.

Male and female White-rumped Vulture guarding a nest
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Both the male and female vultures fiercely protect their nest.

The mountains of the Raigad district are recognised for their sacred groves, or devrai, that are rich in biodiversity, and the open coastal corridor is a major pitstop for migratory birds from all over the world. SEESCAP kickstarted their first vulture conservation programme in the village of Chirgaon. It was here that Mestri spotted vultures in the late 1990s and talked to the villagers about the importance of these endangered raptors. The Sarpanch and the villagers were amazed as they were of the belief that the vultures in the area had all disappeared. Today, thanks to the conservation efforts of SEESCAP and the community, the village has so many vultures that you can see a few nests just by sitting on the veranda of the houses.

Many of the nesting trees in these dense forests were Behada (Terminalia bellirica) and Harad (Terminalia chebula). I learnt from Mestri how to tell the difference between breeding male vultures and those that are not. The non-breeding males merely have a white coat of feathers around their neck whereas the breeding males have noticeable red patches with white feathers on their neck and shoulders.

juvenile White-rumped Vulture
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A juvenile White-rumped Vulture with a small flat black patch on the chest, indicating that it is hungry. Most vultures feed on carcasses of cattle and avoid eating dead dogs or cats. This is because they prefer the carrion of herbivorous animals over carnivores.

Even though the numbers of the White-rumped Vultures are increasing, challenges remain. Recently, cyclones Nisarg and Tauktae resulted in the loss of many nesting trees and the relocation of vultures in the peri-urban areas of the district. SEESCAP set up cages and rented rooms to act as infirmaries for ill or injured vultures. With the help of the local community, the organisation was also able to successfully conduct multiple vulture release programmes.

sacred grove or devrai
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The sacred grove or devrai in the Chirgaon village hosts a large population of tall, old trees. Sadly, many were damaged and lost during the recent cyclones. This picture was taken from a small watchtower.

What became apparent to me was the truly challenging and time-consuming nature of conservation. The secret behind the success of vulture conservation in the region has been the organisation’s focused efforts to raise awareness and bring together the local communities and the government authorities. SEESCAP engages with young students across the state of Maharashtra and conducts seminars for the public in the Raigad district. The extraordinary impact of this partnership between the communities, SEESCAP and the government serves as a powerful inspiration and provides hope for the conservation of endangered species in India.

I would like to acknowledge the support provided by the Maharashtra Forest Department.