Tripura is the smallest state in northeastern India. With a tropical climate and seasonal rains from the southwest monsoon, more than half of its area is covered in forests, dominated by large tracts of bamboo and cane. Tripura’s forests are home to the highest number of primate species found in the country, including the Spectacled Langur, Capped Langur, Pig-tailed Macaque, Hoolock Gibbon and Slow Loris.

The small town of Bagan Bazar in the Khowai district, some 62km from the capital Agartala, is one of the wildlife-rich areas of the state, not only for the primates seen around town but also for its vultures. During our school days, vultures were a regular sight across Tripura. Today, it is quite a different story, with vultures on the verge of extinction in the country, owing to a significant decline in local populations in the ‘90s and early ‘00s due to diclofenac poisoning. While the White-rumped Vulture is classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the Himalayan Vulture falls under the Near Threatened category.

     Endangered Himalayan Vulture  Anindita | Nature Infocus
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Himalayan Griffon, also known as Himalayan Vulture (Gyps himalayensis) is a near-threatened species with a stable population. Photograph: Anindita Datta Muhuri

However, numbers of vultures in the state have been recovering since 2000, when the forest department took the initiative to reach out to local villagers, asking them to leave their dead cattle for vultures to feed on instead of burying them. The locals responded positively, leaving behind carcasses of their cattle near river banks or deep in the jungle. Since then, vulture sightings have gone up in Tripura.

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White-rumped Vultures and Himalayan Griffons perched on a Red Silk Cotton tree in Bagan Bazar. Photograph: Purnendu Das

It was March 2022 when we visited Bagan Bazar to explore the faunal diversity of the region. Early in the morning, we set out to a location known for vulture sightings. We left the tarred road behind and walked along a mud path through paddy fields to reach a river bank where there was a fresh carcass. There were a few vultures hovering in the sky and a few others perched on the trees on the far end. We found a vantage point from where we could observe the carcass without disturbing the circling scavengers and began our patient wait. After a few hours, one by one, the vultures came closer and started feeding. The carcass also attracted packs of free-ranging dogs, who often chased away the vultures.

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The locals leave behind carcasses of their cattle near river banks or deep in the jungle for vultures to feed on. Photograph: Anindita Datta Muhuri
     White rumped vulture Feral dog Anindita Datta Muhuri  | Nature Infocus
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The carcasses also attract free-ranging dogs, who often chase away the vultures. Photograph: Anindita Datta Muhuri

One can explore more wildlife species within a 20km-radius of Bagan Bazar. The forest, adjacent hills and grasslands of Bagan Bazar are also home to other curious species. Bagan Bazar boasts a long list of avian residents, including barbets, drongos, munias, orioles, wagtails, kingfishers, cormorants, pratincoles, plovers and more.

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Kingfishers, cormorants, plovers and other waders are a common sight on the banks of River Khowai. Stork-billed Kingfisher (Pelargopsis capensis) | Photograph: Purnendu Das

Classified as ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List due to declining population trends, the Phayre’s Leaf Monkey or the Spectacled Monkey is found only in certain parts of Tripura, including Khowai and the nearby hills. They can be seen in small colonies resting high up in the canopy. Spotting them is not easy as they are constantly on the move in search of food and for the safety of their members.

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The critically endangered Phayre's Leaf Monkey (Trachypithecus phayrei) can be seen in small colonies, resting high up in the canopy. Photograph: Purnendu Das

Capped Langur is another primate found in Tripura and the neighbouring state of Assam. They can be found deep inside the forests of Khowai and its adjacent hills. On our way back to Bagan Bazar, we spotted a Northern Pig-tailed Macaque on a tree by the side of the road. They are very shy creatures, and only few numbers are found within Tripura.

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"On our way back to Bagan Bazar, we spotted a Northern Pig-tailed Macaque (Macaca leonina) on a tree by the side of the road." Photograph: Anindita Datta Muhuri

With vultures now a common sight along the riverbank in Bagan Bazar, the area needs to be protected to keep these endangered birds from the harm of stray dogs and humans. Most importantly, there needs to be more awareness among the larger public, and hopefully, we will continue to see vultures and primates thrive in these forests.