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Vultures at Victoria

They are scrawny, look scary and they’ve been stereotyped in western movies as birds that hover around when the lone cowboy is about to die. But vultures are vital to our ecological system because of the scavenging role they play.

For the past few years, India’s vulture population has been declining rapidly. A year ago, Arshad Rehmani, the director of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), warned that the population of 11,000 vultures in the country was falling so rapidly (50 per cent each year) that the bird would soon become extinct.

The reason: a drug called diclofenac, widely administered to cattle in India and so potent that when the vultures eat the carcasses, even a trace of the drug was enough to kill the birds. The drug was banned in 2006 but the decline in vulture population has continued.

But recent sightings in Calcutta suggest that we can be just a little optimistic. The gardens of Victoria Memorial seem to have given safe haven to a large flock of White-rumped vultures (Gyps bengalensis) who are not only roosting but also — and this is critical — nesting there.

As you enter Red Road from AJC Bose Road, going north with the Race Course on your left, you will see a couple of tall trees on your right inside the Victoria Memorial compound. High up on these Buddha’s Coconut trees (sterculia alata), against the blazing blue morning sky, you can see several vultures perched on the branches. They return at sunset, silhouetted shapes against the Memorial’s evening glow, settling down silently for the night.

My own count says there are 64 of them — a large enough number for us to hope for breeding and revival. And if you add the ones on the trees by the Ladies Golf Club further down the road, the numbers are even larger.

We would have lost two of them recently but for some quick action. Dr Panda, the curator of Victoria Memorial, called this writer to report that two fledglings had fallen out of their nests. We called the state forest department’s wildlife rescue wing. They recovered the birds and transferred them to the Vulture Conservation and Breeding Centre set up in Buxa Tiger Reserve by BNHS and the forest department. One survived and will be rehabilitated into the breeding programme.

One saved bird, one site and one observer’s count are not an adequate basis to suggest that the vulture is making a comeback. But given that extinction is forever, we can perhaps afford the “audacity of hope”.

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