Vultures nest on a treetop in the Rabindra Sadan complex. Picture courtesy Zoological Survey of India
The term “culture vulture” has assumed a whole new meaning in Bengal.
Rabindra Sadan, regarded by many as the state’s culture cradle, has become a sanctuary for the critically endangered White-rumped Vulture in a beguiling choice of address by a species whose numbers have dwindled drastically.
Two adults and a juvenile have so far been spotted roosting atop one of the trees in the complex, otherwise known to attract mostly lovebirds and hawk-eyed culture lovers.
Birders in the city had never seen vultures in the Rabindra Sadan complex before, though around three to four members of the species are spotted on the nearby Victoria Memorial grounds every year.
“The veterinary use of the drug Diclofenac has resulted in the population of vultures being depleted across India. It has since been banned as a veterinary drug. Today, there are vulture breeding programmes at Buxa (West Bengal), Pinjore (Haryana) and Rani (Assam) for conservation of the species,” said Gopinathan Maheswaran of the Zoological Survey of India.
Till the early 90s, vultures were a common sight, especially by the roadside. In the 1980s, there were around three lakh vultures in the country, including a large number in Calcutta. The population is down 95 per cent.
“We have reports of a total of only 10-15 pairs of vultures in and around the city now,” Maheswaran said.
Vultures used to play a big role in the scavenging chain, feeding on animal carcasses dumped by the roadside in most Indian towns and cities.
Their population started shrinking along with the increase in the use of Diclofenac as a veterinary drug. “Vultures feeding on carcasses with a concentration of unmetabolised Diclofenac invariably died of kidney failure,” a veterinarian said.
Although Diclofenac as a veterinary drug was later banned in India and some countries, its use didn’t stop immediately. By the time the ban was fully enforced, the vulture had made it to the list of critically endangered species.
Although the sighting of three White-rumped Vultures at Rabindra Sadan is no assurance that their numbers have increased, birders see it as a positive sign.
“While coming down the AJC Bose Road flyover, one can see vultures nesting on a tree on the Victoria Memorial campus at the onset of summer,” said conservationist and birder Sumit Sen.
A few more of the species are sometimes seen circling the Rajarhat-New Town belt, he said.
The large, untidy nest in the fork of the tall tree at Rabindra Sadan could be an old one. “Vultures keep returning to the trees they nest in and often use the old nests with a few renovations to strengthen them so that they can carry the big birds, each weighing 7-8kg. The nests, made of thick twigs, often need to be repaired after squalls,” Maheswaran said.