On March 17, at around 10 am, farmer Bipul Goswami had just returned home from his field. While washing his hands and feet at the village tube well, he saw a kettle of vultures in the sky. He thought to himself that a cow might have died somewhere nearby, and the vultures were in for a grand feast. He never imagined that it was going to be the last meal for many in the flock.

Goswami, a resident of the Mothpara village in Chaygaon, Assam, 45 km from Guwahati told Mongabay-India, “Just before dusk that day, someone from our neighbouring Milanpur village was scouting for his lost cow. He was the first to discover some vulture carcasses scattered in the area. As other villagers gathered there after being informed, more carcasses were found. It was a devastating scene.”

In the incident, which is suspected to be a case of pesticide poisoning, at least 100 Himalayan Griffon vultures and one Steppe eagle have been confirmed dead. Dimpi Bora, Divisional Forest Officer, West Kamrup said, “When we went to the spot on the evening of March 17, we found carcass of 97 vultures.”

“Twelve vultures were alive at that point and they were sent for treatment to the Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre at Rani in Kamrup district,” Bora said. “Next day, we discovered three more carcasses – two vultures and one eagle. Also, one vulture sent to the breeding centre died.”

“We found the remains of a small animal from the site which could be a goat or a dog,” Dimpi said. “We are suspecting that the carcass of that animal was laced with carbofuradan, a very lethal pesticide. We have sent the remains of that animal to the forensics and the exact cause of death will be known only after we get the test results.”

Stray dogs

Mothpara and Milanpur are two villages separated by a beel (small water body) called Sanadol. The beel remains dry for the most part of the year barring a few months in the monsoon. According to the locals, it was around the Sanadol beel, where the carcass of the vultures was found. While Mothpara has a population of more than 500, Milanpur which is a comparatively new village has around 300 people.

A majority of the people in these two villages are peasants though many of them also rear livestock such cows, goats, pigs and chicken. For the past four-five years, the villagers rearing livestock are facing a new threat, stray dogs.

Chaygaon-based environmentalist Prasanna Kalita explained, “The population of these dogs in the villages have increased exponentially and they are also very ferocious. They regularly attack livestock. So, the poor people who face significant loss because of such attacks, try to poison the dogs.”

“However, dogs have an acute sense of smell, and they are smart enough to avoid a carcass laced with pesticide,” Kalita said. “It is the hapless vultures which feed on the carcass and as they are community feeders, they die in huge numbers. Dogs not only compete with the raptors for food but there are many instances when they chase and attack them.”

Dogs have an acute sense of smell and they avoid a carcass laced with pesticide, while the vultures feed on them and die. Photo credit: Prasanna Kalita

Scientist Sachin Ranade who manages the Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre at Rani, said that the Chaygaon incident had led to highest casualty of vultures from a single incident in Assam. “Furadan is a commonly used pesticide which has been used in this case,” he told Mongabay-India. “It is used to kill pests like insects and rodents and is very lethal. In this case, they mixed the poison in the carcass of the goat, intending to kill dogs.”

“Unfortunately, vultures became unintentional victims,” he said. “Dogs attacking livestock is a complex problem but trying to poison the dogs is certainly not the way out. If they want action to be taken against dogs, then they should contact the municipal authorities. What they have done here is both cruel and illegal.”

While initially, the authorities had thought of burying the dead vultures, Ranade advised against it. “If you bury the carcasses, the traces of poison in them could seep into the water body nearby and affect the humans eventually,” he said. “The impact might not be felt immediately but they would have been affected in the long run.”

The carcasses were eventually burnt at the site where they were found. “It took two trucks of wood along with tires to burn so many carcasses,” Goswami said. “The pyres which were lit in the night burned till the next morning.”

The carcasses were eventually burnt in the site where they were found. The pyres which were lit in the night burned till the next morning. Photo credit: Prasanna Kalita

While one person was initially detained by the authorities, he was eventually released, as no concrete evidence was found against him. “This man was a resident of Milanpur village,” Goswami said. “One of his goats was attacked by dogs recently. But he was eventually released because he said his goat had recovered from the attack and he didn’t have any motive to poison the carcass.”

Vultures in trouble

The incident at Chaygaon is not an isolated incident of vultures dying after consuming contaminated carrion. A fortnight before the Chaygaon incident, 30 vultures died after feeding on a poisoned carcass in Dibrugarh and earlier in January this year, 23 vultures died under similar circumstances. Even three years ago, 19 and 39 vultures had died in two separate incidents in Sivasagar district.

There was a time when the population of vultures, especially the Gyps variety was hugely affected by diclofenac, a non steroid anti-inflammatory drug used to treat cattle. In fact, the population of white-rumped vultures fell by 99.7% between 1993 and 2002 while the population of the slender billed species fell by 97.4%. Diclofenac was eventually banned for veterinary use in India in 2006.

Ranade said that even though the drug is not used on cattle anymore, it is still used as a painkiller for humans. “There are cases when the drugs meant for humans have been bought from pharmacies in bulk and used to treat cattle,” he said. “However, in the recent case, diclofenac was not used because it works as a slow poison and takes 10-15 days to kill the bird. However, if pesticides like furadon are used, vultures die very quickly as happened in Chaygaon.”

Padma Shri recipient veterinarian KK Sarma said it would be wrong to just blame the use of diclofenac for the decline in the vulture population. “Organophosphates like furadon not only kill raptors but it also affects their egg hatching ability, if poisoned in small doses,” he explained. “They will lay thin shell eggs which run the risk of getting ruptured and won’t incubate eventually. Apart from that, raptors are also being affected because of the lack of nesting trees.”

“We are cutting down all the big trees and this is creating a habitat problem for them,” he explained. “They also run the risk of getting hit by train. When the carcass of a cow is lying on a railway track, vultures descend on it.”

“However, they are slow movers and when a train arrives,” he said. “It takes a few minutes to get ready for flight. By that time, an accident happens. So, any carcass found on railway lines should be removed immediately to prevent such accidents.”

While there has been no proper census of vultures in Assam, Ranade takes a rough estimate. “Both white-rumped and slender-billed species will have a population of 1,000 each in Assam,” said Ranade. “It will be difficult to tell the number of Himalayan Griffons because they are migratory birds and will return to the Himalayas after May-June.”

The vulture breeding centre at Rani is one of the four such breeding centres set up in the country by the Bombay Natural History Society, with the others being at Pinjore in Haryana, Rajabhatkhawa in West Bengal and Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. “We release a few dozen rescued vultures every year into the wild. However, we have not released the ones which were born and brought up in our centre,” informed Ranade.

Ray of hope

However, not everything is bleak for the vultures. There are people in Assam who are fully committed towards making the world a better place for these nature’s janitors. One such person is Rajen Mili, an employee of the Public Works Department who has an inexplicable love for vultures. He made a makeshift graveyard for vultures on a chapori (sandbar) in the Sivasagar district, in 2018. He also has an idea of starting a shed for old and sick cows, which are of no use for their owners.

“I have space to keep 50-60 cows,” he said. “Once these cows die, I will dump their carcasses in my graveyard so that vultures can feed on them.”

There was a time when vultures had a bad reputation for their scavenging habits. However, over time, people have understood the importance of these birds and the role they play in the ecosystem. So, on March 27, ten days after the vultures were killed in Chaygaon, the villagers of Milanpur and Mothpara organised a prayer meet in memory of the departed souls of the raptors.

In memory of the departed souls of the raptors, the villagers of Milanpur and Mothpara organised a prayer meet. Non-governmental organisation Bonyobandhu distributed leaflets to spread awareness about vultures among the villagers who had assembled there. Photo credit: Prasanna Kalita

The programme was attended by around 500 people from the two villages, members of the environmental NGO Bonyobandhu and forest department officials. The event was commemorated by Naam Prasanga (recital of prayer song) and Bhagavat Path (reading from sacred book). Prasanna Kalita, who is a member of the NGO Bonyobandhu said that his organisation distributed leaflets to spread awareness about vultures among the villagers who had assembled there.

Regarding the latest measures taken to create awareness by the forest department, Divisional Forest Officer Bora said, “We announced through loudspeakers in the villages how it is a punishable offence to poison a carcass. We have also formed a protection squad with local youth to spread awareness among people about the necessity of vultures.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.