Bird Watching

Vulture Estimation at Panna Tiger Reserve. A brief field trip Report.

Vulture Estimation at Panna Tiger Reserve.  
A brief field trip Report.
-Ajay Gadikar

Since the last 4 years Panna Tiger Reserve (PTR) has been organizing a Vulture population estimation program during the month of January-February. I had attended their last three camps and want to share with you the experiences of one such Vulture Estimation exercise in which I stayed inside the dense Panna Tiger Reserve.

As you all know Vulture is one of the species that’s facing real risk of getting extinct. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) in its red list of threatened species puts this species as critically endangered, as almost 97% to  99% of the vulture population has been wiped out from the wild in the last 15-20 years.  This is very alarming, so immediate steps were taken to save the species. One such step was the survey to find out  how many vultures are remaining in PTR which is a good habitat of vultures.

Our country/region is represented by 9 species of Vultures namely

1.Egyptian/Scavenger Vulture
2.Red headed/king vulture
3.Long billed/king Vulture
4.Slender billed vulture
5.White backed/rumped vulture
6.Lammergeier or bearded vulture
7.Himalayan griffon
8.Eurasian griffon
9.       Cinereous Vulture

The first six are resident species while the last three are migratory.
Vultures are very huge raptors that feed on carrion, the salient features of vultures are

1.Bald Head 
2.Bare neck
3.Short tail
4.Very broad Wings

The survey in PTR is carried out in January/February every year since at this time of the year the  park can accommodate the resident, breeding resident, and visiting (migratory) vulture population. The objective of the survey is to establish vulture abundance and understand conservation requirements.

The PTR Management calls upon through advertisement to the bird watchers community from all over the country who are interested in volunteering in this process.  

The idea is take the help of bird watchers who can identify the different species of vultures. 

By recording the number of vultures/species every year, the forest department wants to reveal the relative head count of the birds over a period of time.

My excursion

As my candidature for the program was approved, I was called upon to reach the PTR one day before the commencement of the program.  A good knowledge of identifying different Vultures is must for your selection in this camp.

I was joined with my friend and we started from Indore for Bhopal at around 6:00 p.m., from Bhopal to catch the Rewanchal Express and reached Satna next day early in the morning.  At Satna the Forest dept. vehicle picked us and we reached the Panna Tiger Reserve entrance gate called “Hinota” by 11 a.m.

Panna Forest with Ken River in the backdrop

The jungle was serene with lots of trees surrounding the Hinota camp area.
We were introduced to the Field Director Mr. Murthy, who explained the whole purpose of this exercise.
All participants were introduced with each other and then divided into smaller groups comprising of two volunteers and a forest guide.
In all there were around 55 participants from all over the country.

Then at around 4:00 P.M. we were taken to a place called the “Dundwa seha” it is a beautiful and picturesque location of the PTR, at this place we were able to see more than 100 vultures roosting at different areas of the cliff. We were astonished to see this many no. of vultures, the field director told us how the different vultures are to be identified depending upon their size, color and plumage.

Group of vultures at their roosting site

The most exciting part of the vultures estimation program was, you were required to stay deep inside the jungle at the forest chowkies where the forest guard stays all thru the year, which is absolutely cut off from all kind of contacts and communications. You are assigned a particular area (roughly 10-15 Sq. km) in which you need to identify and count the no. of vultures present.

We usually start early in the morning around 6:00 a.m. and use to travel approximately 10-12 kms., noting down the number of vultures sitting on trees, on cliffs or in flight on a note sheet provided to us.

Vulture droppings

After coming back from the jungle at around 11: 30 am to our camp, we were served simple but very tasty food prepared by the chowkidars on the wood fire. In afternoon around 2:30 p.m. we again start to survey the forest areas to see and count the vultures.

Staying at night in a jungle is really a wonderful experience as you can see lots of twinkling stars in the open sky which you cannot see in city due to air and light pollution, also you listen to different sounds of the various mammals which are active in night. Jungle seems to be as lively in night as it used to be in day light.

In our two days of forest survey we saw many species of vultures.

Vulture in flight

On the 3rd day we were picked up from our forest camp and taken back to Hinota, on the way we saw the beautiful Ken river with many crocodiles basking at the river bank  also saw many mammals including, wild boar, spotted deer, Sambhar deer, Jackal, sloth bear with her baby, Nilgai, chinkara, apart from many species of birds.

After reaching at Hinota we were presented with the participation certificate and all participants shared with each other experiences of the wild in an informal gathering. Everyone was excited to share his or her experiences of the wild.

The Volunteers

At 5:00 p.m. in evening we started back our journey to Indore with lots of memories of the mesmerizing Panna Forest reserve.


This video on India's vulture may interest you.  Susan Sharma

General Queries about Vultures.
What is the reason of decrease in Vulture population ?
Research has identified the cause of the decline of vultures to be a medicine called ‘diclofenac’ its an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat livestock. Vultures feeding on the carcasses of dead animals recently treated with this drug suffer from kidney failure and die. 

Why the vulture counting is necessary? 
In the early 1990s, the vultures in India were abundant. However, within a decade, the populations of three species, White-rumped Vulture, Indian Vulture and Slender-billed Vulture, had declined so much that they were put as Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red data book.  Surveys in India show that the country’s Indian, white rumped and Slender-billed Vulture populations declined by almost 98% between 1992 and 2007. 
So, when only a few thousands of vultures were left, rigorous efforts were made to save the critical population and an annual database was decided to be maintained so the idea of vulture count was derived. 

Why the Panna Tiger Reserve is chosen for vulture count?
Panna is a mixed dry deciduous forest and abounds in Arjun, Peepal, Banyan, Mahua to name a few medium tall trees where the vultures rest or nest
The Panna Tiger Reserve is a part of the Vindhyan range of Madhya Pradesh, the park has a distinct topography divided into three distinct tablelands: the Talgaon plateau, the middle Hinauta plateau and the Ken valley. The park has many complex gorges and steep valleys. Most vultures are seen in the gorges formed in the plateau along the river systems. Ken River that flow through the forest, are rich in vulture breeding and roosting sites. 

How the vulture counting is done?
The group divided into smaller groups comprising of two volunteers and a forest guide. The group is assigned a particular area (roughly 10-15 Sq. km) in which you need to identify and count the no. of vultures present.
The group usually starts early in the morning around 6:00 a.m. and use to travel approximately 10-12 kms., noting down the number of vultures sitting on trees, on cliffs or in flight on a note sheet provided to them.

What is the significance of this count?
Vultures provide a crucial ecosystem service through the disposal of livestock carcasses and their loss has had huge socio-economic impacts across the Indian Subcontinent. Without vultures, hundreds of thousands of animal carcasses have gone uneaten left to rot in the sun, these pose a serious risk to human health. Livestock carcasses provide a potential breeding ground for numerous infectious diseases, including anthrax, and encourage the proliferation of pest species, such as rats.

Why do we need a vulture breeding program?
The unprecedented scale and speed of vulture population declines has left all three resident vulture species critically endangered. In order to ensure each species’ survival it is necessary to bring them into captivity for breeding purposes. Removing diclofenac from the environment will allow the eventual recovery of vulture populations but this process, in practice, may take several years.
 Therefore it is essential to protect vultures in an environment where they will not be exposed to the drug. Successful captive breeding will enable vulture numbers to increase, eventually allowing for the release of vultures back into the wild, once their food source in Asia is free of diclofenac.
In our country four captive breeding centers have been started in last 5 years.

I am highlighting here some of the main identification marks so that you can distinguish between different vulture species.

1.Egyptian/scavenger vulture.

Most commonly found of all vultures.
Yellow bill and face.
Adult bird has white feathers, juveniles have grey brown feathers.

2.Red headed/King Vulture.

Red head and feet.
          Less gregarious.
          Black color feathers with white patch on the breast.

3.Indian/Long billed Vulture.

Light sandy brown colour.
Black neck and head.
Nests on rock cliffs.

4.Slender Billed vulture.

Very rarely found.
Similar to long billed vulture but its bill is darker.
Nests of rock cliffs.

5.White backed/rumped vulture.

Brownish to cream coloured body. White back seen in flight
Dark neck and paler head with an all dark bill.
Nests on large trees.

6.Cinereous Vulture.

Very large size vulture with broad-winged vulture
Adults are dark brown and juveniles are all black in color.
Only vulture with all black under wings.

7.Himalayan Griffon vulture.

Very large vulture.
Adults have soft white ruff.
Body is rufous in color.

8.Eurasian Griffon Vulture.

Light brown color vulture.
Flight and tail feathers are black.

( Text and photographs by Ajay Gadikar.  Ajay Gadikar is an  Ornithologist from Indore  He can be contacted at the no.9302102821  

Bird Watching

Trenching Grounds- Alternate bird habitats

Trenching Grounds- Alternate bird habitats
-Ajay Gadikar

In today’s scenario, the trenching grounds in cities have become alternate birding habitats. At any point of time you will witness large groups of birds circling above the dumping yards. We generally avoid the areas but if you just observe the kind of avi-fauna present there, it is just phenomenal, birds of various species in large flocks are seen here.


Egrets at the Trenching Ground

While visiting Assam for the first time to see the Rhino and other wildlife at the famous Kaziiranga national park my first stop was at the Guwahati Dumping Ground near the Deep(Beel) or the Deepor Lake and it was to see the critically endangered Greater Adjutant stork whose sightings are confirmed in the area. Although it sounds awkward but these dumping grounds or trenching grounds and many others in the country do attract a lot of birds all along the year.

Trenching grounds are in reality very good birding habitats. Even places where the carcasses of animals are disposed, like Jorbeer in Rajasthan, have become famous and potential sites for watching vultures and other raptors.

In Indore a large dumping yard is situated near the Devguradia hilltop. This trenching ground attract lots of birds, it has became a safe habitat for the Endangered Egyptian vultures found in the nearby area. While roaming in the city you would hardly find a vulture soaring in the air, but once you enter the trenching ground you can find about 40-50 odd vultures, both juveniles and adults flying, feeding or foraging in the area.

Egyptian vultures at the trenching ground water body

Apart from vulture a large number of Black kites, Cattle egrets, Little egrets, Intermediate egrets, House crows and Large billed crows, Black Drongos and Common Myna are seen here.

During winters the local avifauna is added with a good number of winter migrants like grey, yellow and white wagtails. There are two water bodies inside the trenching ground where you can also see Sandpipers and other waders. I found very large numbers of winter visiting Rosy pastors near the dumping ground all feeding on the garbage.
More than 50 species of birds in ample numbers are seen here. 

A nice ecosystem has been formed in the area for the birds of many species, whether they are scavengers or waders. I think largely it is due to the presence of a lot of food for the birds in the area.

Trenching ground of Indore

During the population census of Vultures  done in all the districts of M.P. by the forest department, I visited this dumping ground and could count 50-60 Egyptian Vultures. Most of them were scavenging on the carcass and other waste dumped there. It was a filthy place for bird watching but is truly a great place to watch birds and observe their activities.

Ralamandal wildlife sanctuary situated near the trenching ground is also a good habitat for the birds and many of the times birds find safe haven here after feeding at the dumping ground.

One should take all possible precautions while visiting such places specially covering his mouth and nose so that you should not get infected. 

With the fast reducing habitats of birds, forests, as well as water bodies, the birds are finding their way by adapting to changes. If they find food and shelter at the dumping grounds they will surely visit and live near these areas. The ever increasing population will always bring more and more garbage at the dumping grounds.

(Ajay Gadikar is a naturalist from Indore)

Burning Issues

Asia'sCritically Endangered Vultures

Asia'sCritically Endangered Vultures
-Courtesy Chris Bowden

SAVE( Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction ) is a consortium of 21 partners and many more associated organisations, with backing of Governments of Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Nepal and Pakistan, sharing the goal to identify and implement the priority actions (based on scientific evidence) that are urgently needed to conserve Asia’s Critically Endangered vultures. 

As documented in their 7th Annual meeting held in 2018, the achievements in protecting the endangered vultures till date are as under
  • Govt ban of ketoprofen and aceclofenac declared in Bangladesh
  • First releases of captive-reared white-rumped vultures in Nepal (& satellite tracking of 11 wild birds)
  • Successfully upholding the multi-dose-vial ban in India (winning the challenge in Madras High court case brought by two pharma companies)
  • Initiation of NSAID safety-testing program on vultures by IVRI started for tolfenamic acid o Population trends in Nepal for wild white-rumped vultures now positive where diclofenac use has been stopped
  • The first F2 generation white-rumped vulture offspring (ie both parents were hatched in captivity) for the programme were fledged at Pinjore centre.
  • Increasing Government support and resources for breeding and release programme in India

The updated priorities for 2018 are,
  • Veterinary licenses to be withdrawn for two drugs – ketoprofen and aceclofenac - based on the good existing evidence that they are unsafe for vultures.
  • An effective system of regulation of veterinary drugs, based upon safety-testing on vultures is continued for all current painkillers (NSAIDs) and for all potential new ones entering veterinary practice.
  • Evaluate safety to vultures of nimesulide as a priority.
  • Identify additional vulture safe NSAIDs (alternatives for vets).
  • Defend and communicate the 2015 multi-dose ban of human diclofenac formulations to relevant authorities & stakeholders (India).
  • Major efforts urgently needed within South Asia to address the immediate and increasing gap in funding for vulture conservation
  • Promotion of network and approach of ‘Vulture Safe Zones’ across South Asia with expansion to include trans-boundary cooperative efforts.
  • Maintain and support the existing vulture conservation breeding programmes throughout South Asia.
  • Create a safe environment for further soft releases of captive vultures at identified sites (100km radius) in Nepal and first soft releases in India in 2018, requiring satellite monitoring of the released birds.
  • Improved availability of well-formulated meloxicam products thereby facilitating their popularity with veterinary practitioners.
  • Use the Convention of Migratory Species’ Vulture Multi-species Action Plan as a tool to promote SAVE priority actions and engage with governments. Inform CMS about significant changes (e.g. changes to threats) in the SAVE region.
  • Closely support National Vulture Recovery Committees and the Regional Steering Committee in order to facilitate the urgent implementation of the 2012 Delhi Regional Agreement and SAVE priorities.
White rumped vulture
Photo Pradeep Sharma


Scavengers or Lifesavers ?

-Shivani Thakur

Vultures have been part of our culture from time immemorial. The famous "Jatayu"of the epic Ramayana who gives up his life trying to save Sita from clutches of Ravana belonged to the vulture family. Or the cunning creatures in the animated version of The Jungle Book by Walt Disney, were also vultures. Vultures have been appraised as well as looked down upon by mankind. Their small heads devoid of any feathers, in comparison to their bulky bodies scavenging on dead are frowned upon by old and feared by young.

In India there are over 10 species of vultures. Of these the three most common are the Indian White- backed Gyps bengalensis, Indian Long-billed Gyps indicus and Slender-billed Gyps tenurostris. These three are also on the Schedule 1 of The Wildlife Protection Act. The reason behind this is their declining population.
Vultures feed on carcasses. The animals are dosed with veterinary Diclofenac, a standard painkiller. The diclofenac converts into large amount of uric acid, which larger animals can withstand safely. But in vultures causes toxic anal failure also known as "drooping neck syndrome". This has resulted in a sharp decline of vulture population by over 97% from 1992 to 2003.

The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS)first conducted its study at the Keoledeo National Park whereupon the rate of decline in Indian white backed vultures was 99.7% A study conducted by Dr.Rhys Green of the Royal society for the protection of Birds indicated the decline in India, Pakistan and Nepal due to diclofenac poisoning. The earlier theories of viral or bacterial diseases were ruled out after intensive examination of dead birds.

The concern for declining population has bothered not only the conservationists but also the Parsi community. The Parsi community depend upon birds of prey to dispose of dead bodies. In the Tower of death the bodies are exposed to natural element, the sky. Earlier it happened speedily but because of fewer vultures the system is slowing. The environmental damage is also an area of concern. The absence of scavenger birds would result in the outbreak of TB, anthrax and foot and mouth disease. Vultures will be replaced by less favoured scavengers like rats and dogs. Diseases spread by them have become rampant in India.

The good news is that Natonal Board for Wildlife chaired by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh on March 17 2005 approved the phasing out of this painkiller and replacing it with non- lethal substitutes. BNHS on its part has opened a vulture captive care center ,on the footsteps of the captive breeding of Californian Condor, in Pinjore (Haryana) and plan two more centers in Himachal Pradesh and West Bengal. Till then we can take pride in the only wild habitat of these birds in Chitalayam forests inside the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala which is known as the Valley of vultures. The survival of these majestic birds is an example of least interference of humans as they feed on wild animals who have not been exposed to the painkillers. But the question remains whether all these efforts would be in time to save them. Or is it too late, as Peregrine Fund has warned that "their loss has important economic, cultural and human health consequences".


Vultures - "We will survive"

-Pradeep Sharma, Veterinary Officer at Department of Animal Husbandry, Govt. of Rajasthan
(Pradeep is a Vet Microbiologist and can be contacted at

We are probably aware of the declining number of the three endemic species of vultures in the Indian subcontinent i.e. Long-billed, White-rumped and Slender-billed vultures. These vultures used to be one of the most common raptor (Birds of Prey) species in the world prior to the nineties, and now very few young people have the privilege to see them in their natural habitat. The single most plausible reason has been exposure of these vultures to the residual veterinary painkiller known as diclofenac as they consumed carcasses of cattle and other livestock species treated with this drug before their death. This decline has been unprecedented in human history given the scale, speed, number and manner in which a wild species decimated from the planet. This is the first documented instance of mass-poisoning of a wild species by a veterinary drug.

White- rumped vulture

Dedicated avian conservation organizations have been working in different manners with the help of subject experts, scientists and volunteers in coordination with concerned bodies of the Government of India since start of this millennium. The milestone of the conservation efforts came when diclofenac was banned in veterinary practices in any form back in 2006 in India-- a success story of how good science can help in conservation of the species practically and realistically. 

In the ongoing first step, captive breeding of few selected vultures is successfully being practiced. This was important to safeguard a breeding population in case of total extinction of the vultures from their natural habitat and to breed them to increase their numbers. Additionally selected areas in India and Nepal were declared as ‘Vulture Safe Zones’ (VSZ)—these are large areas in which consistent and intensive efforts have been made to make sure that livestock species are not treated with diclofenac by veterinary practitioners, para-vets or the farmers themselves. This is made possible by awareness building, constant monitoring of pharmacies and with the help of local bodies. The captive-bred vultures are now ready to be released in the second phase of the conservation work. This second phase is very crucial and the success of the first phase of captive breeding mostly depends on its successful execution. 

Long- billed vultures

An important question arises if creation of a VSZ is easy as it sounds? Probably no! The most challenging work for people working for conservation of the vultures has been to stop illegal use of diclofenac in veterinary practices. This is due to lackadaisical enforcement of the law, communication gap between conservation scientists and veterinarians, and most importantly—the quacks! These poorly educated or illiterate quacks, common in rural India are not licensed to practice veterinary medicine legally. These quacks, in fact, in many cases, can’t read name of the label and their selection of drug is mostly based on how it looks like including its color!  Obviously it seems that these quacks are not aware of the harm they are causing, partly true, but in most cases they use diclofenac because of its cheap availability, efficacy and lack of any painful sensation associated with the only safe veterinary drug so far—Meloxicam. It is highly unlikely that these quacks can ideally respond ever by stopping using diclofenac. The motivation for this illegal use also stem from the fact that there has been no single trial against the culprits so far in India! Now this vital link of enforcing law in conservation contexts by legal action either doesn’t exist or doesn’t have many takers presently. A conservation scientist or a volunteer is not always expected to take this long arduous route for obvious reasons but the competent people in the society can take this forward by legal routes. Also the conservation of a species that is going to extinct is crucial and of utmost importance. The legal action should not be punishing but correcting and must act as a strong deterrence against those who break the law. 
Another important aspect that the conservation planners must incorporate is movement of domestic animals across the regions. Animals are being bought and transported by farmers individually or at a mass scale. We are aware of large gathering of farmers gathering at animal fairs and subsequent transaction of their animals. Buffalo male calves are bought in bulk and transported to slaughter houses. Sheep migration by pastoral communities is an apt example of a systemic migration of domestic animals at a large scale. Availability of motor vehicles and deeper penetration of the same in rural India makes it quite easier to transport animals to a long distance and in short time. 

If we connect the dots, then it is clear that an animal treated with diclofenac away from VSZ could potentially make it to the VSZ in a short time. If the animal dies soon after arrival then the vultures could be exposed to the residual diclofenac contained therein the carcass. It is practically not possible to stop such movements and check every individual animal this way. 

Furthermore few more veterinary painkillers are also toxic to the vultures including ketoprofen and aceclofenac. In fact, aceclofenac is a structural and pharmacological derivative of diclofenac itself. Though researchers have proved the potential toxicity of these drugs but still it is not illegal to use these drugs in veterinary practices. It also means that these drugs can still be used in a VSZ, which is alarming. 

Another factor adding to complexity of VSZ is enormous foraging range of the vultures, which could fly in excess of a hundred kilometers at a stretch. Even a very big VSZ could not ensure movement of the vultures exclusively with in designated boundaries of the VSZ. 

So we have a potentially worrying situation of illegal use of diclofenac in veterinary practices, specially made rampant by quacks, and a quick large-distance movement of animals that is damaging to very fundamental objective of creating a VSZ, which is to check exposure of diclofenac to the vultures. Any prospective or existing conservation strategy must incorporate critical evaluation of these situations before releasing the captive-bred vultures to these zones. An effective enforcement of the diclofenac ban is probably the most cheap, practical and long-term strategy for in-situ conservation of the critically endangered vultures, which unfortunately, is being paid the least attention. 

Pradeep Sharma moderated an online chat in our Club on 
18th August, 2010
The chat transcription can be read at the link

Film Reviews

Indianwildlifeclub youtube channel on vulture ecosystems

On a four day visit to Dharamshala in August, 2019, a trek to Nagooni falls rate as my best experience in Dharamshala.The Lunta Valley trek to Nagooni falls starts from the small hydroelectric project at Kharota in Khaniara,9 km from Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh.The route is taken by goats, mules, cows and shepherds.Goat farming is the main source of income for marginal and landless farmersLunta is home to one of the largest slate mines in the country. Slate roofs are commonly found in houses in H.PHimalayan butterflies greeted us on the way. The Himalayan Griffon Vultures were flying about and the discovery of their nest site was a thrilling experience.

Vultures of India-A glimpse

News and Views

Vultures in India-Theme of this Ezine

Resources for reading

Online chats moderated by Pradeep Sharma, Veterinary doctor

Forum post by Dr.Dau Lal Bohra

Forum post by Susan Sharma

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