The sighting of a pair of critically endangered Asian king vultures and a juvenile in the Sigur plateau is a cause for optimism that the species may be re-establishing itself in the region, experts say.
The population of the Asian king vulture, like most vulture species in India, has crashed over the last five decades.
The Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR), encompassing both the Sigur plateau and the Moyar valley, is believed to be home to 12-14 individuals. Since research began around a decade ago, not a single nesting site of the species has been found in the MTR.
A. Samson, a research biologist from the Bombay Natural History Society who has been studying vultures inhabiting the Sigur plateau and the Moyar valley for the last decade, said the Asian king vulture, also known as the red-headed vulture, used to be seen across Tamil Nadu, right up to Kanniyakumari, till 50 years ago.
Despite extensive searches over the last decade in the MTR, not a single nesting site of the species has been discovered, he said.
The images of the three vultures two adults and a juvenile were captured on two separate days by lawyer M. Santhanaraman on a visit to the area recently. He told The Hindu that the record hinted at the possibility of a nesting site nearby.
If nesting sites are identified, any step to ensure the conservation of the area can be taken, he said.
One way we can help bolster the population of vultures is by ensuring that the Kedarhalla stream, which, during the drought years, goes bone dry, is maintained as a perennial stream. During the drought that hit the district in 2016, many trees that the vultures depend on for nesting, like the Terminalia arjuna, died. If the streams are made perennial by ensuring a mean flow throughout the year, the vulture nesting sites using the landscape can be protected, Mr. Santhanaraman said.
B. Ramakrishnan, Assistant Professor at the Department of Zoology and Wildlife Biology at the Government Arts College, Udhagamandalam, said the sighting of a juvenile Asian king vulture was a sign that the population might be increasing.
This particular species of vulture only feeds on fresh carcasses, and is known for tracking tigers so that it can feed off its kills, he said.
He added that the increase in the number of tigers in the buffer zone of the reserve could lead to availability of more food for the vultures, thus helping the species re-establish itself in the region.
Bharathidasan, secretary of Arulagam, an NGO working on vulture conservation, feels it is too premature to make any conclusion from this one-off sighting.
Boosting the numbers
As the population of these vultures is so low, a single poisoning event could wipe out the entire species. Hence, we need to think of establishing captive breeding centres and other means to boost the number of red-headed vultures in the region, he said.
Other means to help the species establishing feeding stations and captive breeding of the vultures and eventual release could also help, said T. Murugavel, project coordinator for the Environment Monitoring and Action Initiating.