Since January 2017, 50-year-old Rajen Mili has been disposing dead animals from his village at Disangmukh Sapori, a sand bar on the banks of the Disang River in Assam’s Sivasagar district. In January 2018, he put up a banner demarcating the area as a "Graveyard For Cows/Safe Haven for Nature's Cleaning Crew (Vultures)".
Whenever he hears of cattle dying nearby, Mili - an employee at the Public Works Department, Assam - brings the carcass to this makeshift graveyard. The arrangement serves two purposes: the carcass gets disposed of and vultures that circle overhead get their meal.
Even though his neighbours think he's "olop boliya" (slightly mad), Mili is least perturbed. He says he is doing it for the vultures. "I have seen vultures die from consuming poisoned carcass. So my plan is to get rid of the carcass off before it is poisoned," he says.
Mili's inexplicable fondness for vultures has even led him to pen a poem dedicated to the scavenger birds: Prakriti'r Jomadaror Binoni (The Lament of Nature's Janitor).
Vultures are a scavenging birds of prey known to be nature's most "efficient cleaners". Six species of vultures are found in Assam. Though there is no official data regarding numbers, their population is estimated to be around 500 in the Northeastern region.
White-rumped vultures and Slender-billed vultures, species which were earlier found abundantly in Assam, are now listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Since 1999, there has been a rapid decline of vulture population due to Diclofenac, a veterinary drug used as a painkiller to treat cattle. Though it was banned by the Centre in 2006, it is allegedly still being prescribed by quacks in rural areas.
However, a more recent phenomena is direct poisoning of carcasses leading to "secondary poisoning" of the vultures. "In many places, villagers poison the carcass of a cow intending to kill feral dogs or jackals. However, vultures become accidental victims when they feed on those carcasses. As vultures are community feeders, one poisoned carcass can kill around 50 vultures," explains Rathin Barman, Joint Director of Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).
The most recent incident of mass poisoning took place in Netaipukhuri Jamuguri village in Sivasagar. On March 29, news spread that a number of vultures had fallen ill after after feeding on the carcass of a calf. Forest officials and a team of biologists from Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) stationed in Demow, forty five minutes away, went to the spot and started preliminary treatment. Next morning the birds were brought to the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) in Kaziranga, jointly run by WTI, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the Assam Forest Department.
The incident caused 32 vultures to die on the spot, while 34 were rescued. Three birds - unable to stand on their feet and vomiting profusely - died on the way to the CWRC and another died during treatment.
"But we could save rest of them. Within four days of treatment, they began to feed and perch. Finally, on April 9, our team took the decision of releasing them," says Dr Samshul Ali, Wildlife Veterinarian at CWRC.
Out of the 30 released, three were critically endangered Slender-billed vultures - a breed whose population has declined by 97% since 1990s.
"Mighty and High"
Since 2003, CWRC at Kaziranga has handled over 120 such cases and released around 70% back to the wild. The centre, established in 2002, is one of the few facilities in the country where orphaned or injured wild animals are rehabilitated to be sent back to the wild.
Most vulture poisoning cases have been reported from Sivasagar in Upper Assam. Rounaq Ghosh, a biologist from BNHS working on vultures in Demow, says this is because Sivasagar has the highest population of vultures in Assam.
In 2007, BNHS established a Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre in Rani in the outskirts of Guwahati, in collaboration with the Assam Forest Department. BNHS has three other centres in Pinjore (Haryana), Rajabhatkhawa (West Bengal) and Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh). Currently breeding a population of 118 birds, their mission is to release 100 pairs each of two species (Oriental white-backed and Slender-billed) in the wild.
To create awareness about vultures among locals, CWRC with the Sivasagar Forest Department released the birds on April 9 at Bargaon Nalanipathar, exactly the same spot where they were found poisoned ten days ago. They also addressed a gathering of more than 300 villagers about the importance of saving vultures.
Debojit Deuri, a resident of Kokilamari village, hardly a kilometre away from where the vultures were released, says, "It was a surreal experience to see all the vultures being released. The fact that so many people are working so hard for conservation of the bird is overwhelming. This has changed our outlook."
Vultures might not be a treat for the eyes and ears for many people but the people working round the clock for their conservation dote on them. Like Mili, a biologist at the Rani Centre, who did not want to be named, has also written a poem dedicated to the birds, shedding light on their tragic fate of because of 'betrayal of man'. He says, "I find these birds very fascinating. They are hundred percent scavengers in the sense that they won't touch an animal if there is even a little life left in it. Other scavengers like Hyenas kill but vultures do not."
The poem ends with words of hope as the vulture rises again, 'mighty and high'.
The writer is a freelance journalist in Assam and tweets at nabarun_guha45.