I have been involved with environmental activities for quite some time now. I guess, it’s a much needed catharsis after the crazy schedule of the week. Recently, I came to know about this NGO, NEWS from a friend. A Saturday afternoon couldn’t have been more well spent!! They have been doing phenomenal work since 1991 in the field of environment & ecological conservation in the Sunderbans.

I happened to catch up on one of their recent studies & here it is – quite heartening facts about the almost extinct Bengal vulture.


Vultures inhabit the lowest rung in the food chain. They act as scavengers, primarily feeding on dead carcass and thus performs the important function of cleaning up the eco-system.

But nature’s most efficient scavengers are on the verge of extinction. Nine species of vultures have been recorded from the Indian subcontinent of which five belong to the genus Gyps. The White-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis),Long billed vulture (Gyps indicus), Slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuerostris)were the most populous species. But a rapid decline was noticed in their population in the last decade. The worst affected species was that of the Bengal Vulture or The White – backed Vulture ( Gyps bengalenesis). <!–[if gte mso 9]> Normal 0 MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 <![endif]–> In the last 12 years, a shocking 92% decline in their population was observed, leading conservationists to declare them as a rare & threatened species.

Bengal vultures are easily distinguished due to their white ruff of soft feathers around the base of the neck and a broad whitish band along the underside of the wings and an overall heavy brownish – black appearance. These are usually seen in small groups , perched hunched up on tree-tops. Usually late risers, very often seen asleep on a branch with head tucked under the wing till the sun is well up. This is possibly due to their dependence on thermal currents for gliding.

The breeding season stretches from October to March. The nest is an untidy mass of twigs and sticks along with leaves. Normally one egg is laid in a nest. Incubation period lasts for about 45 days. The young is fed on regurgitated goblets of meat. Both sexes share their domestic chores.

A study was conducted by a team of bird – watchers from “Nature Environment & Wildlife Society”(NEWS) on a group of vultures that were sighted within the premises of the Victoria Memorial and on two trees near the Race Course.

Duration of the Study

Field observations were made on the bird community from last year, 18th of April, 2008 to be precise and continued till date.

Site of Study
In and around Victoria Memorial and The Calcutta Race Course.


  • When the study was started , the NEWS team spotted a total of 19 bengal vultures (Gyps bengalensis)in the area around Victoria Memorial.
  • 3 vultures died thereafter. The Forest Department carried out a post mortem on the bodies of the vulture, it revealed the presence of bits of glasses in the stomach of one vulture. The other vultures were found to have empty stomachs. Previous studies attributed the cause for the decline of the vulture population on the use of Diclofenac. But along with that, food shortage also seems to be a problem.
  • There were sightings of a nest in one of the trees within the campus of Victoria Memorial . But the nest fell down during a storm.
  • Two new nests were again seen around end of December. On the 28th of December, a vulture was seen brooding in one of the nests.
  • Around 15th of February a new census revealed the existence of 14 bengal vultures in the same area.

On the 26th of February , a baby vulture was seen, its white head drooping down along a twig.

  • On the same day, another vulture in the other nest on the same tree was repeatedly attempting to chase off any crows that came in the vicinity of the nest and seemed to be brooding. After some time its mate was seen coming out of the nest after which it went into the nest. So, another baby is expected to be seen within the next few days.
  • On the 28th of February, a new chick was seen in the other nest at 5 pm in the evening. It was energetically attempting to bite at the crows that were pestering it. Perhaps, it would need that sort of verve to lead the population into the future.
  • On the same day, a new census revealed 23 vultures. That was really heartening!

Discussion –

It seems that the White – backed vulture or the Bengal Vulture ( Gyps bengalensis )is thriving as of now in this area in and around the Victoria Memorial. However, the source of their food remains a mystery , since the pilkhanas has been shifted from in and around Kolkata. So it is assumed that they must be flying long distances and then coming back to roost. Or it might be that they are surviving on the bits and pieces accumulated from dustbins or streets.

Another factor that might be an imminent threat to the thriving vulture population is the omnipresence of its scavenging competitor, the crows. Due to the greater number of crows in the city, the vultures might be losing out on food and to a certain extent, shelter. Even if they are 4 times larger, one does know how much of a pest the cunning crow might be when it comes to snatching food from the vulture’s nest or biting the young vultures.

Whatever might be the fact, whether the population grows or not is something that conservationists shall have to wait and watch.

Investigators – Sanjib Banerjee & Tiasa Adhya.

The forest department has set up a vulture breeding centre at Rajabhatkhawa which is yet to prove itself. But this is great news for the conservationists that they have bred in the wild and successfully given birth to chicks. Now, it is the responsibility of the forest department to handle these nature-born chicks!