Once upon a time, there was this happy place called Kokkrebellur. Once upon a time.
Now, this age-old nesting site for the endemic Painted stork has become another casualty of human greed.
In Kannada, the word “kokkre” means stork. The very name of this village is derived from the storks that come here every February to breed. It is believed that this location has been the nesting ground for the Painted stork since a thousand years.
It has taken Homo sapiens less than a decade to ruin it.
What else do you expect from the most destructive species on the planet? Microwave towers, loudspeakers blaring, massive old trees chopped down, waterbodies gone dry, illegal sand mining, heaps of garbage – no effort has been spared to screw up Kokkrebellur as only humans can.
Once, there was a grove of Mahua trees that was three centuries old, and housed dozens of mating Indian grey hornbills and a hundred other species. Now there are charred stumps. And an illegal function hall in its place. Littered with discarded bottles, plastic, rotting food and all the usual shit that humans like to throw around.
I’ve written at length about Kokkrebellur in an earlier blogpost, written in the days when there was something to write about this unique village in Maddur district. But now there’s nothing left at Kokkrebellur to write about. The storks and pelicans have arrived this year too, but each year their numbers dwindle.
The Kabini river that provides sustenance to these great birds has gone totally dry. There are fewer trees to nest on, more vehicles, much more competition for what little space and resources are available.
Eventually, the storks will simply fly off to a better place.
When the Kokkre is gone from Kokkrebellur, then what?
The Spot-billed pelican is a large, graceful bird. The species gets its name from the spots on its upper bill. There are eight species in the Pelecanus genus, of which the Spot-billed species is found only in the Indian sub-continent.
Pelicans feed almost exclusively on fish and an adult bird can eat as much as 5kg per day. They nest on low hanging trees close to waterbodies. Pelicans have a characteristic fishing style. Usually, two or three of them get together, gradually push fish into a corner and scoop them up in their bills. They store fish in a large pouch under the lower bill, to feed their young. Like all other birds, pelicans do not have teeth, and gulp the fish down whole.
The bird’s Latin name Pelecanus phillipensis, is derived from the Phillipines, where the Spot-billed pelican was commonly seen once upon a time. Ironically, it is now extinct in that country.
In India too, the Spot-billed pelican is an endangered species, thanks entirely to human greed. Many lakes in Bangalore and Mysore have either been encroached by developers or are heavily polluted. Of the few remaining lakes with fish in them, a lot of illegal fishing goes on. Not many pelicanries are left in India. Madivala Lake in Bangalore once had a thriving pelicanry, but it is now gone. If you’re lucky, you might spot a pelican or two at Madivala lake. If you’re lucky.
Other lakes in Bangalore in which you might spot the odd pelican include Hebbal, Jakkur, Begur and perhaps Gulakmale. All the other waterbodies in and around Bangalore are finished. Bellandur and Varthur lakes are filled with foul, evil-smelling chemical foam, and the rest are filled with sewage, weeds, rubble and human waste.
Kukkarahalli Lake in Mysore has a well populated pelicanry with over a hundred nesting birds. Given all the ‘development’ going on in that part of Mysore, I’m not hopeful that it will remain undisturbed for long, but as of now, it’s doing well.
Given my spartan lifestyle, my chronically single status and my aversion to most human beings, my social options are somewhat limited. The only two outdoor activities I really enjoy are birding and nature photography. While I am happy to enjoy these activities in the scintillating company of my own self, my hobbies do bring me in touch with some really likable people, sometimes from outside India.
One such really likable person is Dr Ilana, my new friend from Israel. An avid birder and nature-lover like myself, Ilana had come down to Bangalore along with her husband, Dr Haim, for a medical conference.
She took a day off to join me and my friend, Vishnupriya Hathwar, for a field trip down Mysore road. We set off at the crack of dawn, to avoid the ghastly traffic that Bangalore has become notorious for.
First stop. Hearty Kannadiga breakfast at Kamath Lokaruchi, my favorite eating house on this route. This place has maintained its standard since the past decade, and deserves all the positive reviews it gets. Cordial service, authentic Kannadiga food, good standards of cleanliness and hygiene (about which I am paranoid).
Next halt: Tailur tank, near Maddur. On the way to Kokkrebellur, this place is a hot favorite with birders and photographers. We have a special tree at this place, which is home to several species of birds – notably the blue-tailed bee-eater, which is endemic to this location. Also seen in this tree will be spotted owlets, coppersmith barbets, green barbets, black-headed ibises, the occasional red-necked falcon, and several others.
You will also find an ancient artifact at this tank. Carved from a piece of granite, this ancient sculpture portrays seven goddesses, and dates back to the Ganga dynasty, circa 9th century CE. What a shame it is just lying there unattended.
We proceed to another favorite destination, Kokkrebellur. Named after the painted storks that occupy every tree in this little village during winter, Kokkrebellur is virtually a place of pilgrimage for birders like myself. Since we went there off-season, there weren’t many painted storks around. But that gave us the chance to see several other species, notably, the golden-fronted leafbird and to my joy, several mating pairs of Indian grey hornbills. The hornbills alone were worth the journey.
After a substantial lunch at a food court off the highway, we proceed thence to Ranganathittu. Although this little bird sanctuary is fairly well maintained, I am not overly fond of this place. It is usually too crowded and they rip off foreign visitors. We did sight some interesting species, that I have described in an earlier post.
The one place we were really desperate to visit was Ramadevarabetta. Until the recent past, this rocky hill was a delightful place to visit if one wanted to see rare raptors. Gross neglect and criminal encroachment has nearly destroyed this place. The government woke up a little too late and fenced off what’s left of Ramadevarabetta. This rocky place is the abode of the critically endangered Long-billed vulture.
We arrived at dusk, well past 6pm, to find that the gates were closed, and the watchman wouldn’t oblige. Thanks to Ilana’s spotting scope though, we were able to sight three long-billed vultures, to our great delight.
That to us, was a spectacular end to a great birding day. I had fun, I met a wonderful couple and made two new friends, and I learnt a great deal about Israel. And made up my mind to visit this remarkable country before I die.
“To be standing together in a frosty field, looking up into the sky, marvelling at birds and revelling in the natural world around us, was a simple miracle. And I wondered why we were so rarely able to appreciate it.”Lynn Thomson, Birding with Yeats: A Memoir
What I love about namma Bangalore, and the sole reason why I continue to live in this garbage-laden, dog-infested, over-congested and rapidly decaying city, is the proximity of so many prime birding locations.
Ranganathittu is one such. Spread over just 700 square meters, this sanctuary is one of India’s smallest. Yet, it is home to well over one hundred avian species and several other flora and fauna.
During the winter months, the star attraction at Ranganathittu is the Eurasian Spoonbill. So named because of its characteristic flat bill, the Spoonbill is a long-distance migrant that comes down to India all the way from Europe.
Come October and hundreds of Spoonbills arrive at Ranganathittu to breed. Spoonbills prefer shallow waterbodies and feed on small aquatic animals, like snails, frogs, crabs, aquatic insects and young fish. Spoonbills have a typical feeding style. They walk around in shallow water with their open bills dipped in, constantly sweeping for prey. The bill snaps shut instantly when it touches its prey.
While the Eurasian Spoonbill is a winter visitor, there are many other resident avians at Ranganthittu that are just as spectacular. The gorgeous Painted Stork is one of them.
So is the Asian Openbill Stork. And the Oriental Darter (alias the Snakebird), and the Woolly-necked Stork, and the Spot-billed Pelican, and the River Tern, and the Great Thick-knee, and the Indian Shag, and many more.
And look out for the Marsh Crocodile (or Magarmach, if you prefer). Ranganathittu is one of the few places where you can see the endangered Marsh Crocodile in its natural habitat. You can usually spot a couple of these magnificent monsters sunning themselves on the rocks.
There is a large colony of Flying Foxes at Ranganathittu. Flying Foxes, FYI, are bats. In fact, they are the world’s largest bats.
If you take a boat across the lake, the boatman will take you very close to these crocs and foxes – for a small financial incentive, of course!
The entry fee is Rs.50/ per head (per Indian head, that is). For foreigners, the entry fee alone is Rs.300/-. And that, to my mind, is not fair. Why do we always assume that visitors to our country are all stinking rich and are all very happy to pay ten times the normal fee?
The fee for a common boat is Rs.50/- per head. Or, if you have money to spare, you can shell out Rs.1000/- for a four-person boat and a prolonged half-hour ride across the lake. Shell out another Rs.100/- to the boatman, and that half-hour can become one hour!
The gardens around the lake are equally rich in avian life.
Look for the Green bee-eater, Grey wagtail, Oriental magpie robin, Black-rumped Woodpecker and India’s smallest bird, Tickell’s Flowerpecker. About the size of an adult thumb, this elusive little fellow prefers to feed on the fruits of the Singapore Cherry tree, which is where I snapped this Flowerpecker trying to gulp down a meal.
Distance from Bangalore is about 120 km, an easy two-hour drive from the city. Ranganathittu is close to Mysore. If you prefer, you can stay at Mysore for a couple of days, and visit several birding spots around the town.
Ranganathittu is good for a visit through the year. If you want to see the Spoonbill, visit during October-March. If you’re serious about birds and photography, then strictly avoid weekends. Mid-week is strongly advised. Visit the place as early as you can. Ranganathittu opens at 8.30 am, at which time you will probably have the place to yourself.
Please avoid loud clothes. Dull greens and browns are the correct attire. We don’t want your ultra-tight jeans and bright-yellow tank-top to scare those poor birds, do we?
Do avoid exposing large amounts of your skin – and not for moralistic reasons. There is no shortage of mosquitoes and other stinging insects at Ranganathittu. Odomos is well advised.
If you have no car, no worry. There are many buses from Bangalore and Mysore. Or gather a few friends and hire a taxi. The nearest rail station is Srirangapatnam, but I think a road journey is far better.
Just grab your binocs, hit the road one fine morning, head for Ranganathittu, and leave your worries to the birds!
There was a time when nine different vulture species ruled the Indian skies. Now, this majestic genus of scavengers is officially listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered – and that’s one step away from extinction. Once upon a time, there were 80 million vultures in India. Now, there are a few thousand left.
The primary cause for the eradication of vulture populations is absurdly simple – a drug called diclofenac.
This drug is a popular pain-killer, commonly prescribed by doctors and also available over the counter without a prescription. Diclofenac is used, or rather misused, by people who use animals for hard labor, in villages and cities across India. You see, the drug reduces muscle soreness and joint pain. That allows people to push their animals harder and harder, until they die from sheer exhaustion.
After death, people simply discard the carcasses for scavengers to feed on. The problem is, many bird species cannot tolerate diclofenac. Unlike humans, Indian vultures lack certain enzymes that are needed to break down diclofenac. As a result, diclofenac is extremely toxic to vultures. It causes acute liver and kidney failure. Vultures die within hours of ingesting flesh that contains even traces of diclofenac.
This was discovered only in 2003. Less than a decade later, vulture populations in India have fallen by 98%. That’s ninety-eight percent. Although diclofenac was officially banned for veterinary use in 2006, its illegal use still continues.
If vultures become extinct in India, what will follow is chaos. The vulture is a perfect scavenger. This is because its stomach acid is so strong that it destroys almost all pathogenic germs, thereby putting a dead stop to diseases that can arise from rotting carcasses.
If vultures do not exist, their place will be taken by rats and stray dogs, with catastrophic consequences. Rats and dogs are inefficient scavengers and they readily transmit germs from rotting carcasses to humans. As it is, India has the world’s largest population of stray dogs – and the world’s highest number of deaths due to rabies. At any given hour in India, there are two deaths due to rabies and one thousand eight hundred dog bites.
That situation will get far worse when there will be a huge increase in rats and feral dogs, after vultures go extinct. We can expect widespread epidemics of rabies, plague, anthrax and leptospirosis.
The economic costs will be astronomical, estimated at a BILLION dollars per annum.
There are some groups of deeply worried people that are fighting to save the vulture, with limited success. Vulture populations continue to decline, however, largely due to public apathy.
In South India, one nesting site for vultures is Ramadevarabetta, a rocky hill at Ramanagaram, about 50km from Bangalore. This place is better known as Ramgad, where India’s most successful movie, Sholay was filmed from 1973 to 1975.
Once, Ramadevarabetta had hundreds of vultures. Now, you’re lucky if you sight any. The Karnataka government made the site a preserve for vultures and banned the veterinary use of diclofenac, with negligible effect.
What can you do as an individual? Simple. Stop using diclofenac and other fenac painkillers, for your aches and pains. There are many effective painkillers available to you, that are not toxic to vultures and other birds, like piroxicam, meloxicam, paracetamol, and celecoxib, to name a few. Tell your doctor not to prescribe anything containing diclofenac and closely related drugs like aceclofenac.
Be nice to the Vulture. Or watch your childrens’ future go the dogs – literally.