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03 October, 2016

Story: Nepal Bearded Vulture trip

By: Simon Thomsett

For this trip it seemed essential that I should gather whatever Nordic looks I may have and be prepared to assume a steely distant stare when summiting mountain tops, the kind adopted by those who conquer Everest and wear Rolex watches.
It was important too that I grew a beard, for the ice crystals that would form there and that I wore reflecting sunglasses. You never know, a photographer could be lurking anywhere.

In Pokohara it was clear from the numerous super-fit young tourists, that this attire was de rigueur. Some were a bit extreme, wearing spandex and sporting two expensive walking sticks to the restaurants and market places. Shamefully a good deal dripped about with baggy trousers and had goatee beards and looked alarmingly unprepared. They looked like spoilt gap year students and should sharpen up. I was concerned, the Himalayas was clearly no joke. You must be tough, athletic and courageous. But I guess worse was to come for these intrepid tourists, after all Pokohara is a step to other things, busting with business, advertising treks, paragliding, white water rafting and selling no end of stuff made only for tourists. I was keen to move on and not be one of them but not before buying a rip-off “North Face” “Gore-tex” jacket and motif pillow cases like everyone else.

It was with withering resolve bought on by middle age and cowardice that I first saw the Annapurna range disrobe its thick mantle of cloud and stand horrifyingly huge four times higher than expected. This chain of mountains differ little from neighbours Everest or K2, for they are as deadly and daunting…indeed the finest one (Fish Tail) has yet to be climbed. Thank goodness I was in a hotel holding a hot cup of masala tea and not chipping a foot hold with my ice pick.

Do not attempt to climb this!
Fishtail, Annapurna

I was in Nepal helping a PhD student Tulsi Subedi catch Bearded Vultures (still occasionally and fondly called the Lammergeyer, for none would accuse it as a lamb killing raptor). Catching raptors for research projects is something we take seriously. I personally vehemently oppose cowboy approaches, ham fisted handling and trophy photos too typical in the wildlife business. Excitement can allow momentary disregard for the poor animal trapped. The YouTube bellowing and backslapping while prodding and manhandling a terrified hawk caught on a trap is a readily seen demonstration of amateur inexperience and human vulgarity. No! When you catch a hawk, eagle, gazelle or lion its transition from freedom to captivity and back to freedom must be as uneventful as possible.

I pride myself of being devoid of excitement and a deliberate “kill joy”, stifling at every opportunity a momentary lapse of enjoyment by my colleagues. It is about the only asset I have but it is useful. Tagging raptors for GPRS tracker placement allows researchers to monitor their exact movements and this in turn can lead to conservation planning. I say "can" because almost all projects boil down to implementation of action plans, many of which were obvious from the outset. But if, as is often the case, officials or governments ignore them, then research and good science will go to waste. Therefore venturing into a project knowing that one’s work could stress or endanger, even only slightly, the study subject is dubious if one has evidence to show that no will (other than routine official lip-service) to conserve the species is in the offing. The student may say it is not their problem. They supply the irrefutable scientific proof and it is for others to design and implement conservation programmes. My job here, bouncing along in the car, trudging along a forest path or sitting around a camp fire is to ask “Who will do the conservation, if it is not you?” They squirm, I assert a devil’s advocate authority of sorts and everyone is deflated. It’s an odd but important self appointed task, popping bubbles, but it must be done.

View of Annapurna Himalaya Range
”Back pack" tagging comes with its own problems especially if not exactly done. If there is the slightest chance that there is an element of stress, or inconvenience to the animals’ behavioural patterns then it alters their biology and thus fabricates the science and then of course all that the student will learn of its movements henceforth. I was once vehemently told off by young but very bright student, after much poorly concealed accusation that whatever was done to a study animal is justified if it leads to conservation implementation. Bang on idealism! But sadly hopelessly unaware of the zero will and structures in place to do anything after the student has made their all important suggestions.

Fortunately acknowledging some level of stress and burden does inspire students to make sure the individual or species is rewarded by greater concern to its conservation. Had they not handled it, not made eye contact, not been exalted by the experience no matter how brief I doubt they would have cared as much. This may be a guilty conscience at play but the end result is good because it brings onto the stage the anathema of science; emotion.

By the way researchers are not, as is so easily assumed by virtue of them being “scientists” without criticism when it comes to wildlife husbandry. Too many do not even have a cat or a dog at home let alone an eagle or vulture, so how can they, with no prior experience be prepared to handle a raptor and place a backpack on it? Today there are a myriad hurdles to leap with respect to protocols and stern offices to answer to regarding the handling of wildlife, but these on close inspection often perpetuate appalling practice. It may have been written up by office clerks and bureaucrats (themselves raised without cats in the home), for all the attention it gives to actual handling. A short course; a diploma, a certificate even a veterinary degree… does not substitute for a childhood or decades spent with animals. When it comes to raptors I challenge anyone to dispute that the average apprentice falconer with one bird under their belt is not decidedly more able to humanely capture and handle a wild raptor than any vet or wildlife biologist without such experience.

My old colleague Munir Virani, heads the Africa and Asia Programmes for the Peregrine Fund and asked if I could help catch these gentle giants of the mountains. He knew how much Bearded Vultures mattered to me given they started my raptor interest at the impressionable age of six and I tried, all to briefly, to reintroduce them to a small national park, ( Hell's Gate)in Kenya in 2000-2002. So here I was back working again on one of my favourite species, not in Africa but in Nepal. Nepal to me sounds very exotic, as does the Tibetan plateau to its north, and I am not unaware of its importance as a raptor and wildlife hotspot. So when Munir asked if I wanted to help out in Nepal I needed no encouragement and was busy packing carabiners and ropes before the phone went down.

View from the Top of nesting Cliff in Syanjha
After a miserable flight and lengthy stay in a plastic chair in Shagra airport I arrived in Kathmandu and met Tulsi. I had dressed for the high plateau little knowing that Nepal is also mix of lowland crushed beneath a continental plate. It looks like an accident, on continental scale. Although it’s fractured peaks ascend higher than any on earth it is not all high, dry and cold! Some of the land mass went down, throwing others up in the crash of continents and as a result there is a trough as well as a peak. Importantly the lower “hills” are mountainous too, providing anabatic and katabatic winds allowing ridge lift for the soaring of heavy birds. We took a turbine to Pokohara and met, Surya Gurung and Sandesh Gurung in a Mahindra jeep taxi and went to the shoe maker’s shop, the essential place to get the raw materials for raptor trapping. We then went to a butcher’s shop to buy buffalo heads and bones…food for the vultures. Thus prepared we ascended a torturous road to what is called the Middle Hills... Veritable mountains to us in Africa but just "hills" here.

We were in Syanja district, and our destination in the hills was Arukharka village. The sides were thickly forested and well traversed with stone footpaths that led to many a scenic lookout under a revered old tree or a collection of stone built houses. The work behind these myriad paths is done by the communities, showing a level of altruism unusual anywhere in the world. They meander through orchid filled forests alive with birds. Leopards are common here, tolerated and even ignored, (Rumoured to have Clouded Leopards too!) a refreshing change from the animosity they now face in my country. Listening to one grunting at night our host pondered about a recent rumour that a tiger had been spotted not long ago. The very fact that it was not absurdly impossible brightened me up enormously. It is not a wildlife destination and is heavily farmed and though much is gone, major carnivores are apparently not a big deal.

Entering the home of a farmer we negotiated our way past two huge buffalo in their shed and opened a neat gate, the poles of which traversed through two solid slabs of flat rock. I would never get over these buffalo; they smell the same as ours and move like them. Back home every sense I possess is on red alert as I walk to the toilet, because our version can and will flatten you.

Wooden window frame in old house
The window frames of the farm house were carved as were the shutters. Beams were carefully crafted into interesting mud and stone walls. Ugly corrugated iron roofs did not entirely dominate, as a good number of houses were roofed with rough slate. Water was fed via open aqueducts across the hillsides connecting spring fed streams to farm houses. It was neat, organized, old, cared for and self made with flowers and roses in courtyards to complete it. Though considerably poorer than most society I know at home, esthetics mattered. This alone is an essential asset and one that forced me to make constant comparison between Nepal and Kenya.

The lady of the house looked overjoyed to see us and spread a generous thumb of bright red dye across our foreheads and gave us each a rose. Two polite children hard at work at algebra clasped their hands in front and with a nod greeted us with "Namaste". It was not the hoards of overly curious children of home, or of much of India for that matter. Personal space was respected and I relaxed. Tea was produced and there ahead of their verandah and over a maize patch was the nesting cliff. Compared to the hill it looked reasonable and not hellishly frightening. But Bearded Vultures are clever. They always build in sites unexpectedly tough to get at.

About five days previously the young Bearded Vulture had left the nest. The following morning we set out to catch the birds by placing bones on a prominent place on the tiered terraces immaculately dug from the side of flat they fill with water during the monsoon to grow rice. Although it is habitat destruction at its zenith, it is hard not to appreciate the labour that made it and with a half closed eye the patterns it creates looks pretty and the forests proper were barely touched. Not a single exotic tree grew anywhere on these hills.

Tulsi Subedi with adult male bearded vulture--- ready to release  
Within an hour we had the adult male. He was enormous and his head was fringed with crazy mane of lance-like feathers that float in the wind. This punctuated by two crimson ringed yellow eyes makes them look almost reptilian. Vascularised tissue covering a ring of bony plates called the sclerotic ring, otherwise hidden behind eyelids in other birds is on this unique bird exposed. That red circle is highly, flying like pterodactyls and possessing the head of a brightly coloured lizard. Tulsi (in the photo) was ecstatic, his study animal was in the hand and his project was now a reality. The village turned out and helped; even in sewing on the backpack. It could not have been better Public Relations and I was much relieved that my reputation sky rocketed. In 20 minutes we let him go and immediately his GPRS started downloading data.

The Bearded Vulture flies beautifully on sharp falcon-like 3 meter wings, craning their bearded heads below in search of the pickings left by other vultures...the bones. These they carry aloft and drop on rock slabs called ossuaries. Here they feed on the remaining soft tissue, tendon attachments, bone fascia, marrow and bones as long as 30/cm. I am familiar with it in Ethiopia where I climbed into a number of their nests and have raised them at home and slept hundreds of feet up a cliff for months before releasing them. But I know nothing of their behaviour in their Himalayan distribution. For example, none know of the aforesaid ossuaries, and few would credit them with using low, hot, moist and forested habitats.

The next day we got the female and the young bird in one go. Within days we got data back from the trackers (donated by Hansoo Lee), that showed the differing roles of the pair and their young….something no one has previously confirmed. All of this was complete in a couple of days and it looked like the rest would be easy.

Second year Juvenile
 Feeling energized I abseiled down their nesting cliff to get nest measurements and maybe an addled egg. As soon as I lowered myself over the edge there was a deep overhang leaving me spinning in space with nothing to kick against. I got to a second shelf and lost the route to the nest. This was my fault for not pre planning and marking sites on the cliff from which to descend. Rocks as big as footballs teetered off the edge and thundered down to the river below. These boulders were surprisingly on edge, perhaps a direct result of the recent severe earthquake that shook much of the country. I honestly would have to take much more care and make sure rocks above me were not as loose. Pushing through a lot of shrubs to get to the second abseil over a fragile lip I leaned out and saw the rope dangling a good 50 meters off the ground...over the rocky rushing river. Damn! That meant I had to go back up and not abseil to the ground. I was elated at being free to do what I want again and genuinely climbing in the foothills of the Himalayas! My receding chin and bleary eyes, fleeting allowed a hint of “chiseled” and “steely” to enter the ensemble. Now was the time for that lurking cameraman to step out and take the picture!

I saw the nest well enough just a few meters from my reach tucked under an imposing overhang, massive and nearly 3 meters long with a bowl of soft lining big enough to sleep two humans inside. Just under the stick structure a kestrel called. We had watched this tiny falcon beat up both the adults and the youngster, obviously anxious to keep them off their nest and to squat in it. This pugnacious behaviour was potentially life threatening to the Bearded Vulture chick and something none of us expected.

Bees compounded an already tricky situation and given I was unassisted I was happy to leave and call it a great day.
A few days later we left but not before being blessed again and posing for photographs with our hosts. I must add here that I had noticed a red welt on the calf of my leg while waiting 8 hours while on transit in Sharja Airport on my way to Nepal. Now it had a vicious white centre and was very tender. Now I had three. I thought perhaps they were “Mango worm”, picked up while I was camping out in Kenya. Not only did it hurt but I also felt slightly feverish. So the hill walks were not as pleasant as I would have wished.

We climbed a hill to Karasaydanda in Thulakharka that has a complex of tourist lodges catering for local and international tourists. We joined Dikpal ………. Who had been monitoring the site. We had a 45 minute stern walk to the capture site each day over paths worn in formica deposits. It looked like a street carved from “Mother of Pearl” and as I slogged, sometimes in rain, carrying a heavy camera in a heavy backpack and nursing my Mango worms the beauty of the path lightened my way. It shimmered iridescence.

An overexposed picture of an adult looking down upon the trapping site. Note distal dark tips to flight feathers and an abrupt change of length in mid primary feathers.

Here I was to see the Mountain Hawk Eagle, a species I never imagined I would ever get close to. It is important for the fact I am sure it is the closest relative to the Crowned Eagle. How the African species grew to become a major primate and ungulate predator when no close congener exists in Africa leads one to ponder about its next largest old world contender…the Mountain Hawk Eagle. I expected them to be rare, but I saw at least 3 adults and two juveniles almost every day. The rare Indian Black Eagle too was a daily vistor, sailing low over the forest tops on slow paddle shaped wings.

Juvenile in partial moult to second year. This was trapped and collared two days previous to this photo
Our party was joined by Kavita Karki a young lady who had studied the Red Panda and keen to help. The group had very good eyes and I found it pleasant to be constantly shown raptors and constantly out done. I was among very keen raptor people.

As for trapping Bearded Vultures our luck ran out. The days were moody with highland peak periods of intense sun, fog and thunderous hail storms. We had the giant Himalayan, White rumped, Red Headed Vulture and Egyptian Vultures to contend with. They clearly had forgotten about the Vulture Crisis, and to me fresh from the situation facing their relations in Africa, I was amazed at their diversity, abundance and extraordinary ability to live alongside man. It was like looking at Kenya, 30 years ago.

We caught a Himalayan Vulture…the heaviest of all the Old World vultures, when he blundered into our traps uninvited. Then we caught a sub adult female Bearded Vulture. Try as we might the next 5 days we caught nothing but a sun tan and a cold. But this was not a calamity because we had only one other GPRS unit to use. That juvenile we where to see later (in photo) on the computer screen wandered foot loose far to the north over those impressive Annapurna Mountains and into Tibet. If only I could see them there on those snowed vicious mountains, alongside Blue Sheep feeding from Snow Leopard kills. What an oil painting that would be!

Tulsi and I returned to Katmandu, a massive huge city very different in social and gender structure to anything I know in Africa. Here I met Tulsi’s supervisor Hem Baral and spoke of the innumerable unknown questions remaining regarding raptor biology in Nepal.

It is my hope that the Himalayan Bearded Vulture is not in ruinous decline. Certainly it, like other vultures, will recede as humans approach their maximum holding capacity. But in Nepal there is a limit, set by topography if not by human will, that will ensure that a great deal of suitable landscape outside of human reach will remain untouched.

Nepal would seem to lack some negative anthropogenic factors that we in Kenya consider as usual problems. Namely they revere life, plant, domestic, human or wild. And this reverence is not just lip service, it is tangible and obvious. Most unusual was that everyone I met was willing to learn and share, unabashed by any social reticence.

The future for the raptors of Nepal does not seem so imperiled as it does in India or Africa, where burgeoning self-impoverished humanity is all too evident. But squeezed between India and China it could change overnight should these two enormously overpopulated nations use Nepal as physical and economic bridge. But it has its own group of raptor enthusiasts and with support they will be able to have a major impact for the conservation of its birds of prey.