The first Saturday of every September is observed as International Vulture Awareness Day to highlight the substantive decline of the bird’s population across the globe due to various factors such as pollution, shooting and poisoning, among others. Despite their obvious value to the environment, these birds remain stigmatised and language uses them as a metaphor for predatory, vampiric traits. The parallel in the human world are the Dalits. For centuries they have been trapped into occupations regarded ritually unclean because of their association with scavenging and the cleaning up of death, human waste and menstruation. All scavengers work hard so that the living can thrive in a disease-free environment. The consequences of the loss of scavengers is evident in the vulture’s decline, and in Gujarat where Dalits are abandoning dead cows with a reprise of Dr BR Ambedkar’s words, ‘Your mother, you bury her’.
But who are the ‘real vultures’ as popular culture and lazy, traditional use of language would have us believe? The metaphorical use got a fresh lease of local life when Panjab University V-C Arun Grover delivered a broadside on August 29. He termed the 90 senators (who hold multiple memberships of faculties) as a flock of 540 vultures out to ‘tear this prestigious institution apart’. Those words got a rejoinder from the powerful community of senators the very next day with Grover’s bete noire, Rajesh Gill, coolly declaring, ‘Vultures are meant to clean up and if we senators are vultures, then we are only undertaking a cleanliness drive’!
Had Grover described senators as ‘hawks’, he would have rendered justice to bird behaviour and the figurative use of language because hawks can rip the living. On the other hand, vultures patiently wait for a creature in the throes of death. Observations at Pinjore’s Jatayu Conservation Breeding Centre reveal that vultures love baths after feeding, are well-mannered and observe queues while living in groups. Their only ‘inhuman’ trait is that they will not leave their watchful perch to render help or a glass of water to the dying.
Wheel of fortune
The fledgling of a Rose-ringed parakeet stolen from the nest, wings clipped and then abandoned could not have expected such a turnaround of fortune. The stranded parakeet took shelter under the car of Simmi Sherdil Bhambra, a working woman residing in Chandigarh’s Sector 45. Fortunately, Bhambra discovered the fledgling before the wheels crushed the hapless bird. She found that it was terrified and could not fly. Bhambra offered the parakeet water and fed it fruits, chillies etc and within a few hours the parakeet had recovered its confidence. The bird started to strut around Bhambra’s house, playful with her pet pug, and obliged her with some memorable selfies prompting quite a stir on social media apart from eliciting concerns from friends that she should beware of Mithu’s formidable peck.
“The helpless bird gave me such happiness. But I realised it will be better off under care. So, I handed the bird over to the animal care centre (SPCA) in Sector 38. When I came back home after handing over the parakeet, I was happier. The bird will now be with its other parakeet friends at the centre where it will find its own happiness,” Bhambra told this writer.
A picture’s limitations
In my column from July 10, I had highlighted the remarkable pictures of flora and fauna and high-altitude landscapes that the Indo-Tibetan Border Police’s photographers were streaming to its vibrant Twitter handle (@ITBP_official) operated from New Delhi by its competent media specialist, Vivek K Pandey. In the interim, the Twitter handle has posted such delectable images as wrestling Himalayan marmots and Musk Larkspur blooms sprinkled with sugary snow from 17,000 feet in Ladakh. But the ITBP is not able to identify all these nuggets of nature and the mystery image remains a viper photographed on the eastern-most fringe of India in the Kibithu region (Arunchal Pradesh) at 9,000 feet. The ITBP soldiers face snakes by the dozen in these rain forests but have not suffered a casualty - a fortunate outcome as no anti-snake venom serum is available for North-east snakebites.
I asked India’s leading snake taxonomist, Pune-based Ashok Captain, for an opinion by emailing him the viper’s photograph. Captain, who is a stickler for counting scales and teeth before he arrives at opinions on complex snake identities, told me, “Definitely a pit viper - some kind of Protobothrops. Most probably a form of P.jerdonii; close to P.kaulbacki. Could also be P.himalayanus.’’
Not satisfied with Captain’s ambiguous (though precise) assessment, I suggested to him another expert’s view that it was probably P.jerdonii xanthomelas. That was like fingering an enraged King cobra’s fangs and Captain came down on me hard. ‘’It would be prudent to adhere to the view that the picture cannot establish identity conclusively and the snake is a pit viper from the genus Protobothrops.” Aye aye, Captain, point well taken!