COIMBATORE: Wildlife activists have called upon State and Union governments to insulate overhead power lines that pass through forest areas to protect birds. The demand is raised by B Ramakrishnan, assistant professor in the department of wildlife biology at the Government Arts College in Udhagamandalam, who found a Himalayan vulture, a migratory bird, electrocuted inside the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR) during a study in January 2020.
"For the last ten years, we have been studying vulture populations in the region. We spotted rare and migratory species such as Himalayan Vulture (Gyps himalayensis), Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus) and Eurasian Griffon (Gyps fulvus) in Nilgiris."
Ramakrishnan said his 5-member team found a juvenile Himalayan vulture electrocuted at Maravakandy hydroelectric powerhouse in January 2020. He claimed that they had spotted the bird ten km from the dam hours earlier. The team did not perform necropsy and inferred that the bird might have been electrocuted going by the odour of burnt flesh. Also, the carcass was found underneath two power lines (one 230 V line and one 11 kV line).
"This is the first photographic record of vulture electrocution in South India." he said adding there is very little documented evidence on the threat posed by power lines to vultures. Ramakrishnan requested the central and state government to insulate the overhead power lines to protect birds. "We are not against development projects," Ramakrishnan said adding installation of non-lethal infrastructure and retrofitting of existing structures are needed to reduce the risk of electrocution of birds.
According to him, the Nilgiris is home to resident vultures such as long-billed, white-backed, king vulture and Egyptian vulture and their population is slowly increasing due to habitat management by the Tamil Nadu forest department. "Presence of vultures is linked to the number of tigers. With tiger population improving in Mudumalai, Bandipur, Wayanad, Nagarhole and Sathyamangalam reserve forests, steps must be taken to protect vultures from such dangers (electrocution) because they are the scavengers of forests," said Ramakrishnan.
Ramakrishnan is a member of the Asian elephant specialist group which functions under the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), considered the authority on wildlife across the globe. A total of 102 specialist groups are under IUCN. Ramakrishnan's research paper was reviewed by Chris Bowden, who is head of Royal Society for the Projection of Birds (RSPB) and coordinator to India of Saving Asia Vultures from Extinction, and published in Vulture News by the Vulture Specialist group. "We submitted our report in 2020 and it was to be released in July 2021. However it was published only a few days ago due to Covid -19," said Ramakrishnan.
Forest department sources said there has been no electrocution of vultures, except the Himalayan Vulture in the last two years. D Venkatesh Field Director of MTR, told TNIE, "No new power line projects have been initiated in MTR in recent times. We will study how the power lines affect vultures. We are taking efforts to conserve vultures with the help of NGOs. Apart from government compensation, NGOs handing over Rs 5000 to the cattle owner if a cattle was killed by a tiger or leopard. This amount is to pacify cattle owners who otherwise could lace poison on the carcass which turns fatal for vultures."