Scientists in India were stumped. Vultures, which had long been prolific across the country, were dying in droves, and no one knew why.
Fearing a lethal virus, they reached out to the Peregrine Fund, a nonprofit organization based in Boise that is dedicated to saving birds of prey from extinction. Munir Virani, director of Pan African Raptor Research, investigated the situation with the help of a virologist from Washington.
The pair traveled to India to collect tissue samples and found that rather than a virus, they were dealing with fatal gout. They traced the problem to a common veterinary drug called diclofenac. The birds were ingesting the drug, routinely used to ease joint pain in aging cows, while feeding on carcasses at graveyard fields.
Diclofenac has subsequently been replaced with a different drugs and the massive die-offs of vultures has stopped. But India’s vulture population has been left decimated, with as much as a 95 percent decline.
To enable students to experience the problem firsthand, Boise State raptor biologist Marc Bechard and Virani teamed up to design a spring break university course to take students to India to witness the problem and learn about conservation efforts across the country. Because the birds tend to congregate at tiger reserves — among the last enclaves of natural habitat in the country — students also got to experience a variety of other indigenous wildlife, including tigers, leopards and a variety of avian species.
Munir, who conducts yearly vulture surveys in the reserves, worked with Pugdundee Safaris to organize the trip. Students also experienced tuk tuk rides (auto rickshaws) and visited Delhi’s Red fort before heading on an overnight train to two different tiger reserves.
Boise State photographer John Kelly was able to chronicle the adventure in dozens of spectacular photos and video highlighting the country’s cultural and wildlife diversity.
Read professor Marc Bechard’s daily log of the trip.
Arrive 19 March
Pugdundee pick-up at airport in early a.m. and transfer to hotel. Afternoon tuk tuk ride to mall to change money then taxi ride to old Delhi and a tour of the Red Fort. Back to hotel. Dinner at hotel.
Late breakfast letting students adjust to local time. Afternoon tuk tuk ride to Kingdom of Dreams and Bollywood show. Back to hotel. Evening tuk tuk ride to rock concert to meet with owner and staff of Pugdundee Safaris. Pizza and beer. Back to hotel via tuk tuk after spending half an hour trying to explain to the driver where the hotel is.
Another late breakfast. Pick-up after lunch by minivan to take us to the train station at 2 p.m. One hour later arrive at train station. Pugdundee arranges for porters to head carry all of our luggage through the mass of humanity at the train station. We board the overnight train at 5:30 p.m. and begin a 13-hour train ride. We get first-class sleeping cars, but all you get is two sheets, a pillow, a blanket, and either a lower or upper bunk. They say it is air conditioned, but the only evidence of that is a ceiling fan which is close enough to the upper bunks that it could grab your hair. We play cards, chess, etc. … and Abhay, our Pugdundee leader, provides us with warm sandwiches that he called ahead for at the next stop. Lights out means everyone goes to bed. John and I shared a berth with an Indian couple and their small child. Of course we took the upper bunks but they were like beds of nails.
Arrive at Katni in north central India at 6 a.m. The train stops only 10 minutes so everyone must be up and dressed with luggage in hand. Porters again meet us and head carry all of our luggage a long way through a train station with people sleeping everywhere under blankets. We walk to the minivan and drive five hours to Bandhargarh Tiger Reserve. We stopped at a small town for tea (chi) and samalas. Arrive at Kings Lodge at 11:30 a.m. Greeted by staff with lemon water and cold towels. Our luggage is carried to our rooms. Everyone is amazed by the rooms, setting, etc. We have breakfast and afternoon lectures followed by a bird walk in the surrounding area, which is the buffer zone for the tiger reserve. Back to hotel for dinner.
Up at 4:30 a.m. The night before Munir says to be in seats at 5:30 a.m. If you are not there you are left behind. It’s dark, a little cool and the coffee sucks. The reason for the early departure is that the park service only allows 15 safari jeeps into the reserve daily. If you are too late they will give your space away. We are at the gate 15 minutes early. Everyone has to show their passport to verify who they are. The lodge has its own jeep drivers but because of union rules we must have the second jeep driven by a union driver. Sometimes you luck out and get an English speaker and sometimes you don’t. That makes things difficult. And at the gate you are randomly assigned a guide who rides with you to make sure you obey the rules, and that guy also may or may not speak English. At 6:15 a.m. the gate opens and we drive around for five hours looking for vultures and stop for any other wildlife we see. Cameras are clicking constantly. There must have been a million exposures taken. We stop for tea and biscuits at 9 a.m. and share sightings. No tigers but we did see a leopard after we had stopped for the elephants. It is sad what people do to Indian elephants. They chain them up and make them do work. A leopard is one of the rarest cats to be seen in India. It stood still and let us watch it for an hour. Someone had good karma. Out of the reserve by 11 a.m. and back to the lodge for a breakfast of eggs, toast and jelly. Afternoon is spent with student presentations, then back out at 2:30 p.m. for another jeep safari. We find no vultures and nothing but pug marks (footprints) of tigers. Back to the hotel and the lodge puts on a traditional dance performed by locals. The class gets into it and dances, too.
Up at 4:30 a.m. This morning two class members aren’t sure they can come along. I say how can you come all this way and stay in bed? Cypro and Imodium are needed. After a little delay one student stays behind. Same routine as yesterday. On the afternoon drive we did see a tiger head in the woods but not in the road. We stayed at the artificial waterhole for 45 minutes waiting for a tiger to drink water. The park closes at 6 p.m. so we have to go.
Up at 4:30 a.m. Everyone is coming along this morning. Same routine. Except this morning we are with a very good driver and guide. They know how to find tigers. A tiger is seen in the road but a jeep scares it. Our driver knows where it will walk along and we go there. Sure thing. We are down front watching a tiger walking through the forest. We get photos but the guide says he knows where the tiger will leave the forest and cross the road. We drive there before anyone else and in a minute there is a female Bengal tiger crossing the road. John says this should be photo of the week. Same back out of park routine. After student presentations back out at 2:30 p.m. The afternoon drive, there’s nothing. A tiger shows up in the brush at 5:30 p.m. We have to be out of the park by 6. All of a sudden there are 15 safaris jeeps surrounding us. Drivers crash into each other so their clients can see a tiger. It is nuts.
Up at 4:30 a.m. Today we get a minibus to Kanha Tiger Reserve. It’s a six-hour drive. We have an early breakfast and the staff says goodbye. I have been here two times now and they recognize me. It’s a long drive. Not much said except a comment about “Where the hell are we?” Reach Kanha Tiger Reserve and Kanha Earth Lodge at noon. The lodge is way over the top. But the students really like it.
Up at 4 a.m. At park gate at 6 a.m. Same routine today. No tiger sightings anywhere. We did see white-rumped vultures, but they are not easy to find.
Up at 4 a.m. Same routine, but today we see a tiger. We have an exceptional guide who knows what the tiger will do. We had both Boise State vehicles ahead and behind of that tiger. Click, click, click. Tonight we learn that there has been a train derailment between Agra and where we are. There is no way we are getting to the Taj Mahal. But we can get to Delhi and make our flights home.
Up at 3 a.m. Taking a minivan to south central India. Not sure where. There we will get flights to Delhi instead of a 13-hour overnight train ride with the Taj Mahal in between. We are met by Pugdundee and driven to the hotel. Pugdundee buys everyone dinner And drinks. We say goodbye, and go to the airport to leave at 3:10 a.m. on 30 March.