In 2005 a project was proposed for carving out a 217m tall Buddha statue out of a huge 270 m monolith of Handigundi that faces the Mysore – Bangalore road close to Ramanagaram in Karnataka. Many concerned nature lovers strongly opposed this proposal. They argued that it would not just desecrate a hillock and hill range of great antiquity, but also cause irreparable damage to a habitat that was home to a large number of birds, sloth bears and leopards.
On June 26, 2005 a group of 30 birdwatchers from Bangalore went on a birdwatching field trip to Ramadevarabetta and Handigundi. Job Joseph, one of the birders on the trip, spotted a vulture flying away from us — a Long-billed Vulture (Gyps indicus), a first record for the district since the dramatic collapse of vulture populations began in the mid 1990s. Soon, seven more birds were discovered, perched on the ledges of one of the hillocks at Ramadevarabetta.
This sighting of the vultures, in all probability the last surviving population of ‘Longbills’ in Inland South India, was intimated to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF), Karnataka State Forest Department, and was soon followed by another report on the importance of Ramanagaram Hills to the globally threatened Long-billed Vultures and other fauna inhabiting the region. Subsequently, a detailed avifaunal survey of the Ramanagaram Hill range – that stretches 25 km wide and 75 km long – was carried out by a group of birdwatchers. Through studying bleach marks of vulture droppings on rocky ledges and by speaking to villagers in the area, it was estimated that, prior to the die-off, a population of about 1500-2000 Long-billed Vultures and 150 White-backed Vultures (Gyps bengalensis) inhabited the area. In addition, a study of the nesting activity of the Long-billed Vultures at Ramadevarabetta was also taken-up by the same group of birdwatchers.
In 2007, Gopakumar Menon came up with the idea of getting the nesting area of the ‘Longbills’ at Ramadevarabetta declared as a Sanctuary. He soon set-up a meeting with the Principal Secretary to the Government of Karnataka, Department of Ecology, Environment and Forests; the PCCF (Wildlife), CCF (Urban district) and other concerned staff of the Forest Dept were also in attendance. A detailed presentation was made on the decline of vultures across Asia, the importance of Ramanagarm Hills for the Long-billed vultures and the need to protect the nesting colony. Following the discussion, the Principal Secretary asked the Forest Department to develop a proposal for declaring Ramadevarabetta and the adjacent hills as a Vulture Sanctuary. The preparation of the proposal spanned the whole of 2008. In 2009, with a new PCCF in office, a fresh proposal for declaration of Ramadevarabetta as a Vulture Sanctuary was submitted. By working closely with the Department, the final version of the proposal was prepared for submission to the Government of Karnataka.
In the meantime, five students of the M.Sc Wildlife Biology and Conservation course at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore, joined hands to get details on the use of Diclofenac as a veterinary drug, and its prevalence in the Ramanagarm area, despite the ban by the Drug Controller General of India. The students then made a short film (watch on YouTube) to focus attention on the precarious situation of the vultures at Ramadevarabetta. They highlighted the decline in the cattle population over the years in the Ramanagarm area, and changing cattle rearing practice among the people.
In 2010, a fresh threat loomed large in the form of a plan for a private resort right at the foot of the hill inhabited by the vultures. M. Shivananjaiah, a retired Kannada Professor in Government College Ramanagara and Deepak Arya, a rock-climbing and trekking enthusiast turned birdwatcher stirred-up a massive protest against it and the matter eventually went to the court.
Gopakumar renewed the plea on the declaration of Vulture Sanctuary at Ramanagaram in 2011 to the new Principal Secretary to the Government of Karnataka, Department of Ecology, Environment and Forests, who assured him that he would do look into the matter and do the needful.
In January 2012, the Kumble Foundation was approached to intervene in declaring Ramadevarabetta as a Vulture Sanctuary. When contacted shortly after, it was said that the matter had been looked into and settled. Ramadevarabetta, with an area of 346.14 hectares, was declared as a Vulture Sanctuary on January 31, 2012.
If one thought that getting Ramadevarabetta declared as a Vulture Sanctuary was a significant achievement, the real challenge – a herculean task, lies in getting rid of Diclofenac which is still being used in the Ramanagarm District as a veterinary drug, and establishing a Vulture Safe Zone over a radius of 100 km**, with a core zone spread over a 50 km radius. It should not be forgotten that the vultures range far and wide in search of food and the chances of them coming across a Diclofenac contaminated carcass is really high. Thus, one cannot remain complacent that the small population of long-billed vultures have now found a safe haven at Ramadevarabetta. The real battle of rooting out Diclofenac and saving this small population of Vultures at Ramanagaram has just begun.
** The 100 km radius for defining a VSZ is based on tracking data from Oriental white-backed vultures. Read more about ‘Vulture Safe Zones’.