Today I went in search of critically endangered birds. The Asian White-backed vulture was once the most populous raptor in the world. Now less than 1% are left… All because of what amounts to a small aspirin taken for aches and pains. Many of you who know me already know this story, and I hope to tell it live soon, so I won’t spoil the punchline here.
Suffice it to say that the birds are now rare. For just the slim chance of seeing one of the closest 19-20 individuals, I took a catamaran for an hour at dawn to Manwa and then a bus for another hour to Alibaug. I was (thankfully!) accompanied by a BNHS staff member and killer guide, Nandkishor. Once in Alibaug, we were met by Nilesh, a forest officer. After a breakfast of dosas, which I ate with my hands (once I could see how it’s done), Nilesh put Nandkishor on a bus and me on the back of his Honda motorcycle and we wove through a few towns, over hill and dale, for a little more than another hour, to the Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary gates.
Were we there yet? OH NO, FRIENDS. There was still another hour of leapfrogging Nandkishor and I on the bike to get to the vulture restaurant deep inside the sanctuary. Occasionally, I’d be left somewhere with the instructions, “Watch out for scorpios, they have many nests,” or, “If you see a wild boar, climb up onto this rocks, quickly.” Here’s where I mention that yes, I am still sick. Specifically aches, pains, sore throat, and headache. So. Dusty roads perched on the back of a bouncing bike, through clouds of petrol or midge flies.
The restaurant was empty. We left Namdkishor behind (because Nilesh had been trying to ditch him for the last hour, which made me equally uncomfortable and resentful and frankly just fucking WEARY, you know? But I digress in a country with very different gender dynamics than what I would consider, say, optimal) and rode another 20 minutes in, disembarked, and clambered 750 feet or so down a steep hillside (full of dramatic parabolic spiderwebs—says Nilesh, “Ah yes, these are poisonous spiders—no, sorry, venomous“) to a basalt rock outcropping with a fantastic view of a super steep and majestically wide valley. Nilesh, after lamenting the unsatisfactory matrimonial situation in which he finds himself, pointed out a tree that juts out from the hill, a couple hundred yards away. As if on cue, a white-backed vulture stepped out of the tree’s foliage and sat on a branch in plain (though too far for my camera to capture) sight.
Okay, I am trying to see the good in everyone now, if you catch me, when across the valley, Nilesh points out two more circling above the tree line.
Three. Of the 19-20 observed individuals within 100 miles of Mumbai. Can you believe it? Yesterday was good too, there were monkeys and barking deer and butterflies—so my luck, as they say, is good. But yesterday has nothing on watching that bird sitting on that branch.
But, my friends, that is not all. After the bumpiest, dustiest ride back to the gate, we were served a lunch full of many small scoops of various dals and curries by the park’s cadre of women, which we ate with chapatis and our hands. I’m getting better at it. Then, Nilesh took Nandkishor back to the bus station before returning for me. My ass objected to getting back on the bike, I don’t mind saying.
We took off down the road (faster, trying to catch the last catamaran to Mumbai, spoiler: we failed), when I saw something slink off the road in front of us. I might have shrieked.
You guys. It slinked its low, pale body and dragged its long FURRED tail across the road and into the trees and was gone.
The rest of the ride back was a terrible, migraine-inducing sensory overload of two more hours on the back of that bike (how brave am I? let’s take a moment to ponder), which meant two more hours of fumes, speed bumps, potholes, flashing headlights, honking horns, and ended with not a one hour catamaran trip, but a three or four (I lost count) hour overland bus ride… I hurt all over and I feel even more sick than when I left.
But who the hell cares, I saw the vultures and a leopard.