Nekhbet at Himalayas

For me, the term ‘Egyptian’ stands for mysterious. But having said that, I do not mean that Egyptians look like aliens. The very first images which come to my mind with the word ‘Egypt’ are Nile river civilization, the huge pyramids and many unsolved mysteries. So over the course of time, I have developed an enigmatic image for Egypt and things associated with it. That’s why when I heard about the Egyptian Vulture for the very first time, I imagined it as an occult species. It appeared to me that the species must have witnessed the growth and decline of a great civilization or had to do something with it. But I never knew that it really had a connection with ancient Egyptian civilization. In ancient Egyptian mythology, there was a Goddess named “Nekhbet” whose totemic form was Egyptian white vulture. Due to lack of sexual dimorphism, Egyptian vultures were considered to exist only as female and supposed to reproduce by parthenogenesis. Nekhbet was considered responsible for motherhood, queenship, wild birds, life, death and rebirth.

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I had seen vultures many times and heard some mystic stories about them during my childhood. The Ramayana has a description of two vulture brothers,”Jatayu” and “Sampati”, who helped Lord Rama during forest exile. Tibetan Buddhist and Zoroastrian faiths have a funeral practice of sky burial in which human corpses are exposed to vultures, the sacred birds, that prevent the water and soil from getting polluted by decaying corpses. But I have observed that most of the people do not carry a pleasant image for vultures, most probably due to their unpleasant physical appearance with a bald head to neck region and the hooked beak. Due to their association with dead bodies and scavenging feeding behaviour, sometimes they are imagined as bad omens. In various movies, the presence of dead bodies has been depicted by a vulture kettle in the sky. In a comic book series of Marvel comics, they have been depicted as supervillains. During childhood, I heard from friends that vultures chicks born blind and their parents borrow them eyes from other dead animals including humans. So I had developed a belief that resting motionless on the ground could invite a Vulture not just for food but also for eyes for their blind hatchlings.

A long time has passed. Now vultures are very rare. I don’t remember to have seen them frequently for more than past a decade in wild. Earlier I used to surmise that vultures exist as a single species. But now I know that vultures are represented by several species of two groups, “New world vultures”, found in Americas and “Old world vultures”, found in Europe, Africa and Asia. Interestingly, evolutionary genetic studies have shown that these two groups are not phylogenetically closely related but show close morphological similarities due to convergent evolution. So there are many species of vultures but I haven’t seen any of them in wild from a very long time. Field studies say that their population has declined a lot. One of the main reasons for their decline is Diclofenac, a drug which is anti-inflammatory in farm animals but lethal for vultures. The drug is given to ill farm animals to reduce their pain so that they could work for longer. When vultures feed on dead animals which once have been administered with diclofenac, they get effected by Diclofenac poisoning and die. Over the past decade, a huge decline has been reported among Indian vultures, including Egyptian vulture. Now the drug has been banned for veterinary use by the Govt. of India and many efforts are being taken to rescue the vultures.

Recently I got a chance to see an Egyptian vulture in Wild. It was purely a coincidence. I was at Institute of Himalayan Bio-resource Technology at Himachal Pradesh, India. After seeing some experiments in one of the labs, I decided to go closer to the Dhauladhar range of Himalayas. I always have been in love with Mountains as they provide an opportunity to interact with real me. Like many previous journeys, this one was an unplanned too, with the only idea that I was heading closer to Dhauladhar Himalaya. I photographed everything which was beautiful, unique, new or attractive, either living or non-living. Some notable species I saw were Rhododendron, White-capped water Redstart and Blue whistling thrush. While walking parallel to a water stream, I passed through two small villages. On the way, I had an interaction with an old man who told me that the way I was heading would take me towards an army station. So I decided to go at least up to army station and continued my journey. From a distance of about less than half a Km, I saw a large and white coloured flying bird. It was looking very prominent as there was no other bird of that size. Because of the hilly terrain, it was difficult to see other small or large birds in open space. I tried to click that bird but the hilly terrain was not allowing it to be visible for sufficient time. I increased my pace in hope to get an opportunity to see that bird closely. After around 20 minutes, I was in a concave dent on ground, on left side of which was a turbulent water stream, very large mountainous slopes on the front and right sides and an open space in between. I meticulously looked around for the bird I saw some time before. Suddenly the amazing bird appeared again from the backside of a boulder. It seemed that the bird was flying with an absolute sense of freedom. It appeared like there were no restrictions and the bird was the owner of the whole world. I took some shots but none was good. After few minutes the bird settled on a large boulder on the other side of the stream. I got a chance to take some good pics. When I zoomed in, I found that the bird was unique with a semi-bald yellow head and a hooked beak. By its appearance, I was sure the bird in front of me was a vulture but had no idea about species. It was not unpleasant at all but beautiful indeed. The beak was light pinkish at the tip. It was white coloured with black flight feathers. I did not miss nay chance to take a video, covering beautiful terrain and the bird. Later, from a photographic guide, the bird was identified as Egyptian vulture. I was really a lucky person to witness Egyptian vulture for about 10 minutes in that area.

After that event, I studied about vultures. Egyptian Vulture, scientifically known as Neophron percnopterus, is the only member of genus Neophron. The genus name comes from a character of ancient Greek mythology, Neophron, who was transformed to Egyptian vulture by Greek God Zeus. The birds, which some of us might consider dangerous, are facing a danger of extinction. There are reports of very rapid population decline in India mainly because of Diclofenac. It was evident from the fact that a few years back it was in “Least concern” category but today it is in “Endangered” category. It is estimated that now only few 1000 pairs are left in India. As a conservation action, Diclofenac has been banned for veterinary use by the Government of India and many monitoring programs are being conducted. The bird is facing problems not only in India but all around the range of its distribution. We humans, who have the most developed brain, have put many species in trouble because of our short term goals. We, unlike other species, have taken a lot from nature but have not returned much in proportion. Due to our short term goals, the environment is changing at a very rapid rate and the cost is being given by many other living forms. The Nekhbet who was once considered the Goddess of life, now facing the danger of extinction. I believe that we can ensure the existence of human race only by saving other lives. With a failure to save other species, we are heading towards the day when the problem will be on us. Nekhbet served the development of a great human civilization in past, and now it is our turn to help her to survive long.

 

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