Rare vultures take flight back from the brink in Assam

White-backed vultures at the captive breeding centre in Rani, Assam. Photo/BNHS

In what might cheer up conservationists, at least 46 vultures, including 15 slender-billed ones, have been captive-bred at a vulture breeding centre here.

The population of slender-billed vultures has come down by almost 99%, mainly due to the use of diclofenac, a banned drug, and other pesticides. These vultures, numbering less than 1,000 in the country, are found only in Assam now.

The Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre at Rani, situated about 25 km west of Guwahati, is a joint initiative of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and Assam forest department, and is funded by the Royal Society for Protection of Birds, a UK-based NGO.

It took six years for the centre to captive breed slender-billed and oriental white-backed species, both of which are facing extinction. “This is a significant development as only less than 1,000 slender-billed vultures are left in the country. It is a time-consuming affair as a vulture takes at least five years to be mature enough to be released in the wild. A pair of vultures lays only one egg in a year,” said Sachin Ranade, the manager of the centre.


Slender-billed vultures at the Rani captive breeding centre in Assam. Photo/BNHS

The centre aims to release 100 pairs each of the two species to establish and secure viable wild vulture population, in an environment free from diclofenac and other poisons.

Despite its ban in 2005, diclofenac continues to be used by farmers as painkiller for cattle. A vulture dies within 72 hours of consuming a dead animal laced with diclofenac or another pesticide called carbomite.

“We are advocating with government departments and creating awareness among farmers to check the use of such drugs. We won’t release captive-bred species until we are sure that the use of such drugs is checked. Otherwise, our exercise will go in vain. People can, in fact, opt for an alternative drug called Meloxicam,” Ranade said.

“Vultures are nature’s most efficient scavengers. They help us dispose of carcasses when domestic animals die. They are able to digest disease-causing bacteria found in rotting flesh and thereby helps us to prevent the outbreak and spread of infectious diseases such as anthrax, foot and mouth disease and rabies,” Ranade said.

There are three other vulture breeding centres in the country — Pinjar in Haryana, Rajabhatkhawa in West Bengal and Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. But the breeding of slender-billed vultures is done only at the Rani centre. At present, the centre has 118 vultures, including 46 captive-bred scavengers.

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Rare vultures take flight back from the brink in Assam

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