Saving the scavengers

The vultures read the terrain of the Nilgiris like a GPS system. Every thicket, every mound, every canopy and grassland is scrutinised and put to memory while they ride the thermals up above.

White-rumped vulture.

The vultures read the terrain of the Nilgiris like a GPS system. Every thicket, every mound, every canopy and grassland is scrutinised and put to memory while they ride the thermals up above.

And then, when somewhere below, the last remains of an animal is spotted, the enormous bird quickly descents to partake of a meal fit only for this scavenger.

Unknowingly unacknowledged for centuries, the vultures are serving the ecosystem they feed on, and helping it thrive. And while the future looked grim for them only a few years ago, the vulture is soaring high again in the Nilgiris.

B Ramakrishnan, assistant professor at the Department of Zoology and Wildlife Biology at the Government Arts College in Udhagamandalam; and Samson Arockianathan, a research scholar studying vultures in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, have been observing the birds’ population since 2012. They found that in 2012, there were 152 vultures found here, with 183 in 2013; 175 in 2014; 153 in 2015;164 in 2016; 178 in 2017 and 192 in 2018 showing a 26% rise after a dip in between.

While the numbers are not significantly high, the rising trend is a signal that something is working in the way the community of villagers, farmers, awareness-building organisations and scientific experts have come together to safeguard the future of these birds linked in more ways than one to the future of the Nilgiris.

Poisoned to death

Not a long time ago, India was on the threshold of losing all its vultures owing to the excessive use of anti-inflammatory drugs like diclofenac, nimesulides and flunixin.

Farmers would use these prescribed medications to treat their sick cattle. When the cattle died, vultures eating the drugged meat would be poisoned, leading to their own demise. From over 40 million in the 80s, the vulture numbers went down to a few thousands in the late 90s. In 2008, the veterinary use of these drugs was finally banned, stopping the source of the killings, but still leaving all vultures found in India extremely threatened.

Science tells us that sudden death of vultures not only trumpets the loss of a species, it also begins a catastrophic chain of events that can take entire ecosystems with themselves.

As nature’s garbage disposers, vultures have been equipped with extraordinary features such as a curved beak to tear the flesh apart, extremely corrosive stomach acid that allows them to consume rotting bodies, and ability to digest, often, infected food with deadly infections like anthrax, rabies and cholera that would otherwise kill other animals, other scavengers and humans if left to spread.

For forest rangers, the vultures easily become their eyes. Hovering over an area in the jungle helps officers follow trails of poachers who might have killed an animal like a rhino or an elephant for their horns and tusk respectively.

These true beasts often leave the animal half-dead to succumb to its injuries, and if not for the vultures, the killings might go unnoticed in impenetrable forests.

Absence of vultures invariably gives rise to increase in population of other scavengers, especially feral dogs, which has its own consequences. There is enough evidence, including a recently published research by Panthera organisation, that proves that feral dogs can transfer deadly Canine Distemper Virus to protected animals such as the tigers and the lions causing an epidemic.

Feral dogs may also spread rabies. Between 1993 and 2006, when vulture numbers were alarmingly low, the government of India spent an additional $34 billion to fight the spread of rabies. In nature’s intricate web, vultures weave an important thread hard to be replaced by any other.

In numbers

The Nilgiris are home mainly to the white-rumped vultures with an estimated 20-30 Asian king vultures and the long-billed vultures. The three species nest almost exclusively in the Mudumalai and Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserves. Besides these, the Cinereous vulture, the Himalayan griffon vulture and Egyptian vulture have also been spotted visiting the Nilgiris each year.

Interestingly, Ramakrishnan believes that unlike the rest of India, diclofenac use is not the biggest threat to vultures in the region at present. This is because cattle reared by farmers are mostly used for their dung and are sold to slaughterhouses owing to the demand for beef. Arokianathan says, there is little use of expensive drugs to keep the animal alive if they fall ill because of this demand.

They think a more imminent threat to vultures is the deliberate poisoning of carcasses by villagers to kill tigers that might have hunted their cattle.

A change in policy, aimed at winning the trust of local residents through speedy disbursal of compensation for cattle loss, would go a long way in ensuring the survival of vultures and tigers, says Ramakrishnan. But is that enough?

Right about the same time that the professor began counting the vultures, Subbaiah Bharathidasan set up his organisation Arulagam to create awareness about the birds. He believes in a more multi-dimensional approach addressing all threats equally.

Needed collaboration

In 2011, Arulagam began working with the forest department and persuaded them not to bury the carcasses of elephants or gaur found in the forest, but to leave them as feed for the vultures. Local children were taught the importance of scavengers through fun games. Cattle owners, vets and pharmacists were made aware of the aftermath of using drugs like diclofenac. Local communities were trained to identify and protect nesting sites. With illegal use of the anti-inflammatory drugs like ketoprofen and diclofenac still visible, they are now demanding policy changes so that there is no available source for procuring the drugs.

The forest department is looking into the issue of deliberate cattle poisoning by herders to take revenge from predating tigers. They claim that compensations are being dispersed rapidly, giving people less reason to harm tigers and thereby the vultures. It thus appears that consistent efforts to galvanise the locals into protecting the scavenger birds has paid off and will continue to do so as long as the region’s challenges are locally understood and solved.

It’s hard to believe that before the 1990s, vultures were found across Tamil Nadu, but are now restricted only to the Nilgiris.

The extremely slow rise in population, despite protective measures, in some ways also signals how urbanisation has seized forest lands, leaving little for the wildlife to survive on.

Even as Ramakrishnan surveys the nesting sites, there is proof of human footprints — thermocol and plastic covers interspersed with twigs, dry leaves and grass forming the nest of the bird.

While the severity of the effects of diclofenac on vultures might have been curtailed to a large extent, the challenge to give them a sustainable future is far from over. As vultures keep a vigil from skies up above, the grounds must have their own group of human vigilantes — ready to tackle old and new threats as one community.

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