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A plan to nurture vultures

Vulture conservation efforts kicked off in the early 2000s when ornithologists began investigating the cause of plummeting populations of Oriental White-backed Vultures
Last Updated : 04 September 2022, 08:31 IST
Last Updated : 04 September 2022, 08:31 IST

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Vulture fitted with a transmitter. Photo courtesy: Vibhu Prakash Mathur
Vulture fitted with a transmitter. Photo courtesy: Vibhu Prakash Mathur
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In 2016, when the doors of the Jatayu Conservation and Breeding Centre in Haryana’s Pinjore were flung open, India marked its first release of two Himalayan Griffon Vultures in the wild. These rescued birds that were captive for about 10 years mingled with their wild kin.

This triumphant release assured scientists at Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) that the critically endangered, captive-bred, Oriental White-backed Vultures raised with the Griffons could be saved from extinction. In 2020 eight more of them emerged from the aviary to take flight into the skyscapes.

Similar releases occurred in 2021 from the Rajbhatkhawa vulture breeding centre near the Buxa Tiger Reserve in West Bengal. In July this year, another 10 satellite-tagged individuals were set free into the wild.

“With these, India has successfully re-introduced 28 captive-bred vultures that are soaring and breeding in their natural habitat,” says Dr Vibhu Prakash Mathur, Deputy Director, BNHS, who leads the vulture breeding and release programme in India.

Vulture conservation efforts kicked off in the early 2000s when ornithologists began investigating the cause of plummeting populations of Oriental White-backed Vultures. Mathur first recorded anecdotal declines during 1996-97 at Keoladeo National Park, a bird haven in Rajasthan. At the same time, Long-billed Vultures found in north-western, western and southern India, and Slender-billed Vultures found in parts of lower Himalayas and Assam were vanishing too.

India had about 40 million vultures in the 1980s. Within a decade the number of Slender-billed and Long-billed Vultures had declined by 97% and that of White-backed Vultures by more than 99%, at an alarming rate of more than 50% annually. This called for immediate measures of conservation.

Banning the deadly drug

Numerous autopsies and extensive research in 2003 confirmed that diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), injected into cattle as pain relief was proving deadly to vultures. The birds exposed to it developed symptoms such as drooping necks and usually died within two weeks.

In 2004, The Vulture Research Facility at Pinjore established to treat sick birds and investigate the cause of mortality was reworked into Asia's first vulture conservation breeding centre. Mathur adds that it was crucial to bring them into captivity, to an environment that is free of the drug.

In the same year, India, along with Nepal and other Southeast Asian countries, which were also witnessing similar declines, chalked out a detailed Vulture Recovery Plan. This included the establishment of breeding programmes, banning NSAIDs, identifying vulture-safe zones, media campaigns for raising awareness and working with the government.

Farmers were provided with a non-toxic alternative medicine (meloxicam). On-ground local conservation agencies ran awareness programmes to encourage farmers to make the shift. The plan over the years formed a blueprint for Saving Asia’s Vultures From Extinction (SAVE), a consortium of 24 partners which since 2014 is working towards the recovery of Asia’s threatened vultures.

India banned the veterinary use of diclofenac in 2006. With efforts by Mathur and his team, the government restricted the human-use vials to 3ml in 2015. Veterinary use of the drug is now banned in all Southeast Asian countries.

Tracking the birds

India now has eight breeding centres that harbour more than 700 birds. However, scientists’ liability towards these diligently reared vultures does not end here. Rather, it moves from the team at the centre to that of wildlife biologists on the field. Since 2020, the first release of the White-backed Vultures from Pinjore, all birds are fitted with a platform terminal transmitter (PTT) or a satellite transmitter—a device which monitors birds’ movements.

“These are naive birds, raised in captivity and require time to adapt to the new environment, be able to find food, perch and a wild flock. It is essential for us to keep a track of their movement to analyse if and how are they adjusting to the new habitat,” Mathur informs.

“If a bird is at a particular location for more than two days, our field biologists check the site. Signals from one place could mean that the bird is either dead or ill. Ailing birds are brought back to the centre for treatment. We sometimes need to provide food in case they have not been able to feed themselves. For the captive-bred birds to survive in the wild, post-release tracking is essential so they could adjust to the environment,” Mathur says.

The satellite transmitters work for about 3-4 years and during this period, if the bird survives or breeds in these years, Mathur considers it a successful release. Tracking these birds also helps the researchers to earmark vulture-safe zones.

Mathur is confident that vultures will not go extinct. Through the population census that happens every four years, he has observed that the rate of population decline has come down. He explains that breeding vultures is a slow process. They mature when they are about five years old and lay one egg per year which he has observed, for one of the released birds, could be destroyed due to natural causes.

“With a mere 6,000 White-backed, 12,000 Long-billed and about 1,000 Slender-billed vultures in the wild, all three species are at high risk. It may take another 10 years for vulture populations to double," he says.

From deserts to evergreen forests, vultures can exploit all kinds of habitats. The loss of habitat, the felling of nesting trees and running into walls and powerlines can also kill them. Another threat to vultures is the unintentional poisoning of carcasses by farmers in retaliation for cattle depredation. Earlier this year, as many as 100 Himalayan Griffon vultures died after feeding on a poisonous carcass targeted at stray dogs in Assam.

Though there are very few cattle carcasses with diclofenac nowadays, alternative drugs like aceclofenac, ketoprofen and nimesulide are also toxic for these birds. “We need to follow best veterinary practices and train farmers to make sure that the carcasses are not contaminated and disposed of properly,” Mathur signs off.

(The author is a freelance science communicator)

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Published 03 September 2022, 05:28 IST

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