Protection of Vulture in India

Vultures, who feed on dead animals, were once the most abundant birds across the world, including Indian subcontinent. Vultures have ecological, social and cultural significance in India. They perform the important task of naturescavenging on carcasses of animals and thus help in keeping the environment clean. They ensured that no decaying carcasses remained in the countryside for long to spread diseases and contaminate the soil and water. The Zoroastrian (Parsi) community believe that being consumed by the scavenger bird liberates the spirits of the dead. But presently they are one of the most endangered bird species.

Vulture species in India

India has nine species of vultures in the wild. These are the Oriental White-backed Vulture (Gyps bengalensis), Slender billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris), Long billed Vulture (Gyps indicus), Egyptian Vulture (Neophronpercnopterus), Red Headed Vulture (Sarcogypscalvus), Indian Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus), Himalayan Griffon (Gyps himalayensis), Cinereous Vulture (Aegypiusmonachus) and Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus).

Vultures are in danger

In 1998, observations and counts of vultures at Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur indicated a decline in numbers of vultures. In 1999, it was found that there is a sharp decline in number of vultures in India, Pakistan and Nepal. Research was initiated and research was focused around food shortages, poisoning, use of pesticides, disease or other factors.

In 2003, the researchers from Pakistan and The Peregrine Fund discovered that the veterinary drug diclofenac is widely used for treating livestock in Pakistan and is toxic to vultures. Similar research in India and Nepal confirmed the presence of diclofenac residues in vulture carcasses with visceral gout and the widespread availability and use of this drug by veterinarians. Diclofenac is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).The treatment of the painkiller Diclofenac was the culprit responsible for the drastic drop in the number of the Vultures. Due to this, out of nine species of vultures, the population of three species- White-backed Vulture (Gyps bengalensis), Slender-billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) and Long-billed Vulture (Gyps indicus) declined by 99% in India. Recent studies also suggest that other species of vultures such as Red-necked Vulture and Egyptian Vulture and some partially scavenging eagle species such as Steppe Eagle and Tawny Eagle are also getting affected by pain-killers such as diclofenac.

Bioaccumulation of Diclofenac causes kidney failure and visceral gout in Vultures leading to death. Diclofenac is such dangerously fatal for Vultures that even 1% of it in carcass would kill the Vulture in a short time, after it feeds such carcass.

Cascading effects

Vultures play a critical role in ecosystem. Their absence severely affected the health and cleanliness in the countryside and caused unnatural changes in the natural food chain. Because of their absence, there is increase in population of otherscavengers such as feral dogs and rats. This would increase the incidence of potentially fatal diseases such as rabies. Cattle owners have to spend more to bury/burn the dead animals. Otherwise they can simply dispose the carcasses into rivers and this will contaminate the water. Bone collectors who depend on vulture-cleaned carcasses for their livelihood are also affected.

Conservation efforts by the government to save vultures

The government had released the “Vulture Recovery Plan” in 2006. The recovery plan put forward three major recommendations — diclofenac should be banned for veterinary use, a safe alternate for this drug should be found and conservation breeding programme should be initiated.The government has banned the veterinary use of diclofenac in 2006. The Bombay Natural History Society (BHNS)has led the movement of vulture conservation in India. The strategy is sustained conservation breeding for increasing their numbers, research and monitoring on the risks in natural habitats, sensitization about vulture conservation, and once there is increase in their population of captive-bred birds, release them in identified safe zones.

Conservation breeding centres: Ex-situ conservation initiative

The vulture research facility at Pinjore, Haryana became Asia’s first Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre in 2005. At present, India has four vulture breeding facilities atRani, Guwahati (Assam),Pinjore (Haryana),Buxa (West Bengal), and Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh).There are four more centres that are managed by the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) in Junagarh in Gujarat, Nandankanan in Orissa, Hyderabad in Telangana and Muta in Ranchi.The release programme was expected to take place after ten years as the founder population collected as first year birds and the birds breed only when they are six years old. The projects are expensive but the real idea is that if vultures totally disappear there should be some at least in captivity which can be released. In November 2015, ten birds from the Haryana centre are released in the wild. The birds released have colour banding so that they can be located once air bound. Other captive-bred birds from the Haryana centre will be released in the wild this year. Currently, the second generation of vultures are breeding.

Vulture Safe Zones: In-situ conservation initiative

A Vulture Safe Zone (VSZ) is a geographical area of at least 100 Km radius, which is designated as natural habitat of wild vultures and is made free of the presence of the drug diclofenac in animal carcasses.VSZs aims to protect and increase the remaining vulture populations and act as future release sites for the captive-bred vultures.With concerted efforts of BNHS, VSZs are declared in Gujarat, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Assam. In few states vulture restaurants also have come upto provide diclofenac free carcasses.

Other issues

BNHS conducts nation-wide research and monitoring activities on the ground on a periodic basis.Surveys have shown the gradual decrease of prevalence of diclofenac in livestock carcasses since the government ban on veterinary diclofenac in 2006. Results have also indicated that there has been an increase in use of meloxicam, the vulture-safe alternative to diclofenac, which can be used to treat livestock. However, study of toxicity of other NSAIDs on vultures has shown that apart from diclofenac, there are several other veterinary NSAIDs in use as well that must be checked. Drugs untested for their impact on vultures, such as nimesulide, are widely available in the market. Ketoprofenand aceclofenac used as an alternative have also been tested to be fatal for vultures and these have not been banned. Though the veterinary use of diclofenac is banned, vultures continued to die though at a slower rate due to misuse of multi-dose vials of diclofenac for human formulations. In July 2015, the Drug Controller General of India has banned the multi-dose vials for human use. It directed that only vials of 3 ML could be used for human consumption instead of 30 ML earlier. In September 2015, Tamil Nadu state withdrew all government supplies of Ketoprofen from veterinary dispensaries from three districts.

A sustainable plan for future (2014 – 2025)

In order to make the vulture conservation programme sustainable, BNHS has identified a set of action points as part of its India blueprint. This includes the following:

  • Intensifying policy and public advocacy for drug ban enforcement
  • Continued research for safer alternatives to the banned drugs
  • Ensuring survival and scaling up of conservation breeding initiative
  • Exploring a sustainable livestock sourcing project for feeding captive vultures through a community-based livelihood initiative
  • Viable expansion of vulture safe zones
  • Releasing captive-bred birds in safe zones
  • Strengthening sensitization and monitoring activities

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