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Back To The Vulture

The population of vultures in the subcontinent has been decimated over the last two decades, but it may yet rise from the ashes with support from human hands.

At end-September, bird watchers from across the world were abuzz about the remote, dry highlands of Himachal Pradesh’s Lahaul-Spiti. The region was witnessing a rare event — a congregation of over 200 regal Lammergeier vultures, popularly known as bearded vultures.

These vultures inhabit the rarefied heights of the Tibetan plateau and have equally rarefied tastes. They dine almost exclusively on the bones of dead animals. They don’t eat the hard calcium, but head for the soft and nutritious marrow that is found inside bones. To obtain the marrow, the birds perform an exquisitely synchronised routine. They soar high into the sky with the bones, and then drop them, to smash on the rocky ground below. Then they descend to peck on the exposed marrow.

This sighting in Lahaul-Spiti was welcome news for conservationists. It meant that they could breathe a little sigh of relief that at least one species of vulture found in the Indian subcontinent seems to be taking care of itself. The Indian heartland, far from the mountains, is still no place for vultures.

It only takes one sentence from India’s foremost expert on vultures to put things in perspective. “We shouldn’t be celebrating the sighting of a few colonies of birds, sometimes as small as 50 in number,” says Dr Vibhu Prakash of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). Prakash knows what he is talking about. In just two decades he has personally documented how the vulture population in India has fallen off a precipice. The numbers have collapsed — take a deep breath now — from about four crore to hardly 40,000 today.

Prakash, flipping through files on his computer, stops at one image and asks us to try and count the number of vultures it shows. The scene is from the 1980s at Delhi’s erstwhile Timarpur garbage dump. The dump itself is the scene of a feeding frenzy for hundreds of vultures. On the horizon and lined up on the roofs of buildings nearby are at least a thousand more, waiting their turn. Prakash says an optimist would put the total figure for vultures in Delhi today at 1,000.

These important and impressive scavenging birds have fallen victim to a tiny killer. For over two decades they have faced chemical poisoning — mainly due to the use of diclofenac in veterinary medicine. Diclofenac is a cheap, simple and effective painkiller which is safe for use in cattle and humans. Unfortunately it is deadly for Asian vultures, especially from the gyps family, which are vultures that feed on the soft tissue and organs in animal carcasses.

Gyps vultures — principally the white-backed, long-billed and slender-billed vultures — are the most numerous group, and they bore the brunt of increasing diclofenac use in Indian veterinary medicine from the mid-1980s onwards. This decimation is considered rare, as neither the vulture’s food supply nor its habitat have suffered significant damage, and there is no pathogen (disease-causing microorganism) involved.

By the time diclofenac was identified as and proven to be the offending chemical — in the late 1990s — the gyps had almost been wiped out. It was 2005 by the time the Indian government was convinced about the severity of the situation and diclofenac was finally banned for veterinary use.

That was the first step in saving the vulture. The second was the listing of white-backed, long-billed and slender-billed vultures in Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Today things are looking up for vultures, and work by people like Prakash is setting the benchmark.

The smell of rotting flesh is unmistakeable as one nears the BNHS’s Vulture Conservation and Breeding Centre (VCBC). Nestled in the Shivalik jungles, an hour’s drive from Chandigarh near the town of Pinjore, this is ground zero for the vulture’s recovery. VCBC is the first centre set up exclusively to rescue injured or diseased vultures and to undertake captive breeding. BNHS is currently the only organisation spending time and money on an exercise such as this for the vultures. “I could have sat all my life researching and collecting figures. But here I am. People say educating people will save the vultures, but it is a slow process and we don’t have the time,” says Prakash who, along with his wife Nikita, also an expert on raptors, manages the centre.

VCBC is an unique initiative modelled on other successful programmes to captively breed predatory birds and then release them into the wild. Prakash says he embarked on the project after visiting and studying the programmes to rescue the Californian condor in North America. He says that the decimation of the vulture population has been so sudden, severe and “still continuing” that it is unlikely that nature can fight back on its own.

The five-acre campus, on land leased from the Haryana Forest Department, today houses 127 vultures. Special among them are the six who were born at the centre last year. And one of the six young ones is a slender-billed vulture, of the species which is most threatened.

Prakash has expanded this captive vulture programme by setting up two more centres, at Raja Bhat Khawa, West Bengal, and Rani, Assam. He says he has evolved a mathematical model that will serve to resuscitate the gyps vulture population in India. “Six hundred pairs of each of the three species will form a viable population. Twenty-five pairs of each of the three species at one centre will be able to produce a population of 100 pairs of each of the species in the next 15 years. Thus, we need six centres to produce 600 pairs,” he says.

The birds released from these centres and from centres in Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh will be the nucleus of the vulture’s revival. He further adds that collecting nestlings from the wild will add to the numbers, as vulture nestlings take to captivity easily. There will also be attempts to breed birds that are too injured to fly. For this purpose he has networked with bird watchers and conservationists across India, to report nests and injured birds, which can then be collected and flown to VCBC at the centre’s own cost.

VCBC has managed to collect a wealth of scientific information on vultures, as it is the first time the birds have been observed at such close quarters. But more significantly, the centre monitors levels of diclofenac in the environment. When vulture carcasses are reported from across the country, the team arranges immediately to collect viscera samples. These are then analysed and frozen for future reference. “Earlier we had to use expensive gas chromatography to detect diclofenac. Now we use the ELISA test, which detects the enzymes suppressed when diclofenac is ingested. We are working to develop this into a dipstick test where we can instantly, in the field, detect if diclofenac is present in cattle or vulture carcasses,” says Prakash. He is also helping to formulate plans for selected zoos across the country to set up similar breeding and monitoring centres.

Meanwhile, on the ground, NGOs and enthusiastic bird watchers across the country have been documenting sightings of vulture colonies and conducting education programmes. Wildlife filmmaker Mike Pandey, who produced a documentary on vultures, has been using his NGO Earth Matters to educate farmers to not use diclofenac on their cattle. “Some farmers have voluntarily stopped using diclofenac once we told them of dangers of diseases such as anthrax breaking out if carcasses are left rotting in the open,” he says. Parsi communities across the country have been eager to be involved in vulture conservation as the birds are integral to their funeral rites. The situation has been dire at Mumbai’s Parsi Tower of Silence as there are no vultures to scavenge on the dead bodies.

But the danger of diclofenac has still not disappeared. It is estimated that it will take five years for diclofenac to disappear from the environment, even after a ban. And a ban, unfortunately, will not happen soon. Prakash, Pandey and various NGOs have been protesting the misuse of human doses of diclofenac in veterinary medicine, and the circulation of old stocks of veterinary diclofenac. For human use, diclofenac “comes in smaller doses, so you just use a few more bottles. Essentially it is the same medicine,” says Prakash, while adding that the only solution is a complete ban.

The first batch of captive bred vultures are set to take off after 2020. It will be a momentous occasion. It is critical for the environment that the vultures hold their place at the end of the food chain. Prakash says he will be happy to release his vultures back into the wild, but warns that his flock will not fly out till the spectre of diclofenac is totally out of the environment.

By Anand Sankar for the Business Standard