Breeding Vultures: The Other Side of the Story

GUWAHATI, India—The outcome of captive breeding of vultures has come under suspicion as the endangered bird has proven lazy in reproduction and more significantly, they are monogamous birds, implying the need for more favorable conditions for mating and nurturing their babies.

350.0.1.0.16777215.0.stories.large.2009.07.01.01vulture As the vultures in the sky are increasingly missing, the government and non-government agencies and organizations in India have come forward to bring back the scavenging birds. Scientists and environmentalists apprehend that after Pakistan and Nepal, the vulture population in India has declined by more than 97 percent in the last few years.

There were about 40 million vultures in the early ’80s in India, but a survey conducted by Bombay Natural History Society in 2007 revealed that there remained nearly 11,000 white-backed vultures, 1,000 slender-billed vultures and 44,000 long-billed vultures in the country, said Dr. Vibhu Prakash, the principal scientist for the vulture conservation breeding program at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) in Mumbai.

Statistics reveal that India has nine species of vultures in the wild, including the Oriental White-backed Vulture, Long-Billed Vulture, Slender-Billed Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, Red-Headed Vulture, Indian Griffon Vulture, Himalayan Griffon, Cinereous Vulture, and Bearded Vulture.

Among them, the white-backed, long-billed, and slender-billed vultures are recognized as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Moreover, they are listed as Schedule I species in the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, which is applicable to the tiger and one-horned rhino also.

Rapid urbanization, destruction of habitat (primarily the loss of high-rise trees, where the vultures go for nesting) and many other modern-day factors (for example, the rampant use of pesticides like DDT, hitting airplanes or other moving objects in the sky, electric power lines, and even deliberate poisoning in some cases) have caused the declination of the vulture population in South and Southeast Asia.

In fact, the vultures were almost wiped out from Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore by the 1990s. Now the countries like Pakistan, Nepal, and India are losing their vulture population drastically.

Vultures normally do not hunt living animals (in rare cases, the birds may kill the wounded or sick), but depend on carcasses of livestock and wildlife for their primary food. The scavenging birds that way help in keeping the environment clean. Unlike dogs or crows, vultures eat the flesh of carcasses completely and cleanly. The birds thus prevent the spreading of some severe diseases like rabies and anthrax among wildlife, livestock and also humans.

Livestock Drug May Be Responsible for Population Decline

A mature vulture may weigh up to 10 kg (22 pounds) and needs almost half-a-kg (about a pound) of meat every day. The most common theory concerning the decline of the vulture population is that vultures die of eating toxic meat with a high percentage of diclofenac residue.

Diclofenac is a commonly used veterinary drug, which is an anti-inflammatory and has the quality of relieving pain. It is cheap and can be used for treating cattle, buffalo, sheep and goats.

Scientists suspect that diclofenac remains active for a longer period in the carcasses of those treated animals, which finally affects the vultures as they consume the meat. The drugs reportedly cause dehydration of the vultures and soon they die of visceral gout and even kidney failure.

Dr. Prakash, who serves as the deputy director of the BNHS, claims that there is very strong evidence suggesting that diclofenac was the cause of the mortality of vultures. “We found that over 75 percent of vultures that were discovered dead or died of visceral gout had diclofenac in their tissues,” he asserted.

The BNHS started launching a rigorous campaign against diclofenac in 2003. India introduced the drugs in 1993. Following the BNHS initiative and the long-standing demand from environment and animal protection groups, New Delhi banned the manufacture and importation of diclofenac for veterinary purposes in 2006. Later Nepal and Pakistan also banned it.

But even then, there is suspicion that diclofenac made for human needs is being used for veterinary purposes. Hence, the BNHS continues to ask the government to make some warnings against the veterinarian use of human diclofenac.

But not everyone is ready to endorse the vulture-diclofenac theory.

Ajay Poharkar, a veterinary doctor of the Maharashtra animal husbandry department, argues that apart from the analgesic drug diclofenac, malaria is also a major cause of vulture deaths.

“I always thought the diclofenac theory was inadequate. One vulture requires around 500 grams [about a pound] of meat per day. In that case, there should be very little trace of diclofenac in their bodies,” Poharkar said in an interview.

Putting his views in a reputed journal ‘Current Science’ recently, Poharkar cited his experience about working on vultures at Gadchiroli (in Vidarbha near Nagpur of Maharashtra). He argues that the Gadchiroli farmers are too poor to use diclofenac on a mass scale. Rather he and his associates found a malarial parasite in the blood-smear sample of the vulture deaths at Gadchiroli, he claimed.

The outcome was confirmed by the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and the veterinary college in Mumbai.

“It is amazing that the malarial symptoms are quite similar to that caused by diclofenac, like shivering, ruffled feathers, respiratory distress, circling movement of head, greenish watery diarrhea, paralysis, and anemia of the vultures,” Poharkar disclosed.

Captive Breeding Programs

With an aim to preserve the vultures, the BNHS propagated the concept of captive breeding as the only viable option to save the creatures. Dr. Prakash highlighted that considering the fast declination of vultures and also the availability of diclofenac in the markets, the conservation breeding programme appears to be the only way of saving the species.

“By bringing some vultures in captivity, the life of these vultures is saved and once they start breeding, they would augment their population. The vultures will be released back in the wild once we are sure that there is no diclofenac available in system,” he narrated.

The century old BNHS, which is recognized as one of the most reputed wildlife research organisations in South Asia, has already taken initiative for the captive breeding programmes.

With permission from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (GoI) and support from a number of international funding organizations like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (U.K.), the Zoological Society of London, the Peregrine Fund (U.S.), the BNHS runs three vulture conservation breeding centres at Pinjore of Haryana, Rajabhatkhawa of West Bengal, and Rani of Assam.

Speaking to this writer from Mumbai, a BNHS spokesperson informed that as of two weeks ago, the Pinjore centre has 120 vultures and the Rajabhatkhawa centre has 76 vultures of three species (white-backed, long-billed, and slender-billed vulture). The Rani centre has 33 vultures of two species (white-backed and slender-billed vulture).

“The birds at Pinjore and Rajabhatkhawa were brought from different parts of the country. But those are at Rani are largely from its own state. Of course, 14 slender-billed vultures at Pinjore and 12 slender-billed vultures at Rajabhatkhawa have been brought from Assam. Our objective is to have 50 birds of each of the three species at Pinjore and Rajabhatkhawa and 50 birds each of white-backed and long-billed vulture at Rani,” revealed the official, adding that 75 percent of the vultures are (or will be) collected as nestlings or juveniles and the rest as adults or sub-adults.

Indian states Assam, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Maharahtra have reported on their natural breeding population of vultures. The Union environment ministry has also decided to establish four additional rescue and breeding centres in Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh), Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh), Bhubaneshwar (Orissa), and Junagarh (Gujarat) under the supervision of the Central Zoo Authority of India.

It is, however, not only the environmentalists who expressed concern at the declining of vultures from the sky but the Parsi people of India remained equally worried at the development, though for a religious reason.

The Parsis, who fled Persia—present day Iran—centuries back and made India their permanent homeland, practice the religion of Zoroastrianism.

Nearly 100,000 live in major cities like Mumbai, Hyderabad and Kolkata. According to their religious practice, dead bodies cannot be buried or burnt because the corpses could pollute the Panchabhootam (earth, water, air, ether, and fire). Hence their bodies are left in a high-rise ‘Tower of Silence’ to be consumed by the scavengers.

“Unfortunately the vultures have disappeared from our region and a sustained breeding project for vultures has become essential,” said Khojeste P. Mistree of the World Alliance of Parsi and Irani Zoroastrians. Speaking to this writer, Mistree also added, “The vulture happens to have been the first scavenger of the world and hence they should be brought back for a sustained ecological balance.”

How long there were will be enough Parsis around to satisfy the vultures is another question. According to ‘Parsi Khabar,’ a Web site for the Parsi community in India, the Zoroastrian sect’s numbers are diminishing because of self-imposed discouragement of intercommunity marriages, leading to inbreeding.

Many Mumbai Parsis have been pursuing a plan to breed vultures in captivity. However, Minal Shroff, the chairman of the Bombay Parsee Panchayat, which runs the Tower of Silence, said scientists studying the proposal shelved it, saying it would not be possible since vultures appear to be particularly susceptible to diclofenac.

Problems With Captive Breeding

But many do not subscribe the theory of captive breeding of vultures.

Dr. Anil Kumar Chhangani, a wildlife expert from the Department of Zoology at JNV University, Jodhpur, also expressed skepticism at the process of captive vulture breeding as there was no such expertise among Indian organizations.

He cautioned, “Authorities must plan well while selecting the breeding stock for captive breeding. Birds most suitable for the purpose should be selected, rather than systematically collecting chicks from their natural habitat, disturbing natural breeding.”

Anil, who was associated with the IUCN Birds and Mammals Breeding Specialist Group reiterated, “The captive breeding should not be the only way to conserve vultures. Rather a countrywide rescue program for the vultures should be encouraged.”

Similarly, Soumyadeep Datta, an environmental activist of the Northeast argues that the captive breeding of vultures would result in nothing.

“The matured vultures select their partners in the wild for breeding and the birds lay eggs in such a situation, which cannot be arranged in the captivity. Moreover, vultures are monogamous birds and they maintain the loyalty of conjugal lives till deaths. Only one egg is expected from a pair in one season. The caring mother continues its close bond with the baby till the chick attains maturity by five years. For any reason, vultures do not go for mating with other species,” analyzed Datta, who serves as the director of Nature’s Beckon, an Assam-based environmental NGO.

Datta, while talking to this writer, also asserted that the indiscriminate lifting of chicks, as done by the BNHS people in Assam, from the nests would only disrupt the male-female ratio of the vultures. “We suspect that collecting babies from the nests will put negative impact on the sex ratio and finally the population of vulture in our region,” Datta said.

He also claims that unlike the other parts of India, the population of white-backed vulture and long-billed vultures have been stable if not rising in number in the state. The natural breeding process of vultures is continuing in Assam, he claimed.

The members of Nature’s Beckon suspect that the BNHS people have been capturing vulture chicks and adults in Assam since 2005. In the long period, they may have captured nearly 100 adult and semi-adult vultures from the State and most of them were taken to the captive breeding centers of Haryana and West Bengal.

A maximum number of vultures were captured from Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts, where as Goalpara, Dhubri, Lakhimpur, Sibsagar, and Jorhat districts of Assam were also targeted by the BNHS people. Those captured vultures were first brought to Guwahati by road and then flown to New Delhi and once again taken road to arrive at Pinjore. On the other hand, trapped vultures were taken to Rajabhatkhoa completely by road from the place of capture.

“As per the law, while capturing wildlife from their natural habitat for the purpose of scientific studies, the State forest department should be involved and the forest officials must be present on the site. But the BNHS people did not follow the guideline. Even they did not inform the state veterinary department in the process, which is mandatory. So we will never know the exact number of birds that had been taken away. Moreover, any casualties at the time of capturing chicks and adult vultures will also be out of our notice,” Datta pointed out.

Nature’s Beckon has already urged the Assam government to stop the activities of the BNHS people in the region and also demanded a high-level inquiry about the fate of the birds lifted from Assam. They also emphasized encouraging community protection and a rescue mission of vultures in the region.

Asad Rahmani, the director of BNHS, has however denied allegation that removing some chicks from the nests would disrupt the sex ratio of vultures. He argues that the sex of any chick/young is random (except in some reptiles where it is temperature dependent). In every conception, there are equal chances that it could be a male or a female. In any large population of animals, including humans, the sex ratio is statistically 1:1 (or 50:50).

Responding to the queries of this writer Rahmani elaborated, “If we remove a male vulture chick from a nest, next year the parents will have equal chances [random] to have either a male or a female chick. Similarly, if by chance we remove a female chick from another nest, next year that pair would also have equal chance to have either a male or female chick.”

Rahmani also rejected the accusation that the BNHS people lifted nearly 100 adult and semi-adult vultures from Assam, saying “After proper permissions, we have taken less than 55 chicks, out of which 35 are in Assam at our Rani Vulture Conservation Breeding Center.”

He also disapproved of the allegation of deaths of several chicks during transportation (from Assam to West Bengal and Haryana) and asserted, “No chick died during transport or handling. We have our own qualified vets involved in the vulture capture, transportation, and breeding program.”

It is, however, for the record that Rahmani faced public outrage at Guijan of Tinchukia district of Assam during one of his recent visits to the state. The local people had protested against the capturing of vultures from their localities and the incident was covered by both the print and visual media of the region.

Whatever their fate, it is certain that it will take a long time to restore the native population by captive breeding. Nita Shah, the BNHS vulture advocacy program officer, acknowledges that vultures breed slowly. As they give birth to only one chick a year and a baby takes nearly four years to attain sexual maturity, she said, nobody should hope “for the population to be restored to its original size within our lifetime.”

Original article and more pictures here.

  • Anti Dhongidox

    An eye opener for bigoted individuls who want to squander community charitable funds to satisfy their obsession. What about animal right activist who will oppose breeding in captivity. Moreover, use of Diclofenac has not been banned for treating humans.

  • ANCHAL

    I WANT TO SETUP A VULTURE BREEDING CENTER IN GORAKHPUR (U.P).

    PKZ HELP ME….!

    ANCHAL SRIVASTAVA

    M.Sc , M.Phil (ZOOLOGY)

    MOB NO– 092 35 69 59 54.
    GKP, U.P

  • Amit Singh

    World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is supporting financially for Vulture Breeding project.one of great success stories are Vulture Breeding Program in Nepal.(http://www.vulturedeclines.org/page20.html)
    Amit Kumar Singh(Gorakhpur)
    Programme Officer,
    United Nations World Food Programme