Status of Vultures, Nature's scavengers -in India

Status of Vultures, Nature's scavengers -in India 
-Susan Sharma

Globally there are 23 species of vultures and condors.  Over half of them are in red list of IUCN.  In South Asia we have 9 species and all of those 9 are found in India. 

The California Condor is critically endangered, so is the Andean Condor.  Generally other vultures in the new world are less threatened.  More recently African vultures have also suffered a decline.  Reason is poisoning by poachers.  Vultures show up on dead animals and alert forest officials to poached animals.  So there is an effort by poachers to eliminate vultures by poisoning them. 

The situation in India, however,is unique.  There is no dearth of food, no poaching then why?

White rumped Vultures, once abundant in millions,  showed 99.9% decline since 1991 in India causing alarm bells to ring. 

A team of doctors in Pakistan detected that veterinary medicine diclofenac was the killer and this was confirmed by Indian doctors. Diclofenac was found to be the main cause for decline.  While  relatively  safe for cattle and humans, it is lethal for vultures who get gout and kidney failure after eating cattle treated with diclofenac.
Chris Bowden of RSPB(Royal Society for Protection of Birds), London has been working out of Bangalore since 2004 to save the vultures from the brink of extinction.  Though dicloflenac was banned by all Asian countries in  2006 vultures still die of dicoflenac poisoning.  Why?

Three years ago an exercise done to review status of vultures in Asia.  Most predominant threat in South Asia is that of dicloflenac group of medicines used to treat cattle.   

Endemic vultures in India are, white rumped, long billed, slender billed (found in Assam and North East India), Red headed vulture, Egyptian vulture (endangered but wide distribution) Himalayan Griffon and  Eurasian Griffon   Eurasian vultures are not breeding in India but their numbers are decreasing. 

Jatayu story from Ramayana gives cultural importance to vultures.  Other cultural significance is the sky burial of Parsis in the tower of silence.  Up in the Himalayas , the Himalayan griffon vulture also does the same service for some hill communities.  
Role of vultures in eco system cannot be overemphasized.   Twenty years ago all rotting meat was disposed off by vultures.  Feral dogs have now taken their place to the extent of 30%.  
BNHS counted vultures from 1992-2015, on a  7000km length by road transects. This long term graph shows the population is stabilizing.  

The alternative to diclofenac,  meloxicam was found to be too expensive by Indian animal farmers.  Once diclofenac was out of patent, Pharmaceutical companies started manufacturing diclofenac under different names and farmers continued to use these.  A massive outreach to create awareness was the only solution.  

Meanwhile the breeding program for vultures initiated by RSPB and BNHS took off and currently about 60 chicks per year are produced in India at various facilities.  These are being released into the wild to augment numbers.   
Nepal vulture population is recovering.  In India Releasing and tracking birds going on.   During Covid lock down, the released birds are now travelling wide,  more than  5 to 6 km  as earlier observed.

The efforts to get diclofenac out of the system is still continuing.  While the alternative Meloxicam is now made cheaper, Chris Bowden says another problem has cropped up in it actually being used.  Meloxicam is also now out f patent and many local companies are now manufacturing it.  But some of the meloxicam vials available cause a painful injection to the animal so, vets have started going back to other variants of diclolenac!!

In short the war against diclofenac for cattle use continues. The Indian Veterinary Research Institute is yet to look into this practical problem.  The organization "SAVE" is putting its might behind the issue.  

SAVE stands for Saving Asia's Vultures from Extinction and it is a consortium of like-minded, regional and international organisations and has been created to oversee and co-ordinate conservation, campaigning and fundraising activities to help the plight of south Asia's vultures.

"SAVE" has generated one more initiative- vulture safe zones. Vulture Safe Zones (VSZs) are zones where there is a very low risk of  poisoning in the areas surrounding remaining breeding colonies. These sites will be vitally important, not just for the numbers they retain within a natural system, but because they are also likely to be utilised as some of the first release sites for captive reared birds.

Feeding stations for vultures are a tourist attraction in many places.  These can be helpful for sensitizing communities but not at the cost of diverting funds from the Forest Department, especially since food shortage is not a problem in India, feels Chris Bowden.

Populations will never go back to 1980 levels But five to ten years of stable population In India is possible, says Chris in a webinar organized by Delhi Bird Foundation. 

(The article has been written with inputs from a webinar by Chris Bowden From RSPB.  The entire webinar can seen at the following link )

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