From a population estimated at four crore in the 1980s, Indian vultures suffered a catastrophic decline and numbered a lakh in 2008. The population crash slowed down somewhat by 2012 due to the ban on veterinary use of diclofenac. The pre-release of eight Oriental White-rumped vultures and two Himalayan griffons on Friday in an enclosure where the birds will be exposed to their wild counterparts is just the first step to their full release in the wilderness, which may take another 6-8 months or more.
As many as 58 vulture chicks have been hatched successfully in the three BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society) breeding centres in India this year and act as an “insurance against extinction” or a “safeguarded gene pool”. The central government’s vulture action plan envisages the release into the wilderness of 600 pairs of the three critically-endangered species in the decade following the first successful full release.
Vikram Jit Singh spoke to Dr Vibhu Prakash, principal scientist at the Jatayu Conservation Breeding Centre here, and Chris Bowden of the UK-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) to ascertain the thorny path ahead and the strategic choices to be exercised for restoring the glory of nature’s premier scavengers.
What is pre-release or soft release?
The eight White-rumped vultures pre-released on Friday were born and raised in captivity. The two griffons were rescued from the wild and will act as guide birds. In the pre-release enclosure where they were freed, feed will be put inside as well as outside. This will encourage wild birds and vultures to gather next to the enclosure. The captive birds will familiarise themselves and the cage will be opened to encourage the birds to move in and out. Provided that in a radius of 100km from the enclosure, the zone is declared free of diclofenac, the vultures will be encouraged to fly out fitted with satellite transmitters.
This will enable the centre to track movements, ascertain the place and reason for mortality of freed birds and fix problems as they arise. Captive vultures cannot be freed immediately because they will just keep flying, get tired, fall down and die.
What was the principal reason for vultures heading towards extinction?
There was an unnatural explosion of vulture population in the 1970s and 1980s due to the over-abundant availability of cattle carcasses. However, the advent of the cheap veterinary anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac, spelt doom for vultures. If livestock dies within 72 hours of being treated with this drug, the carcass still contains the drug. This is toxic to vultures if they feed on such carcasses, causing them to die of kidney failure.
After captive vultures are released into the wild, what problems could they face?
The threat is from cattle owners and veterinarians resorting to the use of diclofenac or any other veterinary drug that affects vultures adversely. There is also the poisoning of leopards and dogs by farmers, poachers etc. in the countryside and jungles, which could be eaten by vultures, leading to death. The way forward lies in strict enforcement by government agencies of the diclofenac ban, the introduction of cheap, viable alternative veterinary drugs such as meloxicam which do not harm vultures, and testing every new veterinary drug formulation before release into the market for vulture safety.
How crucial is the role of the Haryana government?
Political backing for the vulture project has been very forthcoming ever since the days of the Om Prakash Chautala regime, when the centre was started in 2001. Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar, who spent two hours on Friday at the centre, was visibly engaged with the pre-release and declared it part of the Swachh Bharat campaign to restore rural hygiene. Khattar told this writer that he would personally look after this project and that he had taken time off from his engagements to come to this off-road centre located in the former hunting grounds of the Patiala royals. However, funding from the state government has not been substantive and the three centres run primarily on a grant of `4 crore annually from the RSPB, which has financially backed vulture conservation from its inception. The central and state governments have only recently promised `2 crore, but Khattar assured that his government would increasingly fund the centre as these were ultimately ‘our’ vultures and India’s own responsibility.
Will vulture populations ever return to the swarms of the 1980s?
No. Due to the increasing human intrusion into the wilderness and toxic influences in the environment, vultures are likely to be revived in specific regions and centred around protected areas such as sanctuaries. Their main diet will be tilted towards carcasses of wild animals. Even wild animals will have to be kept free of poisoning deaths. In Africa, vultures died after feeding on wild animals/carnivores poisoned by poachers and livestock owners.
4 crore estimated number of Indian vultures in 1980s
1 lakh Population in 2008
Advent of cheap veterinary anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac spelt doom for vultures. If livestock dies within 72 hours of being treated with this drug, the carcass still contains the drug. This is toxic to vultures if they feed on such carcasses, causing them to die of kidney failure. Population crash slowed down a bit by 2012 due to the ban on veterinary use of diclofenac.