For wildlife conservationists pained by over two decades of vanishing vulture news, this was indeed a redeeming spectacle as 100 yards down the road leading from Morni town to Raipur Rani lay a buffalo carcass. Trees by the side of the road and skies above were graced by an abundance of Himalayan griffon vultures through Monday evening and most of Tuesday.
As many as 200 vultures feasted in turns on the carcass that had been skinned and thrown 20 feet down the roadside. The good news for the future of these vultures comes from the latest survey by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), which found a very low usage of the principal vulture-killing veterinary drug, diclofenac, in the Morni-Pinjore area.
Griffon vultures, which are migratory, have been declared a near-threatened species. Tests have found griffons to be as vulnerable to diclofenac as the three other resident Gyps vulture species, which have suffered catastrophic declines in the sub-continent.
Over a period of time, Ambala-based birders Basant and Sarabjit S Mahal have been observing the thriving population of griffons in Morni, along with just two of the critically-endangered oriental white-rumped vultures.
Some of these griffons and the two white-rumped vultures visit the Jatayu Conservation Breeding Centre of the BNHS at Bir Shikar Gah, Pinjore, where they feed in proximity to the 10 captive vultures retained in the pre-release enclosure. These 10 vultures, which include eight captive-bred white-rumped and two rescued Himalayan griffon vultures, are being familiarised and prepared for an eventual merger with these wild Morni vultures and release into the wilderness. So, the health of the wild Morni vultures is crucial for the success of the BNHS project.
‘’The Morni vultures even come and roost at our centre. There are two reasons why griffons are doing well in the Morni hills. Firstly, we have just completed a survey in a 10-km radius from the centre till Madhana village in Morni hills. We found a very low incidence of diclofenac use on cattle. There was use of Meloxicam, but that is not toxic to vultures. We found use of Ketroprofen, but this drug is not as toxic to vultures as diclofenac, which acts on vultures as cyanide would on humans. The survey found use of Nimesulide, which is believed to harbour a degree of toxicity for vultures,’’ the centre head Dr Vibhu Prakash told HT.
“The other reason why griffons are surviving is that the adult griffons are sedentary, that is, they do not migrate from their breeding grounds in the trans-Himalayas where diclofenac is not used. It is mostly juvenile griffons, which migrate to India. As long as the adult birds are safe, the population is better positioned to weather such catastrophic declines as faced by the three resident Gyps species of India,’’ said Dr Prakash.
While diclofenac for veterinary use has been banned and the manufacture of large vial diclofenac doses for human use are also restricted, vulture conservationists want that any veterinary drug should be tested for vulture toxicity before release into the market. This is to ensure that vultures bred in captivity at tremendous expense and efforts, are freed into an environment free of killer drugs. From a population estimated at 4 crore in the 1980s, Indian vultures suffered a catastrophic decline and numbered a lakh in 2008 before the ban on diclofenac showed effect on ground and arrested that slide. The Union government’s vulture action plan envisages the release into the wilderness of 600 pairs of three critically-endangered Gyps species in the decade, following the first successful full release of birds bred in captivity.