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Foster daddy of first vulture chicks born in captivity

Vultures are shy in captivity, but in December, optimistic couples at Pinjore made nests from twigs strategically supplied in the aviaries, reports Reshma Patil.

india Updated: Jan 15, 2007 02:06 IST

The scientist on the frontline of India’s fight to save the last vultures — from Haryana to Assam or Kerala — is grateful that the birds of prey in his charge love a good night’s sleep — a 17-hour one, at that.

By 4 pm every day at Pinjore near Chandigarh, 116 vultures — including 14 slender-billed vultures that are the world’s only birds from this species in captivity — call it a day on charpoy-type platforms made of jute and wood, supervised by closed circuit TV cameras. “Thankfully, the birds like to sleep undisturbed till 9 am,” grinned Vibhu Prakash (47), principal scientist of the Bombay Natural History Society, and head of its national vulture conservation and breeding programme.

When his charges snooze, Prakash plans their future — he intends to breed 25 pairs of three species each and release 100 pairs each in the wild in 20 years. “Delhi had one lakh vultures, now it has barely 1,000. In Mumbai, the problem is equally grim,” said Prakash. “Current vulture sightings do not mean there is improvement. They are the last birds left.”

Vultures are shy in captivity, but in December, optimistic couples at Pinjore made nests from twigs strategically supplied in the aviaries. On January 1 and 5, two chicks, the first vultures born in captivity, joined the large family. “On the second day of hatching, we saw the parents give saliva to the baby. On the third day, we saw the baby move,” said Prakash.

The vultures are given twice-a-week meals of mutton that cost Rs 2-lakh a month. Some birds feed off his hands. “Like humans, they have varying personalities,” said Prakash. “Some are friendly, some nervous.” At times, they sulk and reject the offered delicacies.

Prakash also heads out with professional trappers to capture birds for conservation. Trappers stealthily close in on feeding vultures, with sticky bamboos that prevent the astonished birds from escaping. They plan to capture birds from Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra next.

In 1996, in Rajasthan’s Keoladeo National Park, the young scientist was the first to notice that the birds were drooping sick on their perches and dying baffling deaths. His study quickly expanded into an international investigation into the vulture death count that wiped out over 97 per cent of the birds.

In 2003, postmortems found that traces of the painkiller diclofenac in livestock carcasses vultures fed on triggered their deaths. Diclofenac is now banned, but Prakash’s team still monitors vulture foraging areas.

The UK-based Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds support the vulture conservation programme.

“Extinction is still a possibility. We cannot rest,” warned Prakash. “Among the slender-billed species, we believe no more than 400 remain worldwide.”

First Published: Jan 15, 2007 02:06 IST