Vultures - Is there any hope?

By Thanrangini Balasubramanian

When Mother Nature created Vultures, she definitely did it for a reason, to help in keeping the rest of her creations from being affected or infected in anyway by the carcasses of various other creatures. All in all it worked very well in a beautiful cycle. Animals were born, they died , Vultures cleaned away the carcass, they got fed and life went on. This went on till the time the Vultures that were created for this noble purpose started dying in such large numbers that they could no longer be taken for granted and we had to sit up and take notice.

We do have so many scavengers, but then what is it that makes these Vultures more suitable or rather the perfect scavenger?

Well, every aspect of their body has been custom made for being the cleanup crew of Mother Nature. Starting with their bald heads that is easy to clean after they tear away the flesh from the depths of the carcass with their razor sharp beaks, their keen eyesight that makes it possible to scan for their meal from really high up and a wingspan of almost 2-2.5 meters to carry them that high and cover a huge distance helping them to ensure that there are no rotting carcass anywhere in the vicinity. Still the best part would be their incredibly acidic stomach that has the ability to kill the most stubborn pathogens from a carcass thus preventing any from spreading to other animals and humans through water bodies etc.

When the Vultures were in plenty, it was a common sight to see them arrive within an hour of the carcass being discarded and in just a day or two everything would be cleaned out. But unfortunately this was the story when they were in plenty and that is as recent as 3 to 4 decades back when their population was in millions. Their decline has been the fastest ever that has been recorded among any species and that includes the Dodo, as per a study.

So how did such an alarming decline happen? It was all because of one drug called the Diclofenac, an anti- inflammatory drug for cattle that became extremely popular during the early nineties. This drug was known for its ability to reduce in ammations in cattle in record time and was inexpensive as well. But any cattle that died within 72 hours of being administered Diclofenac and became a meal for the Vultures proved fatal for these scavengers. The Vultures suffered from renal failures leading to their death.

Since Vultures are also social birds and feed in groups, one carcass with Diclofenac still in it’s system would affect the entire group of almost 20-30 Vultures resulting in mass deaths.

Vultures are birds that mate for life and raise just one offspring each breeding season. This meant that if one of the pair died the other was left alone, unable to breed.

Higher death rates and lower birth rates ensured a decline of over 95% of the population by 2003 when Diclofenac was identified as the main reason for the Vulture deaths. Major damage was already done by the time the veterinary drug was banned in 2006.

But then their population continued to decline by almost 20% each year despite the ban. All this, thanks to the continued illegal use of human Diclofenac for cattle despite an alternative drug Meloxicam being introduced.

Among other reasons, lack of food with more and more people opting to either bury or cremate their dead cattle and loss of habitat also played a major role in stumping an increase in their population. Since they roost and breed mainly in high cliffs, quarrying and cutting of tall trees have left them with no suitable places to nest and breed.

There are other random unfortunate instances as well contributing to this decline. There has been news reports couple of years of poisoned meat left out in the open at Ramanagara, India’s  first Vulture Sanctuary, by people with vested interests. The place being declared a Vulture Sanctuary has offended those who have their eyes on the real estate in and around that area. With the Vultures gone, there will be no stopping them from turning Ramanagara into resorts, villas and complexes overnight. How do a few Vultures stand a chance against loads of money and power?

Poaching and even incidents where 30 Himalayan Griffon Vultures were killed by a speeding train in 2010 when they descended on the track to eat a rail kill makes one wonder if there is any hope at all for this declining species or will they just slip into the Extinct status from the Critically Endangered status (status of the natural world as de ned by IUCN - International Union for Conservation of Nature).

In India 4 out of 9 species come under the Critically Endangered List while 3 are under Near Threatened. The Egyptian Vulture or Pharaoh’s chicken as they are called are more opportunistic feeders and feed on eggs and at times on small injured birds, mammals, reptiles etc. and have managed to do a better job of surviving and is listed as Endangered. Their population is equally a ected, but because of their slightly flexible eating habits, they have just managed to stay out of the Critically Endangered List.

The White-rumped Vulture, the Long- billed Vulture, Red-headed Vulture and the Slender-billed Vulture are already in the Critically Endangered List while the Himalayan Griffon, Cinereous Vulture, Lammergeier fall in the Near Threatened List. Only the Eurasian Griffon still manages to stay in the Least Concern. The population in Ramanagara has also gone down in the recent times from around 11 Long-billed Vultures that were seen in 2012-2013 to the current sighting of 4 to 6 Long-billed Vultures. Padma Ashok of Save Tiger First says “We are attempting to investigate their absence. It is worrisome that we can’t spot more in the sanctuary. We will check neighboring granite outcrops as well as neighboring hills to see if a flock has found a safer place,” She adds “Traditionally, Vultures used to depend on cattle carcasses. Now with farming practices changing, we want to know how these birds are adapting to the changed scenario.”

Why all the fuss about saving Vultures? How does one more species nearing extinction matter so much? Does it even have that much of an impact?

In nature every single species is part of delicately stacked deck of cards. One species impacted will sooner or later impact every other species. But as for Vultures the impact is already being seen. Today in the absence of vultures, when cattle carcasses gets treated with various chemicals to keep the pathogens at bay. These chemicals most definitely seep into our soil and water bodies and in turn affect all the other beings that come into contact. The absence of Vultures are both good news and bad news for stray dogs, as the stray dogs are getting more food, their population is increasing. This is leading to noticeable changes in their behavior, they are becoming more violent and attacking humans too and as a result becoming victims of mass culling.

There is no saying as to what happens with the animals that die in the depths of the forest. If they have died of some disease, the microorganisms that killed them can very well spread to other animals that eat them. This is because no animal or bird other than the vulture has the capacity to ingest and kill these microorganisms. If it spreads to other animals, it does not take long to reach a wider range too. The number of diseases spreading is going up alarmingly. Is it just not easier to help these Vultures survive and take care of a whole lot things that are best left to their expertise?

Focusing on artificial means to counter the adverse effects due to the decline in Vulture population is not only proving to be a very expensive process but also not as e ective. However majority of us are still ignorant and largely disinterested, since the impact and effect is still not directly felt.

There are organizations and people who dearly care about the welfare of the Vultures and are striving towards saving them from extinction. Organizations like Save Tiger First (STF) who with external guidance from the Consortium for Vultures called SAVE (Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction) have been involved in conducting a study of the habits and habitat to estimate the present population of Long-billed Vulture (Gyps indicus) at Ramanagara, Karnataka, in association with Karnataka Forest Department.

The Long-billed Vulture Conservation Project at Ramanagara, Karnataka has Padma Ashok, Project Director; Ashok Hallur, Wildlife Conservationist; Tharangini Balasubramanian, Wildlife Blogger & Photographer; supported by Chris Bowden, Program Manager, SAVE; Dr. S Subramanya, Senior Ornithologist; Mr. Gopakumar Menon, Senior Wildlife Conservationist; Tarun Nair, Research Advisor; Iravatee Majagaonkar, Research Advisor & Beependra Singh, GIS Specialist; among others.

Apart from the conservation program at Ramanagara, the first Saturday of September each year is observed as International Vulture Awareness Day. It is also encouraging to see a lot of school and college students becoming aware and eager to contribute to the cause in various ways. But a mass involvement is needed, especially from the local communities & villagers living in and around the Sanctuary and at individual level. Awareness on the way they handle their cattle, making them realize that the use of Diclofenac will not just affect the Vultures but will eventually boomerang on them.

Vulture nesting and breeding areas need to be protected. Illegal Quarrying has to be stopped, of course that is easier said than done, but if there can be a miracle for the Amur Falcons in the North East of India, can we expect such miracles for the Vultures too? There is hope, if we put our minds to action!




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