Vultures were once the most abundant large birds of prey and nature’s scavengers across the world, including Indian subcontinent. But today they are one of most endangered bird species. This has not only resulted in the near total disappearance of a magnificent bird from our skies, but also jeopardized health and cleanliness in the countryside and caused unnatural changes in the natural food chain.
Nature’s Custodians of Cleanliness
For centuries, vultures have been silently performing a very important task in the cycle of nature. They are Nature’s Custodians of Cleanliness. They have been revered in most ancient cultures for the role they play in the ecosystem. For instance, in India, they appear as Jatayu and Sampati in the great epic Ramayan. They have been playing a lion’s share in disposing off the carcasses of dead animals, both wild and domestic, along with other lesser scavengers such as jackals, hyenas, dogs, crows and kites. Their sheer numbers and their appétit ensured that no decaying carcasses remained in the countryside for long to spread diseases and contaminate the soil and water.
Vultures are in danger
Till the early 1990s, huge flocks of vultures along roadsides, along railway lines, in fields, in forests and at dumping grounds were a common sight. These birds have been protecting us for thousands of years but now they need our help to survive. In recent years, they have witnessed a catastrophic population declinein India and other south Asian countries such as Nepal and Pakistan. We need to do everything that we can to protect, conserve and revive their numbers before it is too late.
Studies by BNHS and other organizations in the 1990s found that the Gyps species of vultures die of kidney failure when they eat the carcass of an animal recently treated with the pain-killer diclofenac, which is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Till the early 1990s, the population size of Gyps vultures in India and Nepal alone was estimated to be about 40 million (four crore). The number has declined to below one lakh at present – an astonishing drop of nearly 99.9% in just two decades! The Gyps species common to the region are Oriental White-backed Vulture, Long-billed Vulture and Slender-billed Vulture. Recent studies also suggest that other species of vultures such as Red-necked Vulture and Egyptian Vulture and some partially scavenging eagle species such as Steppe Eagle and Tawny Eagle are also getting affected by pain-killers such as diclofenac.
As already seen vultures are a critical link in the ecosystem. In their absence, population of other scavengers such as feral dogs and rats is increasing. This can increase the incidence of dangerous and potentially fatal diseases such as rabies. Cattle owners now either have to bury or burn their dead animals, which increases their costs. Alternatively they simply dispose them off the carcasses into rivers which can cost us our health through water contamination.There is a negative economic impact on local hide and bone collectors who rely on vulture-cleaned carcasses in order to earn a living.
Misunderstood in modern times
Despite their important role for our environment vultures are derided and mistakenly perceived to be dangerous, predatory and greedy. For instance, many times they are portrayed in caricatures as sitting on a leafless tree in a drought hit area waiting to feast on skinny people and animals on the verge of death. Not just in English, but in many Indian languages too, vultures are often mentioned to refer to some demonic tendency. The truth is that vultures have had a significant cultural context the world over. In the Hindu epic Ramayan, depicting ancient Indian history, the courageous vulture deity Jatayu sacrificed his life in order to save Goddess Sita from the demon king Ravan. In ancient Egyptian culture, vulture is a symbol of motherhood and protection. The Zoroastrians (Parsis) believe that being consumed by the scavenger bird liberates the spirits of the dead. In Tibetan culture, vultures are traditionally regarded as angels (Dakinis) who will take the soul into heaven.
Why are the vultures disappearing from our skies?
The main reason for their alarming disappearance is that they are getting poisoned due to veterinary drugs that are medicine to cattle, but poison to vultures. In 2004 it was established that Gyps vultures in south Asia have fallen victim to the veterinary usage of the drug diclofenac. This drug was for long used to treat sick domestic livestock until its veterinary use was banned in 2006 after advocacy efforts of organizations such as BNHS.The vultures suffer from kidney failure and die, after they feed on animal carcasses that have been treated with diclofenac just before their death. Because vultures tend to feed in flocks, a single contaminated animal carcass can kill many birds.
BNHS at the forefront of saving vultures in India
BNHS has led the movement of vulture conservation in India from the front. BNHS has been doing pioneering work in identifying the incidence and cause of their decline in India, scientific research on vulture populations, relentless advocacy work with multiple stakeholders to highlight the issue and successful Vulture Conservation Breeding Centres (VCBCs) of all threatened species at three locations. Our mission is to save vultures from extinction in India through an integrated approach of conservation breeding, research, monitoring, public awareness and advocacy for policy interventions. It has been a long and arduous journey, with some encouraging results. Yet a lot more needs to be done.
Breeding as a part of the overall programme
The aim of the vulture programme is to viably increase the number of all the three critically endangered species by minimizing and eliminating risks and potential threats to their survival through a capacity-building and multi-stakeholder engagement approach. We have adopted an integrated strategy of sustained conservation breeding for increasing numbers, extensive research and monitoring vis-à-vis risks and threats associated with vultures in natural habitat, advocacy and sensitization about vulture conservation and once a sizeable population of captive-bred birds is attained, releasing them in identified safe zones.
Conservation breeding centres: Ex-situ conservation initiative
A typical BNHS VCBC has enclosures called aviaries of different types for breeding, nursing, looking after sick and injured vultures and colonies for vultures to live in. We undertake artificial incubation of vulture eggs and rearing of vultures. After having set up our first centre in 2004, we now have four VCBCs, in Haryana, Assam, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh. Five other breeding centres are being managed by Central Zoo Authority (CZA). We have provided captive-bred vultures, technical assistance and capacity building support to CZA in setting up and running their breeding centres. As of 2014, under ex-situ captive breeding, we have 355 vultures across four centres of BNHS and 59 vultures in CZA centres.
Vulture Safe Zones: In-situ conservation initiative
A Vulture Safe Zone (VSZ) is a geographical area, the natural habitat of wild vultures, of at least 100 Km radius made free of the presence of the drug diclofenac in animal carcasses, the major food of vultures. VSZs aim at conservation in key geographical areas to protect and increase remaining vulture populations and act as future release sites for the captive-bred vultures. In order to declare an area a VSZ, there is need for government support, awareness activities among local stakeholders, and periodic monitoring through sample testing of animal carcasses to detect presence of veterinary drugs toxic to vultures. With concerted efforts of BNHS, currently five states - Gujarat, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Assam have declared VSZs across seven locations. Our in-situ conservation efforts have led to stabilisation of vulture population in designated VSZs in Gujarat and Jharkhand and increase in vulture population in the VSZ in Uttarakhand in recent years.
Research and Monitoring
While BNHS undertakes scientific lab-based research on vultures at the conservation breeding centres, it also conducts nation-wide research and monitoring activities on the ground on a periodic basis. This includes transect surveys, surveys in national parks, vulture nesting colonies, pharmacy surveys to study the use of toxic veterinary drugs beyond VSZs and recovery of vulture carcasses for further lab investigations. The nation-wide road transect survey of vultures is undertaken every four years to record numbers of birds observed along these roads across rural India, within and near national parks and other protected areas.
Surveys have shown that there is a gradual decrease in the prevalence of diclofenac in livestock carcasses since the government ban on veterinary diclofenac in 2006, from11.1% in 2006 to 6% in 2011. Results have also indicated that there has been an increase in use of meloxicam, the vulture-safe alternative to diclofenac, which can be used to treat livestock. However, study of toxicity of other NSAIDs on vultures has shown that apart from diclofenac, there are several other veterinary NSAIDs in use as well that must be checked. Drugs untested for their impact on vultures, such as nimesulide, are widely available in the market. Ketoprofen, an alternative that has also been tested to be fatal for vultures has still not been banned.
BNHS advocacy efforts primarily work at two levels; viz. policy advocacy with government and its various agencies and public advocacy with a wide range of local and regional stakeholders. Policy advocacy entails regular engagement with government ministries and departments at national and state level for strategic steps to ensure banning multi-dose vials (large size) of human formulation of diclofenac – which is still in use for treatment of animals – and also on the veterinary use of other toxic NSAIDs such as ketoprofen and aceclofenac. This also requires institutionalisation of procedures for identification by testing and subsequent ban on drugs that are hazardous for vultures at a certain level of exposure. Our endeavour is also to constantly work with government bodies and the pharma industry to put in place a robust mechanism for safety testing and approval process for NSAIDs that are safe for vultures. Public advocacy involves education, sensitization and enforcement of rules and ensuring behavioural change towards the use of toxic drugs among local stakeholders such as forest officials, drug controlling authorities, animal husbandry departments, veterinary practitioners, cattle owners, dairy owners, farmers, cattle shelters, drug stores and others.
Through our advocacy efforts with the government over the years we succeeded in 2006 in having in place a ban on veterinary use of diclofenac. Subsequently Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEFCC) created a Vulture Action Plan. We have also received in-principal approval for a ban on multi-dose vials of diclofenac for human use. We continue to closely work with Central Zoo Authority and state forest departments on conservation breeding efforts. While advocacy efforts with the government have produced some good results, the enforcement of rules by government agencies at various levels is still weak and financial support for vulture conservation work is difficult to get.
Vulture awareness on textile - Gamosas - BNHS photo library
A sustainable plan for future (2014 – 2025)
In order to make the vulture conservation programme sustainable, BNHS has identified a set of action points as part of its India blueprint. This includes the following:
Intensifying policy and public advocacy for drug ban enforcement
- Continued research for safer alternatives to the banned drugs
- Ensuring survival and scaling up of conservation breeding initiative
- Exploring a sustainable livestock sourcing project for feeding captive vultures through a community-based livelihood initiative
- Viable expansion of vulture safe zones
- Releasing captive-bred birds in safe zones
- Strengthening sensitization and monitoring activities
HOMI KHUSROKHAN SPEAKING AT VULTURE AWARENESS EVENT BY DR. RAJU KASAMBE
Ian Barber speaking at vulture awareness event by Dr Raju Kasambe
We need your support
In order to continue our efforts for saving vultures and the associated ecosystem across India we need more support from all quarters - government, conservationists and responsible corporate and individual citizens of India.
This cause is eligible for CSR spending under the category of “ensuring environmental sustainability, ecological balance, protection of flora and fauna, animal welfare” under Schedule VII of the CSR Clause 135 of the new Companies Act, 2013.
Awareness presentation in Dhanai Sapori village, Majuli -BNHS photo library
BNHS National Level Vulture Conservation Team:
• Dr Deepak Apte - Director
• Dr Vibhu Prakash - Programme Head / Deputy Director / Principal Scientist
• Sachin Ranade - Assistant Director/ Centre Manager (VCBC: Rani, Assam)
• Mandar Kulkarni - Centre Manger (VCBC: Pinjore,Haryana) / Coordinator, Vulture Safe Zone / Molecular Biologist
• Saumya Chakravartory - Centre Manager (VCBC: Rajabhatkhawa West Bengal)
• Rohan Shringarpure - Centre Manager (VCBC: Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh) / microbiologist
• Dr Parag Deori - Veterinarian
• Nikita V. Prakash - Avian Egg Incubation Expert, Vulture Programme
• Rinkita Gurav - Vulture Advocacy Head
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In the news
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A Decade Of Vulture Conservation In India
BNHS to establish a vulture safe zone
Vultures back from the brink
Vulture conservation to boost up from 2014: BNHS
Diclofenac drug being used illegally to treat animals
India’s Vanishing Vultures
Read more (Downloads)
Assessing the ongoing threat from veterinary non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to Critically Endangered Gyps vultures in India, Richard J Cuthbert, Ruchi Dave, Soumya Sunder Chakraborty
Sashi Kumar, Satya Prakash, Sachin P Ranade and Vibhu Prakash
The Population Decline of Gyps Vultures in India and Nepal Has Slowed since Veterinary Use of Diclofenac was Banned, Vibhu Prakash, et al
Status of Vultures in India, presentation at TERI University, Dr Vibhu Prakash, Principal Scientist,
Head, Vulture Conservation, BNHS