Soaring vultures over sites where dead animal laid were a common sight in India till let’s say a decade back. For Indians, who live with the largest cattle population in the world, vultures complement cultural beliefs while keeping our habitats ecologically safe by their rapid scavenging capacity.
Nine species of vultures are recorded from India. Out of these, five belong to the genus Gyps: the Oriental White-backed (OWBV) Gyps bengalensis, the Long-billed (LBV) G. indicus, the Slender-billed (SBV) G. tenuirostris, the Himalayan Vulture (HV) Gyps himalayensis, and the Eurasian Griffon (EG) Gyps fulvus. OWBV, LBV and SBV are residents, HV is largely wintering and EG is strictly wintering.
The other four genera are monotypic. These include the Red-headed Vulture (RHV) Sarcogyps calvus, the Egyptian Vulture (EV) Neophron percnopterus, the Bearded Vulture (BV) Gypaetus barbatus, and the Cinereous vulture (CV) Aegypius calvus. RHV, EV and BV are residents while CV is strictly wintering. A sub-species of EV Neophron percnopterus percnopterus is largely wintering.
Vultures were very common in India till the 1980s. During this period, the population of the three resident Gyps species of vultures (OWBV, LBV and SBV) in the country was estimated at 40 million individuals. But their populations crashed in the last couple of decades and the most common vultures – Oriental white-backed, Longbilled, and Slender-billed – declined by more than 96 percent in just a single decade (1993-2003).
Thanks to the concerted scientific research, that the causal agent was identified, and the cattle analgesic Diclofenac was quickly banned in India and few other South Asian countries to allow vultures’ recovery. Once diclofenac was established as the culprit, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India (MoEFCC), acted swiftly and released the Action Plan for Vulture Conservation (APVC) in 2006 to save the vultures from possible extinction.
Till a couple of decades ago, vultures had comfortable population status but it changed dramatically and by the year 2015, eight out of 16 species were Critically Endangered (indicating possibility of their going extinct within 10 years), three were Endangered and four Near Threatened and only one was of Least Concern based on International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red list. Unless effective conservation actions were implemented in the distribution range of these birds, there was a strong likelihood that several of these species could become extinct in the near future. The main reason for the rapid population declines of vultures is largely because of poisoning of their food, both intentional and otherwise.
Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, with the coordination of State Forest Departments and Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) took several important measures to implement the Action Plan. The populations are precariously small and remain vulnerable to adverse events, till their numbers have increased substantially. This vulnerable period will be lengthy because of the low natural reproductive capacity and long duration of immaturity in vultures, which means that, even under the most favourable conditions, the shortest period in which a wild vulture population can double in size, is about ten years. Moreover, the evidence of toxicity of three other veterinary NSAIDs to vultures is also a big cause of worry.
Vultures are not only important for environmental health, but also have considerable cultural and religious significance in India and elsewhere. For thousands of years, and in different parts of the world, humans have laid out their dead to be consumed by scavengers. Of these, the best known and documented are the Parsees. The speed of this unprecedented crash in vulture populations has no parallels in the modern animal world, and underlines the need for periodic monitoring, as an inadvertent introduction of a single mortality factor could quickly cause extinction level situation.
The learnings from the implementation of the Action Plan for Vulture Conservation 2006 which also marked the establishment of a vulture conservation breeding programme was highly instructive, and was a very sound basis for updating the Action Plan to its current edition (2020-25) which not only recommends national level multi-stakeholder monitoring of the vulture population involving the State forest departments, research institutions and NGOs, but also for additional Conservation Breeding Centres across the country and including the Red-headed vulture and Egyptian vulture.
Action Plan for Vulture Conservation 2020 will benefit from the International plans like The Multi-Species Action Plan to Conserve African-Eurasian Vultures (Vulture MsAP) of the Convention of Migratory Species (CMS), regional action plan like the SAVE Blueprint for the Recovery of South Asia’s Critically Endangered Gyps Vultures and the National Action Plan, the Vulture Conservation Action Plan for Nepal 2015-19.
Important objectives for the Action Plan for Vulture Conservation 2020-2025 (APVC) are:
1. Prevent the poisoning of the principal food of vultures, the cattle carcasses, with veterinary NSAIDs, by ensuring that sale of veterinary NSAIDs is regulated and is disbursed only on prescription and by ensuring that treatment of livestock is done only by qualified veterinarians.
2. Carry out safety testing of available molecules of veterinary NSAIDs on vultures. The new molecules should be introduced in the market only after they are proved to be safe following safety testing on vultures.
3. The Drugs Controller General of India must institute a system that automatically removes a drug from veterinary use if it is found to be toxic to vultures. Such a system would ensure that drugs other than diclofenac that are toxic to vultures like aceclofenac and ketoprofen are banned for veterinary use.
4. There is a need to establish additional Conservation Breeding Centres in the country. Currently, there are 8 Vulture Conservation Breeding Centres in different parts of the country. While the primary focus of these centres is breeding of vultures, they also serve as Vulture Conservation Centres.
For example, the in-situ conservation efforts are coordinated by the biologists based at the centres. The samples and information collected from the wild is analyzed and stored at these centres. Given that the centres have well-equipped facilities for veterinary care, laboratory, sample processing and storage facilities, they also help in identifying the cause of mortality in vultures in the region by providing all the necessary veterinary and laboratory support. Unfortunately, certain regions of the country cannot be fully covered by the existing network of breeding centres. It is therefore difficult to survey and collect samples from these areas due to their distance from the nearest centre. So it is proposed to set up one centre each in Uttar Pradesh, Tripura, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, which will cover most parts of the country.
Four rescue centres have been proposed for different geographical areas like Pinjore in the north, Bhopal in Central India, Guwahati in Northeast India and Hyderabad in South India. The centres will be established 5km from the breeding centres such that veterinary expertise of the breeding centres could be utilized for treatment of sick and injured birds. There are currently no dedicated vulture rescue centres to treat vultures that get injured in accidents and fall sick by unintentional poisoning. Rescue centres will help in saving these vultures, and these could become part of the breeding programme or safety testing projects.
Create database on emerging threats to vulture conservation
i. Collision and electrocution
The power infrastructure in the country is developing rapidly and the spread of power lines has become very extensive. It has caused problems to large birds of prey including vultures. The issue therefore needs to be addressed. Guidelines need to be formulated in collaboration with International experts which can then be shared with local authorities to carry out vulture friendly modifications. Similar efforts should be made to mitigate the harm caused by the wind turbines. The plan also envisages to carry out coordinated nation-wide vulture count to get a more accurate estimate of the size of vulture population. A database will be created on emerging threats to vulture conservation including collision and electrocution.
ii. Unintentional poisoning
This also causes fatalities in vultures. Although not very widespread and significant at the moment, it could potentially become a serious problem especially with the ever increasing man-animal conflict. It is proposed that information shall be gathered on occurrence of poisoning incidences and a national database should be created.
Plan for Vulture Conservation proposed to have at least one vulture safe zone in each State for the conservation of the remnant populations in that State. The vulture safe zone shall be created ensuring low prevalence of toxic NSAIDs in an area of 100 km radius from the vulture colony through targeted advocacy and awareness programmes following the established protocol. This will help in the conservation of vultures across the country with participation of people and communities.