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Disappearing Vultures from India

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Vultures in India

The population of Vultures in the country has reduced from 40 million (in 1990) to less than 60 thousand (2012). On 22 March 2012 it was declared that Vultures have gone extinct in the state of Andhra Pradesh, with only five surviving birds at Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad.
Disappearing Vultures from India

-Dr. Arvind Singh 

Vultures are scavenger birds which feed on the carcasses of large animals, thus playing important role in cleaning of the environment. Vultures have been described in Indian mythological epic Ramayana where the Vultures king Jatayu sacrificed himself while saving Sita from the clutches of Ravana. The followers of the Zoroastrianism (Parsi community) religion in India have traditionally been dependent on Vultures for disposal of their dead bodies. Therefore, for several centuries the Vultures of India have been providing a crucial ecosystem service for the Parsi people.

Vultures from India
Today the fast disappearing population of Vultures is a serious problem in India. The population of Vultures in the country has reduced from 40 million (in 1990) to less than 60 thousand (2012). On 22 March 2012 it was declared that Vultures have gone extinct in the state of Andhra Pradesh, with only five surviving birds at Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad. Till mid of 1980’s Vultures were found in large number in India and often classified as nuisance as they were involved in many bird strikes. They were usually seen hovering over tall trees even in urban areas of Mumbai and Kolkata, however today the condition is worst. It is rare to sight a Vulture even in rural areas of the country.

Importance of Vultures:
Vultures are the natural cleaners of the environment. They feed on dead decaying animals thereby enhancing the process of mineral return to the soil. Moreover, by disposing the dead bodies they check the spread of infectious diseases. In absence of vultures the population of animals like rodents and stray dogs tend to increase leading to the spread of rabies.

Species of Vultures found in India:
Vultures belong to various species and on average the most typical representative of them in India weighs between 3.5 - 7.5 kg, measures from 75 - 93 cm in length and has a wingspan of 6.3 - 8.5 feet. Vultures can soar to a height of 7,000 feet and can easily cover distance of more than 100 km in one go.

There are nine species of Vultures found in India, of which four have been listed as Critically Endangered (Table 1) in the Red List of Threatened Species by International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) with populations reduced by as much as 99.99% in most of the cases.

The nine different species of Vultures which occur in India includes Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), Cincerous Vulture (Aegypius monachus), Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus), Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus), Himalayan Vulture (Gyps himalayansis), Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus), Indian White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis), Red-headed Vulture (Sarcogyps calvus) and Slender-billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris).

Of these nine species, Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus), Indian White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis), Red-headed Vulture (Sarcogyps calvus) and Slender-billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) are Critically Endangered species of Vultures while Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is Endangered species of Vulture in India. Furthermore, Cincerous Vulture (Aegypius monachus) is Near Threatened species of Vulture in the country.

Table 1: Species of Vultures found in India and their Conservation Status
S.N. Common Name, Scientific Name, Conservation Status 
01. Bearded Vulture, Gypaetus barbatus, Least Concern 
02. Cincerous Vulture, Aegypius monachus, Near Threatened 
03. Egyptian Vulture, Neophron percnopterus, Endangered 
04. Griffon Vulture, Gyps fulvus, Least Concern 
05. Himalayan Vulture, Gyps himalayansis, Least Concern 
06. Indian Vulture, Gyps indicus, Critically Endangered 
07. Indian White-rumped Vulture, Gyps bengalensis, Critically Endangered 
08. Red-headed Vulture, Sarcogyps calvus, Critically Endangered 
09. Slender-billed Vulture, Gyps tenuirostris, Critically Endangered

According to International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Endangered species is that species which is in danger of extinction and whose survival is unlikely if the causal factors continue to be operating, whereas the species which is facing extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in immediate future is known as Critically Endangered species. Near Threatened species is that species which is not Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable or Conservation Dependent but is close to qualifying for Vulnerable. Least Concern species is the species which is not Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable and does not qualify for Conservation Dependent or Near Threatened.

Threats to the Survival of Vultures in India:
The main threats to the survival of Vultures in India include veterinary use of analgesic diclofenac, habitat destruction, pesticide pollution, slow breeding rate, paucity of carcasses, feeding of the poisoned carcasses and lack of legal protection.

According to Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) veterinary use of diclofenac is the main threat to the Vultures in India. Diclofenac is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) which is a constituent of almost all gels, creams and sprays used to alleviate muscle pain. 

The drug is equally effective in cattle as well and when given to working animal it reduces joint pain and so keeps them working for longer. Thus widespread use of diclofenac as pain reliever in cattle is the cause of Vulture’s mortality in India. Since kidneys take a lot of time to flush this drug out of the system, hence even after the death it remains in the body of cattle. As Vultures are scavengers and feed on the dead. Once they consume the diclofenac contaminated flesh, their kidney stop functioning leading to death.

Habitat destruction is another major threat to Vultures in India. Developmental activities like establishment of power projects, irrigation projects, industrial units, construction of highways etc. have ruined the habitats of Vultures resulting into decline in their population.

Pesticide pollution is also a threat to Vultures in India. The chlorinated hydrocarbon D.D.T (Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane) used as pesticide enter the body of Vultures through food chain where it affects the activity of estrogen hormone, as a result of which the egg shell is weakened consequently the premature hatching of egg takes place causing the death of the embryo.

Vultures lay a single egg in a breeding season. Hence their slow breeding rate is also a threat to their survival.

Use of poisoned carcasses as bait by human beings to kill cattle-marauding carnivores is also a threat to Vultures in India. Accidental consumption of such poisoned carcasses by Vulture leads to their death. Use of poison-baited carcasses by villagers has wiped out Vultures from Anaimalai’s in Tamil Nadu.

Poachers poison wild animals such as elephant, tiger, rhinoceros, deer and bear to take away the tradable parts such as hide, tusk, musk, antler, horn and bile. Feeding of the carcasses of the poisoned animals has also been a threat to Vultures in India.

Out of nine species of Vultures found in India only the Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) is protected by law. Thus lack of legal protection is also a threat to survival of these scavenging birds.

Consequences of Vulture’s mortality:
Disappearing of ecologically important Vultures is matter of concern. Places where Vultures were in abundance, populations of feral dogs have increased. The increase in the number of dogs has been proportional to the decline in the number of Vultures. With increase in number of dogs the incidence of rabies-related deaths has also increased. According to the Government sources, “A major shift in transfer of corpse pathogens from vultures to feral dogs and rats can lead to a disease pandemic causing millions of deaths in a developing country like India”. The digestive systems of Vultures have the capability to destroy many species of pathogens causing deadly diseases in human beings.

The escalating incidence of leopard’s assault in villages of India is due to decline in Vulture population. In fact, the multiplication of feral dogs has caused a multiplication of leopards feeding on those dogs. There the leopards invade the human settlement areas to prey on the dogs. These often results in attacks on human children.

Parsi community in India is most affected from declining population of Vultures as they are inevitable for disposal of their dead bodies. Parsis consider earth, water, fire and land as sacred elements therefore none of these are used for the cremation purpose. In Parsi culture the dead bodies are kept at height to designated enclosed places called Dokhma or Dakhma euphemistically known as “Tower of Silence” where they are disposed by the Vultures. Since the Vulture populations have declined to serious extent Parsis are now compelled to give up this traditional practice by evolving some alternatives.

Though the Government of India has banned the use of culprit drug diclofenac in 2005 by recommending another NSAID meloxicam as substitute of the diclofenac, however the diclofenac is still sold illegally and is frequently being used by the cattle farmers in India as the substitute meloxicam is less effective and is expensive as well. Thus the mortality of Vultures continues in India.

Conservation of Vultures in India:
Disappearing of Vultures is a matter of serious concern and needs immediate action to conserve these valuable birds. Following strategies need to be adopted for the conservation of Vultures in India.

1. There is need to evolve an effective substitute of diclofenac, and the present available substitute meloxicam needs to be subsidized. 

2. Captive-breeding programme with aim to reintroduce Vultures into the wild need to be launched on large scale, particularly for Critically Endangered and Endangered species of Vultures. However, in early 2014 the Saves Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (Save) Programme announced that it expects to start releasing captive-bred birds into the wild by 2016. 

3. All efforts should be made to protect and conserve the Near Threatened and Least Concern species of Vultures in India. Moreover, all the species of Vultures should be legally protected. 

4. There is need to set up Vulture feeding stations through provision of poison-free food, clean water, bone chips and perches within an open-roofed wire-mesh enclosure for safety and freedom of Vultures. This could be the best in situ conservation tool for the protection of these scavenging birds. 

5. There is utmost need to establish Vulture Sanctuaries near Parsis crematorium for the disposal of corpses. This would also be helpful in increasing the Vulture’s population owing to availability of sufficient food. 

6. Degraded habitats of Vultures need to be restored. 

7. There is need to put complete ban on the use of chlorinated hydrocarbons like D.D.T. 

8. Full protection must be given to nests of the Vultures in their breeding habitat. 

Conclusion:
Fast depleting population of Vultures in India is a matter of serious concern and needs immediate action to conserve these scavenger birds to keep the environment neat and clean and also to avoid the rabies- related deaths.
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Dr. Arvind Singh is M. Sc. and Ph. D. in Botany with area of specialization in Ecology. He is an dedicated Researcher having more than four dozen of published Research Papers in the Journals of National and International repute. His main area of Research is Restoration of Mined Lands. However, he has also conducted Research on the Vascular Flora of Banaras Hindu University Main Campus, India.
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TechGape: Disappearing Vultures from India
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