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Vulture Population: From Millions to Few Thousands

The vulture population in India has faced a drastic decline in the past few decades. Presently there are 9 species of vulture in India, some of which have been listed in the category of “critically endangered species” in the “Red Book” published by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In a survey conducted in the year 2017 by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) which is one of the largest non-governmental organisation in India engaged in research related to “conservation and biodiversity”, the population of 3 species of resident vultures in India namely , “white backed vulture”, “long-billed vulture” and “slender billed vulture” have been found to aggregate around 19000 which is a meagre number compared to an estimated 40 million three decades back.
Vultures are usually viewed as “the harbinger of death”, mainly because they are scavengers and prey upon the dead. However, in the recent times, with scientific understanding of our environment and ecosystem, mankind is slowly grasping the importance of these scavengers. The decline in their number, particularly in India, have given a major blow not only to India’s ecosystem causing rising trends of spread of several zoonotic virus like anthrax, brucellosis etc. but also to the cultural practice of the Parsi community residing in India , who are dependent on these scavengers for the disposal of the dead.
The Primary Cause for the Decline of Vulture Population in India
After years of intensive research, the experts have identified that the use of ‘Diclofenac’, which is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug primarily used to treat ailments in cattle, in large amounts by livestock owners is the principle cause of the deaths of the vultures, particularly those belonging to the 3 species of the critically endangered species of resident vultures in India as mentioned above.
The drug when enters into the bodies of these vulture species through the carcass meat causes renal failure, ultimately leading to their death.
Initiatives Taken to Arrest the Decline of These Vulture Population and Conserve the Species
Recognizing the threat that veterinary drugs like Diclofenac pose to the lives of the vultures, a ban has been imposed on the use of the Diclofenac to treat cattle, by the Ministry of Health since 2006. The ban also restricts the human formulations of the drug to 3 ml doses. The restrictions on the use of Diclofenac for humans was implemented in 2015 when reports on the illegal veterinary usage of the drug started coming out.
The ban of the veterinary usage of Diclofenac was recommended by the “Vulture Recovery Plan” released in the year 2006 by the Central Government. The same plan also gave two other major recommendations, which includes finding and usage of a safe alternative to the drug and launching of conservation breeding programmes to stabilize the population.
In pursuance of these two recommendations the Central Government has sanctioned a project, to investigate the effects of various veterinary non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) on the health of vultures. The onus of conducting, this Central Government project has been laid on Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) in collaboration with the BNHS. The Central Government in collaboration with different state governments have also established a total of 8 Vultures Conservation Breeding Centres (VCBCs) in various states.
The Central Government has also upgraded the 3 critically endangered species- white-backed, long-billed and slender billed vultures- to Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, which offers the maximum degree of protection amongst the 4 schedules listed under the Act.
Along with this, by means of “targeted advocacy and awareness programmes” attempts are being made by the governments of both centre and states to establish “ vulture safe zones” in areas where there are existing population of vultures.
The main objective of establishing such a zone is to provide a safe haven for the vultures where enough food and safe habitat for their sustenance are available. So far 8 vulture safe zones, situated in various states, have been identified across the country.
Principle Challenges with Regards to Conservation Initiatives
With regards to the survival and sustenance of vulture population there are several challenges or concerns that need sot be addressed. The principle among them is obviously the continued usage of large amounts of Diclofenac despite the bans and restrictions imposed and the reluctance of the livestock owners to switch to safer alternatives.
Also, pesticide pollution is a threat to the vulture embryos. Bioaccumulation of pesticide like DDT etc. interferes with the hormonal activity of the body of the vulture, particularly with the hormone estrogen, resulting in weakened egg shells, which in turn causes premature hatching of the eggs, posing severe life risks to the chicks.
Other than the above two challenges, there are also challenges from other sources like transmission lines, wind turbines, poaching, poison traps for carnivores like lions, tigers etc.
Conclusion and Way Forward
With the imposition of ban on Diclofenac use for veterinary purposes and restricting its use for treatment of humans, a very important and effective step has been taken by the authorities to save the vulture population in India.
But considering the critical ecological roles that vultures play as scavengers this step is not enough to ensure the survival and sustenance of the species. It needs to be ensured that Diclofenac is not manufactured at all by the pharmaceutical companies only then its distribution and illegal use can be arrested. For that, safe alternatives to the drugs need to be found out and put into manufacture and circulation as soon as possible. Some researchers suggest that meloxicam can be such alternative drug.
Also, the initiative taken by government at the centre and the states to establish VCBCs in various states is indeed commendable. Around all the 8 VCBCs, a zone of 100 square km area, has been demarcated as safe zones where all kinds of unsustainable activity are strictly banned. Establishing more and more safe zones like these across the country may prove to highly effective in protecting the habitats of the vultures.
BNHS has also given a very interesting proposition for the conservation of vultures. This proposition suggests establishing vulture viewing platforms in the lines of “vulture restaurants” which are popular tourist attraction in Africa. Implementing this suggestion will make vulture conservation a revenue generator in the tourism sector in India and will also make the local human communities more and more sensitive towards the issue of the protection of the vultures.
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