Natural scavengers on the brink of extinction


By: Kalpana Palkhiwala

The Parsee community in Mumbai has been deeply worried about the last rites of their departed near and dear ones since the late 1990s. The Parsees, a small community in India follow the Zoroastrian faith. In keeping with tradition, they cannot cremate, bury or submerge their dead in water because a corpse is considered impure and Zoroastrianism does not permit defiling the elements with it. The Parsees practice sky burials wherein the bodies of the dead are placed on platforms atop Towers of Silence where vultures, kites and crows dispose of them in no time, leaving only dry bones. Once, when the community went to place another one of their dead, to their horror they found the previous corpse in a decomposed state. The community and the city of Mumbai noticed the first signs of disappearing vultures!

Vultures are not disappearing only in India. In many parts of Africa, communities depend on vultures to dispose livestock carcasses because no carrion removal system exists. People in African communities also noticed carcasses strewn everywhere outside their villages for days on end. Similar situation was observed in Vietnam, Thailand and Laos too. Dead vultures were found in Nepal and Pakistan, and this heightened concern. The absence of vultures reproduces ecological imbalance, pollution and health dangers. Gypsophils (vulture enthusiasts) are crying themselves hoarse that the stately bird is vanishing. Increasing urbanization, rampant use of pesticides in agricultural fields, mounting pollution and wide-scale killing of vultures are all contributing factors to vulture endangerment.

Vultures in Mythology
In southern Africa, the name of a Nubian vulture is synonymous with the term applied to lovers because these vultures are always seen in pairs, mother and child remaining closely bonded together. Pairing, bonding, protecting, and loving are essential attributes associated along with the vulture’s size and its ability to soar high in the sky. The Egyptians considered the vulture to be an excellent mother, and the wide wingspan was seen as all-encompassing and providing a protective cover to her infants. In the Hindu epic Ramayana, there appear two demi-gods who had the form of vultures, Jatayu and his brother Sampaati, with whom are associated stories of courage and self-sacrifice.When young, the two used to compete over who could fly higher. During one such instance Jatayu flew so high that he was about to get seared by the sun’s flames. Sampaati saved his brother by spreading his own wings and shielding Jatayu from the hot flames. It was Jatayu who informed Rama in which direction Sita was being taken by the rapacious Ravana.

Physical Characteristics
A particular characteristic of many vultures is a bald head devoid of feathers. Research has shown that the bare skin may play an important role in thermoregulation. Vultures seldom attack healthy animals but may kill the wounded or sick. A group of vultures is occasionally called a venue, and when circling in the air a group of vultures is called a kettle.Vast numbers have been seen upon battlefields. They gorge themselves when prey is abundant till their stomach bulges, and sit, sleepy or half torpid, to digest their food. They do not carry food to their young in their claws, but disgorge it from the crop. These birds are of great value as scavengers, especially in hot regions. Vultures have a vital role to play in the environment. They are the hardiest of all creations and have been called nature’s own disposal squads. Carcasses are a vulture’s typical diet and its scavenging habits are an important link in checking and containing the spread of infectious diseases among animals and human beings. Whenever there are occurances of cattle epidemics during natural calamities like floods and droughts, vultures cleanse the earth of putrid carcasses and prevent deadly germs from spreading. Botulinum toxin, the toxin that causes botulism, an acute gastrointestinal and nervous disorder due to consumption of poisonous and rotten food does not affect vultures, and they can eat rotten flesh containing anthrax and cholera bacteria. Dr Salim Ali in his Book of Indian Birds described vultures as God’s own incinerators which cannot be replaced by even the most sophisticated ones which humans may invent. A flock of vultures has the ability to dispose of an ox in just 30 minutes. With the rapid decline in the vulture population, we are loosing a critical link in the food chain.

Reasons for Disappearance
There are multiple explanations for the declining population of vultures. Experts believe that they are dying due to rapid habitation. Refuting this, an expert from World Wildlife Fund says,” They do not belong to cities. It is the faulty disposal system of municipal waste which led vultures coming to cities.” In Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra, elaborate traps are laid out by number of tribes to kill vultures because vultures swoop and lift their livestock. Centre of Science and Environment (CSE) cites the rampant use of pesticides in farming and DDT, aldrin and dieldrin as a major factor leading to vulture deaths. The accumulation of these chemicals in the food chain adversely affects vultures’ reproductive system and causes almost 20% thinning of egg-shells which results in high mortality. According to experts, vultures are hostile to vultures of other species. This is evident at vulture gatherings near slaughtering houses. This means there is no cross-mating. Inbreeding reduces fertility and survival chances of newly hatched babies.

Just two decades ago, there were 85 million vultures in the country. They are now estimated to number just a paltry 3000 to 4000. India, Nepal and Pakistan have lost 95 % of their population of vultures in the past 10-15 years. Dr Asad Rahmani, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), also noticed a vulture decline at the famous Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary. Vultures were also reported to be dying in the Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan. A much smaller threat is aircrafts which hit the birds at high altitudes.

Flying towards Extinction

BNHS (Bharat Natural History Society), the Royal Society for the protection of Birds (RSPB) in the UK, the Zoological Society of London and Peregrine Fund in the U.S.worked together to find out what was responsible for this sudden decline. In Pakistan, the Peregrine Fund traced the cause to an anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac. If cattle, buffaloes, sheeps or goats injected with diclofenac which is a commonly used pain-relieving drug die of natural causes and are consumed by vultures, it causes the birds to suffer from dehydration when uric acid forms.This leads to gout in viscera and eventual kidney failure and death. It does not lead to accumulation of chemicals in the body like DDT, even a one-time ingestion can prove fatal to the vultures. Scientists show that even if 1% of carcasses contain diclofenac, it can lead to such a precipitate decline in this raptor population.BNHS’s examination of 1800 samples from around the country showed the actual prevalence of diclofenac in carcasses is ten times higher. India has nine species of vultures in the wild. These are the Oriental White-backed Vulture (Gyps bengalensis), Slender billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris), Long billed Vulture (Gyps indicus), Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus), Red Headed Vulture (Sarcogyps calvus), Indian Griffon Vulture (Gyps Fulvus), Himalayan Griffon (Gyps himalayensis), Cinereous Vulture (Argypius monachus) and Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus).

Of the nine species of vultures, the population of three species i.e. White-backed Vulture, Slender billed Vulture and Long billed Vulture in the wild has declined drastically over the past decade. The decline of Gyps genus in India has been put at 97% by 2005.

The Government announced an Action Plan for Vulture Conservation in India in April 2006. Phasing out the veterinary use of the Diclofenac and setting up Vulture Conservation and Breeding Centres are its major initiatives. Diclofenac has been banned in India. It is cheap and is used by thousands of poor herders. There are some 25 companies that formulated this drug and 110 companies that marketed Rs 25 crore worth annually. The companies claimed that the drug did not form a major part of their operations and could cooperate, provided the government subsidized their switch-over to a substitute called meloxicam, which is used in the West. Meloxicam is harmless but it is two-and –a –half time more expensive.

The first Vulture conservation breeding centre at Pinjore in Haryana and the second breeding centre in Rajabhatkhawa, Buxa Tiger Reserve, West Bengal are already fully operational .A third centre at Rani in Assam has been approved and construction work is now underway. Over 170 vultures of all three species are now held in the centres, including the only known population of slender-billed vultures in captivity. Despite successful captures of wild vultures continuing decline in all species is presenting an increasing challenge to the capture teams to actually locate vultures. Pinjore hosted a workshop to discuss the best husbandry practices for the vulture programme with experts in raptor care attending alongside representatives from states and facilities in India. This proved to be a very successful meeting in the revision of the husbandry manual and presented a great forum for staff to discuss some of the challenges they face. It also generated considerable interest in some of the senior staff from states in India planning to develop their own breeding centres. Besides these three centres, the Ministry of Environment and Forests through Central Zoo Authority has felicitated establishment of four Rescue/breeding centres in zoos at Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh), Bhubaneshwar (Orissa), Junagarh (Gujarat) and Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh). Breeding population of vultures have been reported from the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharahtra,West Bengal, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Assam.

Based on the survey and monitoring conducted by BNHS, estimated population of Slender-billed vulture is about 1000, white-backed around11000 and 44000 long –billed vultures. (PIB Features)

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  1. My maternal uncle used to stay in Matru Mandir tower near the three similar towers next to Hanging Gardens … on my visits i've myself seen pieces of remains brought tothe window panes by…is Parsee pancchayat whose very elections recently were marred by controversy giving "an alternative" a serious thought?! i,m told that the real estate prices near such locations have fewer takers! i' more worried about humans and their dignity than …

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