The northeastern state has announced the launch of a project in the Padmabil area of Khowai district to carry out artificial breeding by bringing in Haryana vultures
You’ve heard of tiger conservation and cheetah conservation.
Well, now we have vulture protection. You read that right.
The northeastern state of Tripura has announced that its forestry agency will undertake a project to breed endangered vulture species in the Khowai district through a “vulture conservation and artificial breeding” program.
In light of that program, here’s a look at the state of this scavenger in India, the crises it’s facing and why such programs are badly needed to bring the ecosystem back into balance:
Vultures in India
India is home to nine species of vultures, but most of them are endangered. To this day, the Oriental white-backed vulture, the long-billed vulture, the narrow-billed vulture and the red-headed vulture are threatened with extinction.
The Egyptian vulture is critically endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, and the Himalayan vulture, black vulture and bearded vulture have been classified as near threatened.
There were around 40 million vultures living in India in the 1980s, belonging mainly to three species – Oriental white-backed, long-beaked and slender-beaked vultures. By 2017, that number had dropped to 19,000.
According to a report published by Stayed on the ground, India has lost 99 percent of the population of three species – Oriental white-backed vulture, long-beaked vulture and narrow-beaked vulture. Redhead and Egyptian vulture populations have also plummeted by 91 percent and 80 percent, respectively.
Asad Rahmani, former director of the Bombay Natural History Society, has been cited as narrating Scroll“This is the fastest decline of any bird species ever reported anywhere in the world.”
Why are vultures important?
Researchers have consistently affirmed the critical role that scavengers play in ecosystems and food webs. By eating dead animals, scavengers remove carcasses from the environment. This is a valuable service that goes beyond maintaining a clean and beautiful environment.
Vultures are one of the most effective scavengers. They only eat dead animal carcasses. They quickly remove bacteria and other toxins from the environment and consume carcasses before they rot.
In addition, their stomachs contain a powerful acid that destroys many of the harmful substances found in dead animals.
The birds also prevent pollution of water sources, especially in the wild. When animals die near waterholes, there is an imminent threat of contamination, leading to the rapid spread of infection and mass deaths.
But vultures devour the carcasses whole, preventing a tragic mishap.
As explained by Deepak Apte, former director of the Bombay Natural History Society the Times of India, “Vultures are often misunderstood and viewed as lowly creatures. They play an important ecological role as they bring health benefits to society. Vultures used to discard 10 million tons of rotting meat every year in India. That role has declined by 99 percent in the last 20 years, with environmental, economic and human health implications.”
He added that since there aren’t enough vultures, the number of dogs feeding on carcasses has increased.
“As the main carrier of rabies, which kills an estimated 7,000 people in India each year, this is a cause for concern,” he added in the same report.
Vultures are vital to the Parsi community. The community leaves their dead on the Towers of Silence to be devoured by vultures.
Today the Parsis may have turned to other methods, including solar accelerators, to hasten the decomposition of the dead, but none have proven as efficient or as hygienic as vultures.
What went wrong?
Although there’s no exact cause for the precipitous slump, many biologists believe heavy reliance on a drug called diclofenac could be a key reason.
Diclofenac is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) used to treat cattle and humans. The drug has been a godsend for cattle farmers as it is a fast-acting, effective pain reliever and also reduces fevers. Also, it is cheap, costing about 20 rupees.
However, it was found that vultures exposed to diclofenac after feeding on carcasses of dead livestock died of kidney failure.
Of the nine Indian vulture species, diclofenac affects the Oriental white-backed vulture, the Narrow-beaked vulture, and the Long-beaked vulture the most. The Eurasian Griffon Gyps fulvus and the Himalayan Griffon Gyps himalayensis were spared the massive decline, although they were affected.
Prakash Javdekar, former Union Minister for the Environment, Forests and Climate Change, had highlighted how dangerous the drug is for vultures in Parliament. “Just 0.4 to 0.7 percent of animal carcasses contaminated with diclofenac was enough to decimate 99 percent of vulture populations,” he was quoted as saying.
Additionally, vulture populations have declined due to habitat loss, food shortages, and electrocution. Tree felling for agriculture, urbanization, and fuelwood purposes, a cause of habitat degradation, is a threat to vulture nesting sites. Fire and grazing also reduce the safe roosting and nesting sites of vultures.
Another reason for the population decline was that the breeding grounds of the oriental vultures were mainly along roads. Human activities and traffic on the roads are of concern as vultures can feed on roads making them vulnerable to accidents.
Recognizing the need to reverse this trend, the government and conservation community are practicing various methods to revive the vulture population. The center launched a 2020-25 Vulture Action Plan in 2020 to protect vultures in the country.
The Drugs Controller General of India has banned the use of diclofenac in veterinary medicine.
The Central Zoo Authority (CZA) and the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) also established the Vulture Conservation Breeding Program. Eight centers have been set up under this program and so far 396 vultures of the three species have successfully fledged.
In another initiative to conserve the declining vulture population, ‘vulture restaurants’ have also been established – the first in 2015 at Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary in Raigad District. The Vulture Restaurant makes diclofenac-free cattle carcasses available for food consumption at designated locations, particularly during the breeding season.
Tripura’s vulture protection
Seeing that Tripura’s Khowai had a higher concentration of vulture populations, officials added that vultures are being brought in from other states to help with artificial breeding.
Tripuras Khowai Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Niraj K. Chanchal said the project would soon be established in the Padmabil area of Khowai district with funds sanctioned by the central government. There would be artificial breeding by bringing vultures out of Haryana and then releasing the offspring into the wild.
“Recently around 30-40 vultures have been sighted in the district. The scavenger was nearly extinct in the state about a decade ago, but the population is now increasing due to the forest service’s habitat improvement,” he was quoted as saying by the news agency PTI.
The Conservation Breeding Program appears to be the only measure that could save the vultures from extinction, said DK Sharma, Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF).
Also, Tripura forest officials have launched an awareness campaign among locals to plant more shimul trees because vultures roost in such deciduous trees.
With contributions from agencies