Geotagging to monitor vultures in MP’s Panna Tiger Reserve

  • About 25 vultures in the Panna Tiger Reserve, including the critically endangered Indian vulture, have been geotagged to monitor the species’ behavior.
  • The data collected by the tags can help inform conservation activities, including policies and adaptive management, of the raptors in the sanctuary.
  • The study will provide baseline data on these activities, and further analysis will help determine the overall health of individuals and vulture populations in and around the reserve.

About a month ago, about two dozen vultures at Panna Tiger Reserve (PTR) were tagged with GPS devices as part of a scientific exercise to monitor vulture movement to understand species behavior in the Madhya Pradesh sanctuary. “We have tagged 25 vultures so far – 13 Indian vultures, 8 Himalayan griffon vultures, 2 Eurasian griffon vultures and 2 king vultures,” Ramesh Krishnamurthy, scientist, Wildlife Institute of India (WII) told Mongabay-India. “These vultures have been trapped using a variety of methods including walk-in pens, leg traps and snap traps. These were well-established traditional methods that have proven successful across the country to tag several migratory birds, including vultures,” he said. Among the marked vultures is the Indian vulture (Gypsum indicus) is an endangered species.

The vulture tagging was carried out by a team that included veterinarians from the Wildlife Institute of India as part of the Landscape Management Plan project, assisted by professional trappers, resident veterinary officials and park officials from the PTR during the winters of 2020-2021 and 2021-2022. The process involved several steps such as preparation, acquisition, marking, measurement and approval. Each day the team would reach the field well before dawn, set traps and waited for the birds, Krishnamurthy said, adding, “Sometimes vultures come to the trap station but other times they don’t.” Eventually they managed to catch the birds, and they had to be handled with care because of their size and fragility.

One of the challenges the team faced was the following: the bait stations they set up for the vultures invited other wildlife, including tigers, which in turn deterred the vultures, which took longer to get to the bait, explained Krishnamurthy.

Finally, the captured vultures were tagged with sophisticated GPS tags known as e-ObsTags. The German-made trailers are solar-powered and weigh between 25g and 75g, which is fairly light compared to the birds, which weigh over 12kg, an official said.

Tagging a vulture with a GPS device. Photo courtesy of Panna Tiger Reserve.

The tags have been configured to collect and store data, and then transmit the data whenever it comes within the transmission link, Krishnamurthy said. He added: “It is a GSM based tag and data is transmitted as the birds take off and soar. In addition, it collects data every five minutes, enabling fine-scaled data along with elevation, temperature and activity.”

Because the tag included both resident and migratory vultures, the movement data allows conservationists to observe the locations where the vultures feed and roost. This information, in turn, helps the team plan conservation and protection efforts in locations where the vultures face threats.

The GPS tags act like smartwatches that people use in their daily routines like jogging and exercising, WII junior research fellow Dibyendu Biswas explained to Mongabay-India. The way the smartwatches tell us how long we’ve walked, what steps we’ve taken, etc., likewise the GPS tags provide information about the vultures’ behavior, he said.

Vulture tagging will help conservationists get detailed information about the movement, day-to-day behavior such as the way the vultures drink water and interact with each other, their adaptability to a new area, and how they secure such new areas of their movement. These details will help develop a better understanding of the conservation of the species they provide invaluable ecosystem services by improving the flow of nutrients within the food web and reducing the transmission of infectious diseases through the removal of carrion.

The Indian Vulture (Gypsum indicus) sits on a tree in the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, India. photo by Vishal Sharma/Wikimedia Commons.

According to Uttam Kumar Sharma, Director of Panna National Park (PNP), “Madhya Pradesh has achieved good results in protecting vulture species. The number of vultures (in the state) has increased to 9,446 in 2021.” Nine vulture species are found in India, three of which are critically endangered and seven of the total species are found in PNP, according to a park press release. Those found in PNP include migratory species such as the Himalayan griffon vulture, Eurasian griffon vulture and black vulture, as well as resident species such as Indian vulture, white-rumped vulture, red-headed vulture and Egyptian vulture.

Since the catastrophic demise of vultures at the end of the last century, telemetry-based research has become essential to understanding the movement patterns of these birds. This includes migrating, foraging, roosting, nesting, bathing, and other behaviors that understanding is critical to their conservation, especially when these birds require large areas to survive, including human spaces and carcass dumps. Current scientific literature shows that 14 vulture species have been tagged and studied in 24 countries, but none from India.

The current study will provide baseline data on these activities on a spatiotemporal scale. In addition, hematological and microbiological analysis of the samples obtained will help to determine the general health of the individuals and to some extent the health of the vulture populations in and around the reserve. All results of the current study will lead to significant policy implications by providing answers to existing knowledge gaps and leading to adaptive management of these raptors in the Greater Panna landscape.

Read more: How a Maharashtra village is helping vultures make a big comeback

Banner image: An endangered Indian vulture (Gypsum indicus) in flight in Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh. photo by Gogol Banerjee/Wikimedia Commons.


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