The Vulture Crisis
On September 5, 2015, birders and wildlife enthusiasts across the globe will celebrate Vulture Awareness Day. In honour of these incredible scavengers, we dug into the Sanctuary archives to bring to you this article from 2001 that debated the cause of the crash in vulture populations before the pharmaceutical drug diclofenac was identified as the culprit.
Scanning the skies above the Bir Shikargarh forest, we were able to spot just two White-backed Vultures, along with half a dozen Eurasian Griffon Vultures. I was with Dr. Vibhu Prakash, Principal Investigator with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) whose concern at the decline in the vultures’ numbers was palpable. A few days earlier, at Ferozepur, on the Pakistan border, a community of cattle-skinners reflected Vibhu’s fears when they expressed genuine concern at the birds’ disappearance. I realised that these rustic people had an intimate knowledge of and respect for vultures. Clearly, the impact of the birds’ apparent disappearance goes far beyond an elite group of ornithologists.
Ever since the vulture alarm was sounded by the BNHS in 2000, wildlife circles have been buzzing with theories and counter-theories. Mainstream BNHS opinion theorises a catastrophic decline in the numbers of two of India’s most common species, the White-backed and Long-billed Vultures. Former BNHS scientists and avian experts of the pedigree of Dr. Robert Grubh, Dr. S.M. Satheesan and S.A. Hussain vociferously deny the existence of such a dire threat. They talk instead of a ‘reduction’ and not a ‘near-extinction’ in vulture numbers, discounting the virus theory propounded by the BNHS. They even suggest that vulture populations could actually be on the road to recovery. My own travels through the border districts of Amritsar and Ferozepur in Punjab and the neighbouring Morni Shivalik hills of Haryana have revealed many small groups of White-backed Vultures.
Jodhpur-based researcher Dr. Anil Kumar Chhangani, also discounts the ‘on-the-verge-of-extinction’ theory. He reports 600-800 vultures in Jodhpur, including a significant number of White-backed Vultures. Of course, no one has reliable baseline data on populations to prove either claim. It is not difficult to see why there are such divergent views.
The Railway Officers’ Colony in Ferozepur, for instance, sports sprawling British Raj vintage houses and ancient ficus ‘bodh’ trees, home to 13 breeding White-backed Vultures. This population and another of 20 individuals near Khalra on the Amritsar international border was first spotted by the Conservator of Forests, Ferozepur, Dhirendra Kumar Singh. However, just a kilometre away from the Officers’ Colony is Loco basti, where no vultures remain today. “Hundreds of vultures used to feed on the carcasses that we skinned. With the vultures’ disappearance, the carcasses stink, the dogs are bloated with overfeeding on rotten meat and the level of hygiene has gone down,” says Jage Ram. “Vultures used to come in great numbers, our trees used to turn white with their droppings. But now there are just three vultures at the railway station and only one nest with eggs,” adds shopkeeper Charan Singh.
Dr. Grubh, who anchored a major treatise on bird hazards to aircraft from 1980-90, says, “For the hide collectors of the Indo-Gangetic plains, whose major livelihood is collecting and selling hide and bones, the disappearance of vultures from large towns and cities is a big blow because vultures were a free labour force, removing flesh from carcasses after they had been skinned. The bones, picked clean by vultures, were then sold to bone mills. In the absence of vultures, this has become a labour-intensive job causing heavy losses to poor families. My report had recommended that hide collectors be given employment at the proposed modern carcass processing plants. The ecommendations were accepted, but have not been implemented.”
The explosion in dog and rat populations around carcass dumps, the spread of canine-related diseases like rabies and TB and overall pollution are some of the most obvious consequences of the vulture loss. The few diffident and sick vultures that remain are now easily chased away by dogs at carcass dumps, whereas a few years ago, no dog would dare to grab a morsel from a dump surrounded by dozens, sometimes hundreds of these dominating birds.
Whatever be the debate in India, the danger posed to the White-backed and the Long-billed Vulture is now acknowledged internationally. Threatened Birds of the World by UK-based BirdLife International, lists the White-backed Vulture as ‘critically’ endangered with a rapidly declining population of 2,500-10,000 for Pakistan and India (1996). Surveys by the BNHS over the 1990s show that these two species face a catastrophe, the birds having been decimated by 95 per cent.
Dr. Prakash is in the process of setting up an international project to study sick vultures at Bir Shikargarh. Termed the ‘Vulture Care and Diagnostic Centre’, the project will involve experts from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Venkateshwara Hatcheries-owned Poultry Diagnostic and Research Centre (PDRC), Pune. The project, funded to the extent of Rs. one crore by the UK government’s Darwin Initiative Fund, will aim at identifying the ‘viral disease’ that has hit the birds. Initially, 10 pairs of juvenile and sub-adult vultures and later, another 10 pairs will be captured from all over India and brought to Bir Shikargarh for observation, tests and study.“
It took us five years to get this project through and to set up an avian pathology laboratory to study sick vultures and subject them to rigorous clinical and laboratory analysis. The disadvantage is that by the time dead birds obtained in the field reach the laboratory, secondary changes set in, making analysis difficult,” says Dr. Prakash.
Though Griffon Vultures are being captive-bred in Israel and France, the White-backed and Long-billed Vultures have never been bred in captivity. Jemima Parry-Jones of the UK-based Birds of Prey Centre intends breeding White-backed Vultures at the Hawk Conservancy at Eindover, UK. The Centre plans to breed White-backed and Long-billed Vultures and release them into the wild once the disease affecting them is identified. Amidst the callousness and indifference among many governments, the Haryana government has championed this cause. “Chief Wildlife Warden R.D. Jakati not only pledged support for the Centre but has actually provided us facilities, without which we would have faced immense difficulties,” says Dr. Prakash.
Surveys and field investigations carried out by the BNHS over the 1990s indicated that it was neither shortage of food or nesting sites nor chemical contamination that led to the fall. “There are strong indicators of disease, perhaps caused by the introduction of foreign bird species in India through the wildlife trade. These species could be carriers of latent pathogens. Dead vultures examined at the PDRC have shown signs of gout, enteritis and kidney degeneration,” says Dr. Prakash. “At the Centre, we will monitor the symptoms of sick birds. At present, we only know that sick wild vultures suffer from the ‘drooping neck’ syndrome, as do other sick birds.”
However, much of contemporary BNHS thought on vultures continues to be rubbished by Hussain and Dr. Grubh. Hussain holds that human persecution has much to do with the fall in numbers: “The truth is that nobody seems to have a clue of their status in true wilderness areas. I personally think the term ‘disappearance’ is incorrect. Population reduction would be more accurate.”
“Efforts to reduce bird hazards to aircraft have had significant impacts on local populations at strategic areas in the northern belt. Shooting may not be at aerodromes themselves (vultures are not normally found near the runways) but at feeding sites, particularly at carcass processing centres and traditional rural cattle skinning sites close to airfields. Most of the bird strikes by vultures are away from airfields when defense aircraft fly low on manoeuvres. From what we hear from local villagers, there have been mass killings in some areas,” says Hussain.
According to Dr. Grubh, “The major causes for the disappearance of the White-backed Vulture in the extreme south are (a) depletion of natural forests and near non-availability of the remains of large animal kills and (b) an increase in the beef-eating human population, which has ensured that domestic livestock is sent to the slaughterhouse and no longer left to die in the countryside. The fall in vulture numbers in forest areas can also be attributed to the loss of habitat and reduced availability of natural food. Earlier, vultures proliferated around towns and cities in abnormally large flocks, exceeding a few thousand at Delhi alone. Natural populations do not generally exceed 300. With such large populations around towns and cities, caused by a super-abundance of food, the birds started coming in the way of low-flying aircraft. Their present disappearance from these towns and cities does not mean that they have disappeared from natural forests and remote areas where they always occurred in much smaller numbers.”
Hussain pushes for a truly comprehensive survey of wilderness areas before any doomsday predictions are made. “When birdwatchers noticed the reduction in vulture numbers, an alarm was sounded, primarily by the BNHS – a body which should have been more sober and scientific in its approach and less emotional. The isolated incidence of sick birds in Keoladeo National Park was magnified into a national catastrophe. As for the disease factor, nothing has been proved so far. The doomsday forecast has been proved premature, with the recent sighting of vultures in many areas. They seem to have come back on their own!” comments Hussain. In a more caustic vein, he goes on to say that the “positive side of the story is that both vultures and their ‘saviours’ derived attention and benefit from the entire affair (financially or otherwise)”.
Beneath the heat and dust of this lively debate, one fact seems certain. Vulture populations in many areas are no longer what they once were. But whether there is indeed a debilitating disease decimating populations across the country or not, perhaps only time will tell.
Author: Vikramjit Singh, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXI. No. 3. June 2001.