The Vultures of India

These soaring birds in Shakespearean references, signal the spread of carrion and decay of civilisation – in reality, this could not be further from the truth. Vultures are essential in the ecosystem, they feed on large carcasses, moreover, their sharp beaks ensure that the toughest parts of the carcass to get to are picked off by them.

They are the keepers of the health of an ecosystem, preventing the spread of diseases. While their appearance and eating habits may not be entirely a visual pleasure, they do indeed keep our world clean! India has a long-standing cultural connection with Vultures, Jatayu, a demi-god, who was an old friend of King Dashrath – the father of the protagonist of the Ramayana – Ram. Jatayu descended from the skies to help protect Ram’s wife Sita from the clutches of the “evil” Ravana. Jatayu holds a special place in Hindu Mythology.

Vultures in India have lived in synchronicity with humans, as they were the cleaners of the millions of cattle carcasses left in the fields to be devoured by the large birds which prefer to inhabit open lands where they can see their food from a great distance. In the Zoroastrian or Parsi community, the bodies of the dead are left atop hills in an enclosed but exposed Tower of Silence where Vultures and flesh-eating birds take care of the dead in what is essentially an ecologically sound practice.

India has 09 species of Vultures :

Indian Vulture

White-rumped Vulture

Red-headed Vulture

Slender-billed Vulture

Himalayan Vulture

Cinereous Vulture

Egyptian Vulture

Bearded Vulture

Eurasian Griffon

Best places to see Vultures in India

Panna National Park

Madhya Pradesh

A pristine Tiger Reserve, Panna, with its undulating landscape, large grasslands, Teak forests and Rocky Cliffs, will take your breath away. A variety of Flora and Fauna is found here, and a closer look at the white-stained cliffs gives evidence of Vultures which roost here in large numbers.

07 out of 09 Vulture species can be seen here : The Red-headed Vulture, White-rumped Vulture, Indian Vulture and Egyptian Vulture with  Himalayan Griffon, Cinerous Vulture and Eurasian Griffon being Winter Migrants.

The Rocky cliffs are nesting ground for the Indian, White-rumped, Egyptian and Red-headed Vultures. Panna is the land of the Tiger, Leopard, Crocodile, Antelopes and a wonderful area for birding.

Tal Chhapar

Rajasthan

In Northwest Rajasthan, the grasslands of Tal Chappar are home to a variety of wildlife including large populations of Birds of Prey, Blackbucks and Predators such as the Desert Fox and Indian Grey Wolf.

An area known as “Gaushala” nearby where there is a dumping ground of carcass provides amazing sights for congregation of 06 out of 09 Vultures species : Indian Vulture, White-rumped Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, Red-headed Vulture, Cinereous and the Winter migrant : Eurasian Griffon.

Jor Beed

Rajasthan

On the outskirts of the desert town of Bikaner, famous for its forts and palaces, is Jor Beed – another dumping ground which provides crucial nourishment for Vulture Populations.

07 out of 09 Vulture species can be seen here : The Red-headed Vulture, White-rumped Vulture, Indian Vulture and Egyptian Vulture with  Himalayan Griffon, Cinerous Vulture and Eurasian Griffon being Winter Migrants.

Pangot

Uttarakhand

Part of the Shivalik range, Nainital and Pangot are at an altitude close to 2000m above sea-level is covered with Rhododenron, Pine & Oak forests, home to over 250 Himalayan bird species – a sea of tranquil and a paradise for bird watchers.

These Himalayan Foothills are in the Kumaon regions where one can observe Lammergeier and Himalayan Vultures soaring between the hills.

Kaziranga National Park

Assam

On the outskirts of the desert town of Bikaner, famous for its forts and palaces, is Jor Beed – another dumping ground which provides crucial nourishment for Vulture Populations.

07 out of 09 Vulture species can be seen here : The Red-headed Vulture, White-rumped Vulture, Indian Vulture and Egyptian Vulture with  Himalayan Griffon, Cinerous Vulture and Eurasian Griffon being Winter Migrants.

Fall of the Vulture in India

  • From 40 million to 19,000 individuals
  • (99.9% decline in population from the early 1990s)
  • The fastest decline of any species in the world

In 2003, it was discovered that a huge population of vultures was dying of kidney disease – due to a substance known as Diclofenac which was found inside their systems.

Diclofenac is a painkiller, for humans and animals alike. However, a veterinarian version in the 1980s provided an effective commodity for farmers around India, Pakistan & Nepal.

An age-old practice of dumping cattle carcasses to be picked off by scavengers resulted in disastrous consequences for the Vultures across India and their numbers experienced a freefall until the scientific community realised this.

Each large-sized cattle was responsible for deaths of around 300 vultures due to the drug!

The drug for animals was banned in 2006.

The sight of these “ungainly” but gentle giants across the Indian countryside was a common sight, however, one would be loathed to find one today. It is said that the decline was even more rapid than the passenger pigeon which is now extinct, and was once the most numerous bird on the planet! The Indian, Slender-billed and White-rumped Vultures suffered the most, with 99.9% of the former being wiped out in the period of Diclofenacs’ reign.

The tougher beaks of the Red-headed and Cinereous Vulture enables them to tackle the tendons and tough meat – hence being spared from the effect of Diclofenac and probably saved them to a large extent. The Lammergeier which feeds on bone marrow and the Himalayan Griffon due to their distribution on the Northern Side were also comparatively not as badly affected as the mainland vultures due to the lack of use of the drug in these areas.

The Eurasian Griffon being a migrant also did not completely collapse due to this reason. Vultures play a crucial role in the ecosystem as a scavenger, deadly bacteria are prevented from developing due to the speedy consumption of dead animals. They are able to delve deep into the carcass, picking off meat from very difficult places.

Their well-designed stomachs strong in acid content, can digest very difficult bacteria such as Anthrax and thus remove it from the eco-system.

Other scavengers such as dogs have increased manifold since the decline of the vulture, resulting in the rise of rabies and canine distemper – the presence of feral dogs amongst wildlife areas is hugely detrimental to all wildlife.

A rabies outbreak between the year 1992 and 2006 is estimated to have killed about 47000 people in India. A 5.5 million increase in Dog population was also noted.

Vultures bear offspring once each year, with 01-02 eggs of which there is a 50% survival rate.

The revival of Vultures in India

The Vulture Action Plan

Following are the important steps taken by the Government for protection of Vultures in the country:

  • Protection status of White-backed, Long-Billed and Slender Billed Vultures has been upgraded from Schedule IV to Schedule I of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972.
  • Two workshops were organized in consultation with scientists in New Delhi in September 2000 and April 2004 to work out a comprehensive strategy for the conservation of vultures.
  • Bombay Natural History Society in collaboration with the Haryana State Forest Department has taken up a project on conservation breeding of vultures. A ‘Vulture Captive Care facility’ has been established at Panchkula.
  • The Ministry of Health has issued Gazette Notification dated 4.7.2008 prohibiting the manufacture of Diclofenac for animal use and vide notification dated 17.7.2015 restricting packaging of multi-dose vials of Diclofenac to single dose.
  • The State Governments have been advised to set up vulture care centres for the conservation of three species of vultures.
  • The State Governments have been advised to set up vulture care centres for the conservation of three species of vultures.
  • Government of India has formulated a National Action Plan (2006) on Vulture Conservation. The Action Plan provides for strategies, actions for containing the decline of vulture population through ex-situ, in-situ vulture conservation.
  • Department of forests of all states/UTs has been requested to constitute a Monitoring Committee for vulture conservation with a view to implementing the Action Plan, 2006 and for recovery of existing vulture sites.
  • Captive breeding centres at Zoos at Bhopal, Bhubaneswar, Junagarh and Hyderabad have also been set up through Central Zoo Authority.
  • Ministry has also taken initiatives to strengthen the mass education and awareness for vulture conservation.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare issued Gazette Notification dated 4.7.2008 prohibiting the manufacture of Diclofenac for animal use and later by Gazette Notification dated 17.7.2015 restricting on the packaging of multi-dose vials of Diclofenac to a single dose. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had been requested for stopping veterinary use of Diclofenac and later for restriction on the packaging of Diclofenac (human formulations) to single-dose packaging for human use and to discourage veterinary use of Diclofenac and incentivize the use of Meloxicam.

Vulture Restaurants

“Vulture Restaurants” where NGO’s in collaboration with the Government are setting up areas in which “clean” carcasses, free from Diclofenac, are provided to surviving vulture populations so that they may be able to propagate in a stable environment.

These areas are situated near National Parks or Sanctuaries, and the carcasses are spread in open lands and often fenced from other wild scavengers such as Wild Boar, Jackal and Hyaenas.

The decline of the Vulture populations in India was by 65%, comparative to over 90% seen in previous years. Driving around protected areas in India, one is able to see committees of Vultures especially around the open grasslands – to see these undervalued, magnificent and fascinating creatures is a boon indeed!

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