Four out of nine species of vultures found in India are plummeting rapidly towards extinction after being categorized as critically endangered in the IUCN Red list. Four more species are following suit. Only Gyps Fulvus or the Eurasian Griffon continues to soar after being categorized as ‘least concern’ and shows an increase in its numbers. These lists were updated over 2 years ago hence the current numbers are expected to be anywhere but promising.
The International Vulture Awareness Day is observed each year on the 1st Saturday of September. This is to highlight the crucial role that these gigantic birds play in the ecology and the utmost need to conserve them. Even as we step into the 10th year of awareness, the vultures just cannot seem to find a footing to make a comeback.
The need to save the vultures
Vultures are nature’s custom made clean-up crew. Their bald heads, razor sharp beaks help them to clean the flesh from the depths of animal carcass. Their keen eyesight enables them to scan for their meals from large heights and a wingspan of almost 2-2.5 meters carries them long and far. This helps them to ensure that there are no rotting carcass anywhere in the vicinity. Their incredibly acidic stomach gives them the ability to kill the most stubborn pathogens from a carcass thus preventing the spread to other animals and humans through water bodies, etc. No other bird or creature has this kind of ability.
When the vultures were in plenty, it was a common sight to see them arrive within an hour of the carcass being discarded. Within a day or two everything would be cleaned out.
The decline of the vultures has been the fastest ever that has been recorded among any species, as per a study.
The current situation
Chris Bowden, Programme Manager of Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE), says that the situation is indeed precarious for the Long Billed Vultures in Ramadevara Betta, (Ramnagara, Karnataka). These birds continue to visit the hillock and attempt to breed each year but have not succeeded in the last 2-3 years. “Their population is stable but not increasing. They are just hanging on.” he says.
Problems faced by the vultures in the vulture sanctuary
Shashi, who has founded the Karnataka Vulture Conservation Trust (KVCT) says that both man-made as well as natural disturbances are contributing factors to the Gyps Indicus’ failed breeding attempts. Despite being declared as a vulture sanctuary in 2012, visitors continue to trek, climb rocks or just visit the spot where the movie ‘Sholay’ was filmed, etc. They ignore the warning boards, manage to crawl in through the gaps in fences and get uncomfortably close to the ledges the vultures call ‘home’. Others continue to compare vultures to raptors rather than understanding their value as scavengers and their importance to the ecology. They see them as threats and take little or no interest in their conservation and welfare. A worried Chris agrees, “Preventing disturbances closer to the vultures on ledges and cliffs needs more efforts and may work towards helping the vultures feel safer.”
The natural disturbances come in the form of Booted Eagles who are winter visitors to the sanctuary for the past three years. They are known to be planned hunters, which is unfortunate for the Long billed vultures who breed in winter. Coordinated attacks from the eagles can spell trouble for the nests and eggs. Though only one chick needs to be produced every 5 years to keep the population stable, the failure in breeding for three consecutive years is a worrying factor, feels Chris.
The Egyptian Vultures (Neophron Percnopterus) however have been more lucky. The crevices and the holes in the rocks of the hillock offer more protection for them to breed safely. Shashi adds that the Long Billed Vultures are also trying to move inwards looking for more secure nesting places in an attempt to have higher success in breeding.
Efforts by the conservation teams
To combat the man made problems, the team of KVCT with 5 core members and around 20 volunteers are making efforts to visit all schools, colleges, pharmacies, etc. in the vicinity to spread the awareness of these critically endangered birds. Chris is highly appreciative of their efforts to ensure none of the local pharmacies carry any of the drugs that may prove detrimental to the vultures. But he is concerned about Nimesulide, a drug that has been banned in several countries for causing liver toxicity and is found frequently in pharmacies near the sanctuary. “We do not know how far and in which direction do they fly for their food and this makes it difficult to monitor and ensure pharmacies in those areas also do not carry the banned drugs that would affect these vultures.” he says and adds, “It will be very helpful to do a satellite tagging to monitor their paths.”
While the conservation efforts are continuing, Shashi is also hopeful of Karnataka Forest department’s plans to start a captive breeding center for the vultures, which may contribute positively towards restoring the plummeting population.
Chris hopes the International Vulture Awareness Day program will work towards sensitizing the local population towards the vultures.
Current Population in Ramdevara Betta
Long Billed Vultures (Gyps Indicus) – 5 have been observed on the hillock.
Egyptian Vultures (Neophron Percnopterus) – Approximately 30
have been observed in and around the hillock.
Himalayan Griffons (Gyps Himalayensis) – 4 have been winter visitors to the hillock for the past 3 years.
Eurasian Griffon (Gyps fulvus) – One individual was seen for just one winter.