Meera Bhardwaj:

Although vulture populations have stabilized at dramatically reduced low levels in the last decade, India still struggles to save its four critically endangered Gyps vulture species. These 4 species are: Long-Billed, Slender-Billed, White Rumped and Red Headed (or King) vultures. If not quite going extinct so far, there is no sign of recovery of Indian vulture populations which are presently at precarious low levels.

Recently, the SAVE (Save Asia’s Vulture from Extinction) consortium (comprising 25 partner organizations) has called for more efforts for recovery of vulture populations in South Asia. They have unanimously called for banning of three toxic NSAID drugs (Aceclofenac, Ketoprofen and Nimesulide), concerted usage of satellite tagging & tracking for monitoring vultures, and testing their survival, causes of death and the safety of the environment and setting up of Vulture Safe Zones (VSZ). However, until the environment is safe, it is unclear how releases can proceed?

On SAVE Open Day program on January 24th, scientists, raptor specialists, technical and veterinary experts and NGOs discussed the prevailing scenario not only in India but also in Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar, and Cambodia. They highlighted the ongoing projects and efforts for vulture conservation and protection, all prioritized in SAVE’s annually updated regional Blueprint Recovery Plan.

Chris Bowden, Globally Threatened Species Officer & SAVE Programme Manager said for recovery of Gyps vulture species, satellite tagging and tracking becomes very important for monitoring of vultures. And for this, more needs to be done including training in tagging methods and need for response teams in place, able to locate any vulture that dies, so that the real mortality cause can be identified and recorded.  The safety of Vulture Safe Zones remains a real problem in India.

Data on 2022 road transect surveys was reported by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and will be published soon. It showed that vulture populations have stabilized in India. However, they are still at drastically reduced levels, probably still because the main threat of veterinary drugs being used remains a very serious problem. The central government is planning a “Census of Vultures” on the lines of the All-India Tiger Estimation every four years but it is the carefully replicated road transects which give a clear long-term comparison of the overall vulture population trends.

In view of this, BNHS has already submitted a report to the MoEF&CC on this issue. Apart from this, this summer, there are plans for 20 White Rumped Vultures and 20 Long Billed vultures to be satellite tagged and tracked in India. And it is envisaged that more will follow. If these birds survive well, this will give the green light for releases of birds bred at the network of BNHS and state government centres, as a further test of the wider safety of the environment.

According to Dr Vibhu Prakash, renowned Raptor Conservation Experts and former Principal Scientist, BNHS, unsafe drugs continue to be a problem in India. “We will soon get rid of all vulture toxic drugs after the Delhi high court orders. Apart from this, tagging and tracking of wild birds and trans-boundary cooperations is the need of the hour to save the four most threatened south Asian vulture species.”

Prof Rhys Green, Chairman, SAVE said, “We are all for improved funding for vulture conservation. There has been significant regulatory success seen in four key countries but only in Nepal have the efforts been sufficient to allow the vultures to start recovering over recent years.”

Dr Bivash Pandav, Director, BNHS said, “There are 733 vultures (white rumped, long billed, and slender billed) in captivity in the four breeding centres of BNHS. There is tremendous pressure from the government to release the birds from captivity. Out of the four, three facilities have been funded by the government. Till date, 30 birds have been released in the wild and 24 of them are still surviving in the wild.  However, 6 of the released birds have died for various reasons.

Stressing about funding crunch and the Covid pandemic, Dr Pandav added this had put the brakes on India’s vulture breeding program. Although the central government had designated several more zoological parks for the breeding program in Ranchi, Junagadh, and Bhubaneshwar, none of them have raised a single chick so far. Till date, no breeding program has taken off in these places.

He added, “However, new vulture conservation breeding facilities are coming up at Bannerghatta Biological Park in Bengaluru (Karnataka), Padmabil, Khowai district (Tripura) and Gorakhpur (Uttar Pradesh). The breeding centre at Bengaluru is about to be functional as all the facilities are ready. The one at Bhari Bhaisi village, Farenda range, Gorakhpur will be dedicated to conservation and breeding of Red Headed Vultures. Further, work on Vulture Safe Zones (VSZ) is going on in Madhya Pradesh, Assam, and West Bengal.”

Meanwhile, on the issue of banning 3 vulture toxic drugs – Aceclofenac, Nimesulide, and Ketoprofen – the orders and directions of the Delhi High Court are awaited. A public interest litigation has sought directions for banning of these three drugs as they were found to be highly toxic especially Aceclofenac. “We are hopeful as there are positive indications as per the affidavits filed by the Centre,” opined Dr Pandav.

Presently, the use of veterinary diclofenac in India is minimal while “safe vials” of human diclofenac formulations are being illegally used.  The challenge today is to popularize the usage of alternative safe drugs like Meloxicam and Tolfenamic acid in the country.

Although the country’s Government Action Plan for Conservation of Vultures in India in 2006 was updated in more detail in 2020 and the steps taken have halted the declines, it is very clear there is an urgent need for more synergy, cooperation, and action on the part of various stakeholders and players, especially when it comes to the banning and removal of those three-vulture toxic veterinary drugs.

(Photo Credit : SAVE (Save Asia’s Vulture from Extinction) and Karnataka Forest Department)