The first Saturday of September each year (in 2016, 3rd September) has been dedicated as ‘International Vulture Awareness Day’. So, what do we need to know about these fast-vanishing birds which once ruled the skies? And why is there need for awareness now? Maybe, there are a few questions which need to be asked. And, answered.
WHAT do we need to know about vultures?
Vultures were designed by nature with great precision, for a very critical purpose – the purpose of disposing of all carcasses by feeding on them, to ensure that the environment remained clean and disease-free. With their highly acidic stomachs, vultures are capable of killing some of the extremely dangerous micro-organisms found in rotting carcasses, thus preventing them from spreading into water bodies and infecting others. We can certainly say that they have been doing an excellent job!
Their beaks are perfect for tearing flesh, their bald heads are perfect for scavenging, their huge wing-spans allow them to fly high to scan vast areas, and their keen eyesight allows them to spot their next meal from such a height. Every single aspect is almost tailor-made for just one purpose – they are the original janitors of the environment. They have been around long enough to be a part of Hindu mythology, where it is mentioned that Jatayu, who met a cruel end at the hands of Ravana while trying to protect Sita, was a vulture; the incident was said to have happened in the hills of Ramanagara, in Karnataka. Ironically, present-day vultures continue to meet a cruel end while protecting the environment.
WHY are there such few vultures left?
Like me, some of you may remember seeing dozens of vultures feeding alongside roads or railway tracks during our early childhoods, with road-kills and kills on tracks being quickly cleaned up by these efficient birds. These birds were so abundant less than three decades ago, and have suffered such a rapid and alarming decline in their population, that this is considered to be one of the fastest declines in the population of any species.
While numbering millions in the 1980s, their decline started in the early 1990s. The main reason for their population’s decline was identified around 2003 as Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug administered to cattle; by then, unfortunately, the damage was already done.
Vultures which fed on cattle which were recently administered with Diclofenac suffered from fatal renal failure. The increasing deaths along with reducing births (vultures mate for life and raise only one or two offspring each breeding season) ensured an annual reduction of almost 20% of their population. Around 95% of the vultures have vanished in the last two decades alone.
Since vultures are social birds and feed in groups, one dead cattle with Diclofenac is capable of affecting dozens of vultures. A ban on the use and production of Diclofenac for cattle was enforced in 2006; despite the ban, illegal use of human Diclofenac for cattle remains a continuing challenge.
Apart from that, cattle owners now seem to prefer practices like burying or cremating dead cattle rather than leaving them out for vultures; this has resulted in a lack of food as well as loss of habitats. Vultures are now forced to travel far for food, along with having to find new locations for nesting, with quarrying and cutting of tall trees making fewer breeding areas available.
The challenges lie not just on the ground, having recently seen people flying drones very close to vultures’ breeding ledges or while vultures were circling in Ramanagara, one of the oldest remaining habitats for these birds in Karnataka. It is indeed sad that vultures do not seem to have any place on the ground or in the sky.
WHICH species of vultures are affected?
Of the nine species of vultures found in India, four are categorized as Critically Endangered, one is Endangered, and three are Near Threatened, while just one is Least Concern, as per the IUCN Red List.
The Egyptian Vulture – pharaoh’s chicken, as it is called – is a more opportunistic feeder, and feeds on eggs, and at times, even on small injured birds, mammals, and reptiles. They have managed to fight for survival. Their population is equally affected by the problems faced by the other vulture species, but because of their slightly flexible eating habits, they have just managed to avoid the Critical tag, and are classified as Endangered.
The White-rumped Vulture, Long-billed Vulture, Red-headed Vulture, and Slender-billed Vulture are already in the Critically Endangered list. The Himalayan Griffon, Cinereous Vulture, and Lammergeier are listed as Near Threatened. Only the Eurasian Griffon still manages to stay in the Least Concern category.
WHERE can we find vultures in Karnataka?
There are only two places in Karnataka where vultures can be seen currently: Ramanagara, with some of the oldest rocky outcrops, and near Bellary, where vultures have been sighted recently much to the cheer of those who are trying to bring them back.
Ramanagara used to house good populations of both White-rumped as well as Long-billed Vultures. But now, White-rumped Vultures have become locally extinct in Ramanagara, and only Long-billed vultures remain, along with Egyptian Vultures. Nowadays, the vultures keep flying out, abandoning their painted ledges, and vanish for days together. Are they relocating? Are they wandering far away to find their food? Are the constant disturbances forcing them out? Nothing can be said for sure except that they are an intrinsic part of Ramanagara, and without them, the place will never be the same again.
Vultures from the Nilgiris are known to visit Kabini, Nagarhole and Bandipur. It has also been noted that since the ban of Diclofenac, some of the neighboring states have shown improvements in their vulture populations. However, some more efforts may be needed in Karnataka.
WHO is involved in the conservation of vultures?
Luckily for the vultures, they still have a few friends who care about their welfare. Organisations like ‘Save Tiger First’ have started a study of vultures’ habits and habitats, to estimate the present population of Long-billed Vultures (Gyps indicus) at Ramanagara, with the support of the Karnataka Forest Department. Awareness campaigns about the threats to these vultures have also been taken up through external guidance from a consortium for vultures called SAVE (save South Asian Vultures from Extinction).
Apart from the conservation programme at Ramanagara, there are organisations like Arulagam, which have similar programs in Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu), in association with SAVE. There is also a captive breeding program by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and SAVE at Pinjore, Haryana.
Is there any hope? Can we bring vultures back from the brink of extinction?
It is very difficult to say whether vultures will be able to step out of the Critically Endangered category, with a stable growth in population. At the moment, every day poses a different kind of challenge. Hearteningly, there are an increasing number of people who are aware and really care. With just a little more effort, let’s hope that future generations will not be reading about vultures under the chapter of ‘extinct species’.