They once were visible in their hundreds in the carcass dumping grounds, around the cities and towns. These avian scavengers were an important part of the cleaning process before they suddenly disappeared from the Indian skyline. Before researchers got to the root of the cause, 99% of the three varieties of the Indian vulture had been wiped out, poisoned by the carcass they were helping humans get rid of.
Though the use of Diclofenac injections used on cattle was banned in 2008, the damage had already been done. Their numbers were around 40 million in the 1980s. it had dwindled to a few thousand by the turn of the century.
The Good News Regarding Indian Vultures
But breeding projects to save the Indian vultures are making some headway. In February this year, 8 white-rumped vultures were bred in captivity and set free in the Buxa Tiger Reserve in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, though with much anxiety among the researchers of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), involved in the project.
But the critically endangered Indian vultures soon mingled with the wild denizens and were found relishing the meat of carcasses left by the researchers.
Several other such initiatives took place around the same time as 2 more of the same species were released in West Bengal, 8 in the state of Haryana in north India. These Indian vultures were all bred in captivity at the largest such breeding facility in the world.
It took two decades of dedicated conservation efforts with a focus on the 3 critically endangered varieties of the iconic species.
They were the white-rumped, the slender-billed, and the Indian or long-billed vulture.
The success of the breeding program has led to hundreds of vultures being released into the wild each year from the four centers. BNHS is an organization dedicated to nature conservation and wildlife research. The number of Indian vultures dropped due to the use of diclofenac in the 1990s. these anti-inflammatory drugs were injected into cattle to control inflammation.
India has a bovine population of around 30M, according to an estimate done a couple of years back and vultures were the best way to dispose of the carcasses back then.
The Bleak Past Remains Engraved In Memories
BNHS deputy director, Dr. Vibhu Prakash recalls witnessing the sudden drop in the number of Indian vultures while he was in the Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan on research work back in the 1990s. he remembers seeing sick and dead vultures all around, their necks drooping.
They died a couple of weeks after the symptoms were first detected. A white chalk-like deposit was apparent in the organs of the birds, a sure indication of visceral gout.
Prakash, with his team, established a center in Pinjore in Haryana to treat vultures and get to the root of their sickness. Around the same time, in Pakistan, American researchers also found a link between the deposit in the organs and the use of Diclofenac. It was evident that Diclofenac was the culprit.
Even after the Indian Government banned it in 2006, it was available for human use and bulk packs were diverted by unscrupulous users. It wasn’t till 2015 that it was finally banned pack larger than 3 ml, the ideal dose for humans.
Researchers were also creating safe zones for vultures, Ranade, who oversaw the Assam and West Bengal zone says that it takes a repeated meeting with officials, village leaders, and cattle owners and regular survey of the Indian vulture population to make any headway with conserving their population.
Vultures being released now are tagged. Prakash says that if no further drug-related mortality is detected, around 20 to 30 Indian vultures will be released each year into the wild. He says that while the vultures are no longer in any immediate danger of going extinct, their ultimate survival is dependent on humans. It is up to a responsible society to act in the right way to ensure their survival.