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Vultures - The Urgent Need to Keep the Eaters of the Dead Alive

Text by Abhishek Srivastava

Can India bring back its prime scavengers before it negatively impact the entire ecosystem?

A Himalayan Griffon

Photo: Udayan Borthakur

This giant bird could be seen close to flesh of a dead carcasses near roadside, slaughter houses. They soared over distant places in search of road kill, dead cows, goats and wild animals. Their magnificent beak seen red-blooded buried in rotten flesh, join as a group for flesh food and finishing up an entire carcass in just few hours. It is something that, none of us wanted to see! But did we ever notice their significant role in cleaning the environment by feeding on dead decaying animals thereby preventing the danger of epidemics.

Vulture are very common in India till the 1980’s and country is home to nine species of the vulture species (out of total 23 species in the world). Now most of them face the danger of extinction. The crash in vulture population came into limelight in mid- 90’s. Over a period of time, their sharp population decline is questioning their future existence. According to IUCN status, out of nine species, four are Critically Endangered (CE), three Near Threatened (NT), one Endangered (EN) and one Least Concerned (LC). Diminishing India’s Vulture will possess a greater challenge.

Vultures also find a place in some of India’s religious practices. The Parsi community have traditionally been dependent on vultures for disposal of dead bodies. They believe that fire, earth and water are sacred and, as such, must not be contaminated with human corpses, by either burial or cremation. The Parsees, therefore, ritualized the practice of putting out the dead for scavengers by building 'towers of silence' to limit access to corpses exclusively to airborne scavengers. Therefore, for several centuries the vultures have been providing a crucial ecosystem service for the Parsi community.

Today the fast disappearing population of vultures is a serious problem in India as well as several other range countries. Since the 1990’s, the populations of several species of vultures have crashed. The trends shown decline in species population of White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis), Slender-billed Vulture (Cyps tenuirostris) Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus), Red-headed Vulture (Sarcogyps calvus) and Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus). The population of vultures in the country has reduced from 40 million to less than 20 thousand in just three decades.

A pair of Critically Endangered Slender-billed Vultures

Photo Udayan Borthakur

Vultures are vital as scavengers and by feeding the carcasses, they check the spread of infectious diseases. Vultures' stomachs are highly acidic and kills nearly all bacteria or viruses that may be present in carrion thus serve as a barrier to prevent diseases from animals to humans. In absence of vultures the population of animals like rodents and stray dogs tend to increase leading to the spread of rabies and other infectious disease thereby posing threat to community health.

Although the acute effect of diclofenac on vultures is now well known as one of its prime reason for their decline, it is also important to study the other factors for their declining population. Some of such reasons are collision and electrocution, habitat destruction, unintentional poisoning. The power infrastructure is rapidly growing in the country and it possesses a problem to large avifauna globally including vultures. Similar threats include the wind turbines operations, which causes the fatalities. Sometimes, such fatalities were unreported. Such causes of vulture death must be kept in record and data should be maintained.

Recently Government of India has revised “Action Plan for Vulture Conservation 2020-2025” with additional action points for the conservation which includes to establishing at least one Vulture Safe Zone in each state for conservation of remnant populations.

It is suggested that assessment of the range movement of vultures through radio transmitters should be carried out. Regular studies and monitoring regarding vultures is required in the Vulture Safe Zone for their continued presence, and for safe guarding them against the emerging threats of activities such as infrastructure development. Constant efforts of both Government and public will strengthen the objectives of Vulture conservation.

About the Author:

Abhishek Srivastava is an independent researcher and currently studying the ecological behavior of Vultures in Pitthoragarh district of Uttarakhand- India.

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