Critical to the balance of nature, vultures risk extinction if no action is taken

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Although keeping vultures in captivity is not viable, complete extinction of vultures identified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature is likely unless action is taken immediately. warn the experts.

According to the Vulture Conservation Action Plan 2020-2025, five vulture conservation and breeding centers are being established in Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

A “Vulture Conservation and Breeding Centre” is being established in Padmabill, Khowai District, West Tripura, to facilitate the conservation of critically endangered species in the northeast of India so that the ecosystem remains healthy.

Padmabill was selected for the ‘Vulture Conservation and Breeding Centre’ because the area had a higher concentration of vultures. Recently, about 30-40 vultures were spotted in Khowai district.

Veteran wildlife and biodiversity expert Dvijendra Kumar Sharma said the conservation program appears to be the only conservation action that could save the vultures from extinction.

He said that based on a mathematical model, if 150 pairs of three species could be held and bred in captivity, it would be possible to obtain a derived population of 600 pairs of each of the three species, within ten years. the start of the output program.

“Establishing a long-term conservation breeding program is the only possible way to reintroduce vultures into the wild, so that they can play their ecological role in the environment. The conservation breeding centers were set up by state governments with the help of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS),” Sharma told IANS.

Last week, BNHS Senior Scientist Dr. Vibhu Prakash Mathur held a workshop with all stakeholders including villagers and forest and wildlife officials to make the “Centre for Conservation and Padmabill’s Vulture Breeding a success.

Sharma, who retired last month as chief forest conservator of Tripura, said the Ministry of Environment and Forests Vulture Action Plan 2006 and Vulture Recovery Plan of South Asia for 2004 recommended a complete ban on the veterinary use of the drug diclofenac. and its illegal use in veterinary practice resulting in diclofenac-induced mortality in vultures.

Veterinary use of the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) diclofenac in cattle is considered the main, and perhaps the only, cause of the population decline, he pointed out.

“Vultures are exposed to toxic levels of diclofenac when they feed on carcasses of livestock that have died days after treatment and contain residues of the drug. Diclofenac causes visceral gout and kidney disease in vultures, leading to their death.

“In some African countries, vultures are killed by poison which is mixed with carcasses to ward off predators like lions, posing a threat to livestock.”

A few drugs have been identified as safe for vultures after extensive safety testing in South Africa and India, but they are not very popular because they are slow-acting and more expensive than diclofenac, he said. he adds.

Sharma said India has nine species of vultures in the wild, five of which belong to the genus Gyps.

Three Gyps vultures – the eastern white-backed vulture, the long-billed vulture and the slender-billed vulture – are resident and the other two, the Eurasian griffin and the Himalayan griffin are largely wintering species and a small population breeds in the Himalayas.

The eastern vulture and long-billed vulture were abundant in large parts of India until the 1990s, he said.

The BNHS conducted nationwide raptor surveys in many parts of India between 1991 and 1993 using a road transect method. The survey was repeated in 2000 and the results were spectacular.

Populations of white-backed vultures and long-billed vultures had declined by more than 92% between 1991-93 and 2000. By 2007, the population had declined by 99.9% for white-backed vultures and 97% for long-billed and slender-billed vultures.

The decline of the vultures has also affected the traditional Parsi custom of placing their dead in the “towers of silence” for the vultures to feed on.

Another wildlife expert, Prasenjit Biswas, who has been studying the movements and characteristics of vultures for over a decade, said vultures are also listed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act ( 1972), which is the highest protection category for wildlife. in the country.

“Animal carcasses are now safely disposed of, depriving the vultures of their food source,” said Biswas, a retired Indian Forest Service officer.

According to experts, the decrease in forest cover is one of the main causes of the decline in the populations of wild animals and birds.

According to the State of India’s Forest Report 2021 (ISFR 2021) released in January this year, forest cover in the country’s 140 mountainous districts showed a decrease of 902 km2 (0.32%) with the eight states from the northeast. region also in decline.

According to the current assessment, the total forest cover in the mountainous districts is 2,83,104 km2, or 40.17% of the total geographical area of ​​these districts. Hill districts are those that have 2/3 of the area as hills.

Arunachal Pradesh, which has 16 hill districts, recorded a loss of forest cover of 257 km2 compared to the 2019 assessment, the three hill districts of Assam (-107 km2), the nine districts of hill districts of Manipur (-249 km2), the eight hill districts of Mizoram (-186 km2), the seven hill districts of Meghalaya (-73 km), the 11 districts of Nagaland (-235 km2), the four districts of Sikkim (-1 km2) and the four districts of Tripura (-4 km2).

The total forest cover in the northeast region is 1,69,521 km2, or 64.66% of its area.

The latest assessment shows a decrease in forest cover of 1,020 km2 (0.60%) in the region.

(Sujit Chakraborty can be contacted at sujit.c@ians.in)

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