Geotagging to monitor vultures in MP’s Panna Tiger Reserve

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  • About 25 vultures from the Panna Tiger Reserve, including the critically endangered Indian vulture, have been geotagged to monitor the behavior of the species.
  • Data collected by tags can help inform conservation activities, including policy action and adaptive management, of raptors in the protected area.
  • The study will establish baseline data on these activities and further analysis will help determine the general health status of vulture individuals and populations in and around the reserve.

About a month ago, about two dozen vultures in the Panna Tiger Reserve (PTR) were tagged with GPS devices as part of a scientific exercise to monitor vulture movements to understand the behavior of the species in the protected area of ​​Madhya Pradesh. “We have tagged 25 vultures so far – 13 Indian vultures, 8 Himalayan griffon vultures, 2 Eurasian griffon vultures and 2 king vultures,” Ramesh Krishnamurthy, a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) told Mongabay-India. ). “These vultures were captured using a variety of methods including walk-in pen, leg trap and clap trap. These were well-established traditional methods that have proven effective across the country in marking several migratory birds, including vultures,” he said. Among the marked vultures, the Indian vulture (Gypsum Index) is a critically endangered species.

The tagging of the vultures was carried out by a team, including veterinarians from the Wildlife Institute of India under the landscape management plan project, supported by professional trappers, resident veterinarians and PTR park officials during the winters. 2020-2021 and 2021-2022. The process involved several steps such as preparing, catching, marking, measuring and releasing. Every day the team would reach the field well before sunrise, set traps and wait for the birds, Krishnamurthy said, adding that “sometimes the vultures come to the trap station, but on other occasions they don’t do it”. Eventually they managed to capture the birds and they had to be handled with care, due to their size and fragility.

Among the challenges faced by the team was this – the bait stations they set up for the vultures invited other wildlife, including tigers, which deterred the vultures who took longer to come to the bait, Krishnamurthy explained.

Finally, the captured vultures were tagged with sophisticated GPS tags, called e-ObsTags. The tags, made in Germany, are solar-powered and weigh between 25g and 75g, which is quite light compared to birds that weigh more than 12kg, an official said.

Tagging a vulture with a GPS device. Photo courtesy of Panna Tiger Reserve.

The beacons were configured to collect and store data and then transmit the data whenever they come into the transmission link, Krishnamurthy said. He added: “This is a GSM-based tag and the data is transmitted when the birds take flight and fly away. Additionally, it collects data every five minutes, allowing fine-scale data with altitude, temperature, and activity.

Since the tagging involved both resident and migrating vultures, the movement data will allow wildlife advocates to observe where vultures forage and roost. This information in turn helps the team plan conservation and protection interventions in places where vultures are threatened.

GPS beacons act like smart watches that humans use in their daily routines, such as jogging and exercising, WII junior researcher Dibyendu Biswas explained in an interview with Mongabay-India. The way smartwatches tell us how long we’ve been running, what steps we’ve taken, etc., the same way GPS beacons provide information about vulture behavior, he said.

Tagging vultures will help wildlife advocates get detailed information about movement, daily behavior such as how vultures drink water and interact with each other, their adaptability to a new area and the how they secure these new areas of their movement. These details will help to better understand the conservation of species that provide invaluable ecosystem services improving the flow of nutrients through food webs and reducing the transmission of infectious diseases through the removal of carrion.

The Indian vulture (Gypsum Index) sitting on a tree inside Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, India. Photo by Vishal Sharma/Wikimedia Commons.

According to Uttam Kumar Sharma, Director of Panna National Park (PNP), “Madhya Pradesh has achieved good results in the conservation of vulture species. The number of vultures (in the state) has increased to 9,446 in 2021.” Nine species of vultures are found in India, three of which are critically endangered and seven of the total species are found in PNP, said a press release from the park. Among those found in PNP are migratory species such as Himalayan griffon vulture, Eurasian griffon vulture and black vulture as well as resident species such as Indian vulture, white-rumped vulture, red head and Egyptian vulture.

Since the catastrophic decline of vultures at the turn of the last century, telemetry-based research has become imperative to understanding the movement patterns of these birds. This includes migration, foraging, resting, nesting, swimming and other behaviors, understanding of which is critical to their conservation, especially when these birds require a large area to survive, including human spaces and carcass dumps. Current scientific literature shows that 14 species of vultures have been tagged and studied in 24 countries, but none in India.

This study will establish a database of these activities on a spatio-temporal scale. In addition, hematological and microbiological analysis of the samples obtained will help determine the general health status of individuals and, to some extent, the health of vulture populations in and around the reserve. All findings of the current study will lead to important policy implications, providing answers to existing knowledge gaps and towards adaptive management of these raptors in the Greater Panna Landscape.


Read more: How a village in Maharashtra is helping vultures make a comeback


Banner image: A critically endangered Indian vulture (Gypsum Index) in flight in Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh. Photo by Gogol Banerjee/Wikimedia Commons.

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