When the sentinel of environmental cleanliness faces an existential crisis


Of the nine vulture species, four are nearly on the verge of decline. This is mainly because they are sensitive to their food habits, changing environment, pollution, food scarcity and destruction of natural habitats.

A dead vulture lies outside Panidihing Bird Sanctuary in Assam’s Sivasagar district. In the 1980s, India was home to around 40 million vultures mainly belonging to three species – Oriental white-backed, long-billed and slender-billed. By 2017, that number had fallen to 19,000. AFP

India has a diverse fauna. According to a study, 8% of the world’s wildlife diversity is found in India. In terms of eating habits, one animal is connected to another. When this chain of food habits is broken, that particular animal becomes an endangered species. Many animals are threatened with extinction. Apart from changing eating habits, there are many other reasons for this: reduction of forest cover, indiscriminate killing of wild animals and changing environment.

Vultures only survive on carcasses and are also on the brink of extinction like many other animals around the world. It is through the specialty of their eating habits that vultures protect nature. Their digestive system is so strong that they swallow rotten carcasses full of bacteria and digest them. This is the reason why they prevent many diseases from spreading.

Vultures are one of 22 species of birds that survive on carcasses and close relatives of hawks. There are nine types of vultures in India. They are Oriental, long, slender, Himalayan, red-headed, Egyptian, bearded, Santeria and Eurasian white vultures. Most species are threatened with extinction.

When a painkiller becomes a big pain

There were 40 million vultures in 1980, which consumed 1.2 million tons of carcasses. However, after the 1990s, their numbers declined sharply. One of the reasons for their extinction was the drug diclofenac which killed 99% of the vultures in the country.

Of the nine vulture species, four are nearly on the verge of decline. Vultures are sensitive to their food habits, environmental changes, pollution, lack of food and destruction of natural habitats.

Diclofenac is an analgesic that relieves both humans and animals from muscle pain and swelling. After 72 hours of its consumption, the medicine comes out through the urine, and if the animal dies within 72 hours, the medicine remains in the body of that animal. When a vulture consumes this body, the drug turns out to be toxic to the vulture which dies due to kidney failure.

Vultures When the sentinel of environmental cleanliness faces an existential crisis

In 2006, the Indian government banned the drug diclofenac for the treatment of animals. Instead of diclofenac, meloxicam was prescribed for animals. Besides India, Nepal, Pakistan and Southeast Asian countries banned the use of diclofenac injection to treat a sick animal in 2006. Before a ban was imposed on diclofenac in 2006, the drug was found in 10 percent of carcasses in 2005. Nevertheless, it was found in 11 percent of carcasses in 2006.

After the ban on diclofenac, there was a survey in 2010, and it was found that 6% of the carcasses had the impact of diclofenac. Similarly, according to another survey conducted in 2013, 4% of carcasses contained the impact of injection.

Another survey was conducted recently. It turned out that the impact of the remnants of the drug was found in 4% of the carcasses. According to experts, the use of diclofenac injection for humans should also be banned. As it is still used to treat humans, it is available in the market and can be used to treat animals.

The government, however, has found a new way to stop its use for animals. Drugmakers have started making ampoules with three milliliters of diclofenac, because humans need three milliliters; while animals need 15 milliliters. Therefore, getting five vials and using them on an animal at one time is difficult. Nevertheless, it is necessary to monitor the level of impact of this drug in carcasses.

Projects to preserve vultures

The government has launched a plan to protect the vultures so that they can return to their original numbers by 2030. Under this plan, in the first phase, the number of vultures will be increased through breeding in captivity. In the second phase, the adult vultures will be released into the forests.

This will be done in places where vultures have natural habitats and where they can breed naturally. The most endangered vulture species were kept at the breeding center. The Bombay Natural History Society has established four centres: Pinjore (Haryana), Rajabhatkhawa (West Bengal), Rani (Assam) and Kerwa (Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh).

Also, there are vulture breeding centers in Junagadh, Hyderabad, Bhubaneswar and Ranchi. To estimate the success of these centers, the Bombay Natural History Society conducted a vulture census in 2007. According to this, the number of white-backed vultures was 11,000, the long-built vulture was 45,000, and the number of slender size of 1,000. Another census was taken in 2015 and it was found that the number of White-backed Vulture was 6,000, Long-build was 11,000 and Slender-build was less than 6,000.

Reasons for slow reproduction

The breeding process of vultures is slow, as vultures are very loyal to their mates. A male vulture and a female vulture live together as long as they stay on land. A vulture begins to breed when it reaches the age of five and lays only one egg per year. The hatching process takes 50-55 days, and a female vulture remains in her nest for a month and a half after the birth of a chick from an egg. During this period, a female vulture takes care of her offspring. It is difficult to differentiate between female and male vultures, as they look alike.

The author retired as Director General of Madhya Pradesh Police and also worked as an officer in the Indian Forest Service. Shrivastava, who has done a PhD in Botany (Forest Ecology) has written articles on wildlife and environment for different national and international magazines for many years. The opinions expressed are personal.

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