Vultures are treated like the poor cousins among the vast avian fraternity. They look little ugly compared to a colourful peafowl or a beautiful paradise flycatcher or a stylish Sarus crane! But still there are people who want vultures populations to survive and grow. Unfortunately, this bird's immense utility for the human being is not yet fully understood. They are the natural scavengers and in times when our cities and villages are getting filthier by the day (notwithstanding the Swatcchh Bharat Abhiyan of the Prime Minister), we need this bird's services more than ever before. But it seems no one is bothered about them.
What is tragic is that despite being the schedule I category bird in the Wildlife Conservation Act, requiring highest conservation efforts, this large raptor appears nobody's priority. The Jorbeer tragedy in Rajasthan, some 130 kms from Pakistan border, should ideally help shift the focus of government to the urgent need to save vultures. This particular area (in Rajasthan) is full of camels and sheep, a reason why ample number of vulture colonies are found there. It also lies on international migration route. Neighbouring Pakistan too has big vulture colonies.
Population crash and recovery :
"After vulture populations crashed almost to 95 percent in India and adjoining countries about 15-20 years ago due to Diclofenac drug used for livestock treatment, lately there have been encouraging signs of recovery with more vulture sightings from different areas and suddenly this (avoidable) tragedy has struck again", lamented Dr Daulal Bohra who heads Save Vulture Community. Dr Bohra was first to visit the place and inform the forest officials who were blissfully unaware of the incident. He wonders why can't railway authorities be more careful in places like Jorbeer (Bikaner-Delhi route) which is an Important Bird Area conservation site in Rajasthan? He demands government must attach priority to vulture-mortality because India is a signatory to an international treaty on saving multi-species vultures.
Way back in 1999-2000 the first study was done by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) in Bharatpur which found 97% crash of population in the Indian White-backed and Indian Long-billed vulture species. Dr Vibhu Prakash, a vulture scientist of global repute, came out with the startling revelations through his surveys. Other surveys in the beginning of the century showed White-backed vultures had declined significantly in northern India (98%) while in the western areas it was 91%. With the growing pressures from bird scientists, media and NGOs, the Government of India finally banned the use of the Diclofenac drug which would reach a vulture's kidney via a dead cattle. At international level, the Budapest conference in May 2003 discussed the Asian vulture crisis at length and suggested measures to address the problem. Ornithologists, after lots of research, had concluded that the drug was the main reason for the decline in the scavengers' populations across India, barring very few and small pockets such as Panna Tiger Reserve in MP and stray areas deep inside protected forests.
Vultures species were eventually put on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with multiple protocols devised to conserve a species near total extinction in India and some Southeast Asian countries like Nepal and Pakistan. The idea of artificial captive breeding was born from a series of meetings between Ministry of Environment and Forests and a handful vulture specialist groups. A captive breeding center in Pinjore in Haryana was thus set up more than a decade ago by the BNHS. Healthy birds born there and grown well were released into the wild by the then Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar two years ago.
Species found in India :
Although annual vulture count exercise, just like tiger estimations, is held in different parts of the country to know exact population, the number of birds of different species is difficult to be cited. Once India claimed to have more than one lakh vultures and has been home to nine species, of which one or two are highly endangered. Bearded vulture, Egyptian vulture, Indian White-backed vulture, Indian Long-billed vulture, Slender-billed vulture, Himalayan Griffon, Eurasian Griffon and Cinereous vulture are the nine species recorded in India from time to time. All the species are not found in all parts of the country, though in Panna, the backward Bundelkhand area, has reported at least seven species and at times eight.
Vultures were important for Parsi community which did not burn it's dead or bury it. They kept bodies on the Tower of Silence or Dokhmas for vultures to clean them and eat away. Paris did not believe in contaminating air, water or earth and hence this was the way to dispose off the dead bodies. But with vulture population dwindling, Parsis are also forced to change their age-old tradition.
Vultures and species of raptors have been mentioned abundantly in Sanskrit literature, while the prominent species have been described at great length and treated almost with reverence. In their writings, the Vedic poets displayed their knowledge and powers of observation ( noting special aspects of behaviour, especially hunting and feeding habits, arrivals and departures, plumage, and even the habitat preferences of many species), love of birds and also prejudice against some, narrates Rishad Naoroji in his very well-researched book : Birds of Prey of the Indian Subcontinent.
In that sense, the Vedic period poets of India can be termed as earliest recorded 'ornithologists' of the time!
All birds of prey (hawk, golden eagle, Crested Serpent-Eagle, vultures, falcon, harrier and kites) are descended from the primeval Garuda, according to the epic, Maharabharata.
Prior to the 80s, one or the other vulture species have been invariably sighted across India but with modern farming techniques and beginning of automated slaughter houses, stray cattle or buffalo carcasses are found in much less number in the countryside, a prime reason for decline of vulture population. Bhalu Mondhe who has produced a beautiful pictorial book' Vultures of Panna' says Ministry of Forest and Environment must do everything possible to save birds species which face extinction, such as Great Indian Bustard (GIB), vultures, the Lesser Florican or even house sparrows. On the lines of Tiger Task Force formed by Government of India a decade ago, a working group on birds should also be formed to identify the species facing extinction, he opines.
Competitive global economic scenario is forcing more industrialisation in developing countries, GDP growth is being madly chased by most countries like India and resultantly flora and fauna and India's rich biodiversity is under serious threat.
It's time people joined hands. Indeed, we can't afford to lose vultures. They are no less important than tiger. Both are parts of Indian heritage, in one way or the other !
[ The author is a senior environment journalist and can be contacted
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