Wildlife scientists think an unprecedented decline in India’s vulture population is spreading zoonosis (diseases from livestock to people). Deepak Apte, director, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), a 140-year-old wildlife research organisation and India partner of Birdlife International, a global partnership of conservation organisations, talks to Taru Bahl about the role vultures play in waste disposal:
What’s the significance of vultures in preserving human life and the ecosystem?
Vultures are often misunderstood and considered lowly creatures. This is largely due to their eating habits since they feed mostly on dead animals and are therefore associated with death, making them appear sinister and full of foreboding. However, most people do not see their significance as scavengers. They play a key ecological role providing society with health benefits. Vultures formerly disposed of 10 million tonnes of rotting meat every year in India. This role has diminished with 99% decline over the last 20 years, with implications for environment, economics and human health.
India lacks facilities for incineration and sophisticated carcass processing, so slaughterhouse waste and dead livestock from farms have traditionally been dumped on the edge of towns and cities. Relying extensively on vultures for clean-up, this work is left incomplete. Since there are not enough vultures, there has been a 30% increase in feral dogs that feed on carcasses. As the main vector of rabies that kills an estimated 7,000 people in India every year, this is a cause of concern. Disposal of carcasses in the absence of vultures is another difficult and expensive task with many skin and bone collectors complaining that they miss their vulture-aides.
What is the current vulture population in South Asia?
Since the early 1990s, the population of South Asian vultures has been undergoing sudden collapse with heaviest impact on four of India’s nine species of vultures, namely, the three Gyps vulture species and the red-headed vulture which are now recognised as critically endangered, globally. Numbering tens of millions in India alone, the white-rumped vulture was considered the most abundant large raptor in the world, but presently, only an estimated 8,000 remain, of which 6,000 are in India. The reduction in population size of the three Gyps species was estimated, through systematic monitoring, to be between 96.8% for long-billed vulture and 99.9% for white-rumped vultures within a period of barely 15 years. These four species might soon be extinct in India and globally, since majority of the populations of all four species are found in India.
Why is the vulture population dwindling?
A major reason for the dramatic decline in Gyps vulture populations is veterinary use of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug [NSAID] diclofenac. Its use has been banned, but illegal sale of human diclofenac for veterinary use continues to be a problem across India. Diclofenac is proven to be toxic. Other threats to vultures which are currently less important than toxic veterinary NSAIDs include accidental killing by poison baits, and collisions and electrocution by power infrastructure.
Is enough being done to reverse this damage?
The government and conservation community are well aware but a lot more needs to be done, especially in emphasising just how deadly the NSAID threat is for the vulture populations. The government, on its part, is stepping up support for key actions with breeding/ release programmes, updated national action plans and efforts by the Indian Veterinary Research Institute, amongst others. Maintaining existing vulture conservation breeding programmes, developing national reporting systems for vulture deaths with written recording and data storage protocols and pathways for immediate transportation and reliable tissue analysis are the need of the hour.
What priorities have been set by the Birdlife partnership for India?
The Birdlife partnership is working in Asia, Africa and Europe to save vultures from extinction. India has drawn upon husbandry and release expertise from Europe and North America and is at the forefront, especially with efforts to reduce potentially devastating impacts of NSAIDs, safety testing of veterinary drugs on vultures, besides pushing for implementation of bans and restrictions for toxic drugs. The Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE) consortium has 24 regional and international members. In India, BNHS is partnering NGOs like Savera Trust to work on environment sustainability issues. They are overseeing and coordinating conservation, campaigning and fundraising activities to relieve the plight of South Asia’s vultures besides strengthening breeding and release programmes.
Apart from vulture preservation, what are the other birds India needs to protect?
There is an urgent need to work on conservation of grassland birds and birds like the Great Indian Bustard, Bengal Florican and Lesser Florican which are on the brink, with rapid destruction of grassland habitat across the country. Not realising the sensitivities that lie on the human-animal-environment interface will cause massive disruption, as is being seen in the case of Covid-19. We can no longer afford to ignore these linkages.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.