In 1996, it was found that the vulture population of India is on a sharp decline: This decline was first noticed by villagers and then proved by scientists of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). The reason for the diminishing vulture population was earlier thought to be virus or some other disease but later it was proved that it was diclofenac, a painkiller prescribed for cattle. It was indirectly going into the vultures’ system when it would eat the carcass of cattle.
This was the biggest bird crisis seen in the past two decades when such common species as vultures were on threat. This issue became a topic of discussion among not just scientists but also villagers who knew the role played by vultures in keeping the environment clean.
We have known two important things: One is the reason for the decline of the vulture (J Lindsay Oaks and his team discovered in 2003 that the diclofenac residue is the cause of vulture population decline) and the second is the fact that the vulture population can be recovered through captive breeding and by total removal of diclofenac. In collaboration with state governments and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds RSPB, the BNHS established three conservation breeding centres in India and could manage to captive breed about 35- 40 odd birds in them in the last four to five years. These can be multiplied as per the requirement to establish a base vulture population.
BNHS came forward as a leading organisation to save the dwindling vulture population and this is evident from the measures taken by them in these years. Dr Asad Rahmani, director of BNHS, tells that there are four directions in which BNHS is working. One is the advocacy programme so that the vulture programme can be brought to priority conservation list of the Indian government.
The second is the research programme where the population and use of the veterinary drugs can be monitored. There are vulture breeding centres, which will help increase the wild vulture population. Fourth is creating ‘vulture safe zones’ where diclofenac will be totally eradicated and where the vultures can be released from breeding centres. This is planned to happen in 2014 when the first group of 50 vultures will be released and monitored in these vulture safe zones.
Despite all these measures, the species did not recover. Blame it on government’s insensitivity. When decline of vulture population was seen as a trend, bureaucracy delayed sending samples of vulture tissue for testing to countries that had the technology. Also, though BNHS would not talk about it, the three conservation breeding centres are not monetarily self sufficient. The government has funded the basic infrastructure but not maintenance and other costs.
Vultures are carnivorous birds and feed on meat. Due to the danger of diclofenac poisoning, they cannot be provided leftover meat from butcher shops as such meat may contain diclofenac, hence live animals are kept for seven to 10 days (the time when any traces of diclofenac from their body is removed) and then fed to vulture. This increases the cost of feeding them. The funding, regulation and rules can happen only at the government level. Organisations such as the BNHS can only give field and technical support for the implementation. If not looked into seriously, the hard work that went into research will still not save vultures.