Nature’s Custodians of Cleanliness:
For centuries vultures have been silently performing a very important task in the cycle of nature. They are Nature’s Custodians of Cleanliness. Till the early 1990s, huge flocks of vultures along roadsides, along railway lines, in fields, in forests and at dumping grounds were a common site. They played a key role in keeping our countryside clean and disease-free by disposing off animal carcasses. That apart, vultures are graceful birds, when you see them soaring high up in the heavens or majestically gliding down in search of food.
Vultures in danger
But vultures are in peril, particularly the Gyps species such as Oriental White-backed Vulture, Long-billed Vulture and Slender-billed Vulture. Studies by BNHS and others in 1990s found out that the Gyps species of vultures die of kidney failure when they eat the carcass of an animal recently treated with a pain-killer called Diclofenac. One man’s medicine is another man’s poison! In a span of a few years, nearly 99% of Gyps vultures in India and other countries of South Asia have vanished. It is time we play our role in saving these gentle and highly useful birds from extinction. It is time we ensure that the descendents of Jatayu and Sampati continue to soar the skies of India.
BNHS in vulture conservation
BNHS, one of the oldest environmental research NGOs in India, has been engaged in vulture conservation and captive breeding for nearly a decade now, in association with UK-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). BNHS with support from RSPB runs three Vulture Conservation Breeding Centres (VCBCs) at Pinjore in Haryana, Rajabhat Khawa in West Bengal and Rani in Assam. Currently 271 vultures of three Gyps species are housed in these three centres. Captive breeding has been successful, including artificial incubation in some cases and in 2011, a record 18 vulture chicks have fledged and are growing. BNHS and RSPB have now launched the SAVE (Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction) consortium to make wider efforts towards vulture conservation. The other organizations playing a vital role in this endeavour are the state governments of Haryana, West Bengal and Assam, BirdLife International, Bird Conservation Nepal, National Trust for Nature Conservation (Nepal), International Centre for Birds of Prey (UK), Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund, Rufford Foundation, Darwin Initiative and Zoological Society of London.
The challenge now is to ensure that the system is free from harmful veterinary painkillers such as diclofenac, so that captive-bred vultures can be eventually released back into the wild. This is easier said than done, given the illegal use of diclofenac, despite the ban. Till then BNHS will have to continue to bear the mounting expenses of feeding and breeding vultures in captivity, maintaining the three Vulture Conservation Breeding Centres and creating awareness at different levels of the society and the government.