CUTTACK, ORISSA. Vultures are an ecologically critical group of birds. However, they have been facing a range of threats across the globe. Populations of many species are in peril. Egyptian vulture is declared globally endangered, and a few others are on the verge of extinction. The first Saturday in September each year is observed as International Vulture Awareness Day. What makes them so important? Let’s dive in!
Why are vultures important for ecology?
Without these magnificent and specialized scavengers, the earth may become a cesspit of disease outbreaks and trophic cascades. Can you imagine a world without vultures? Putting this question forward, Salisha Chandra, Vulture Conservation Manager, BirdLife Africa, explains the importance of these species. “As ‘obligate scavengers, they live almost exclusively on rotting carcasses and are a vital part of our natural ecosystems, acting as nature’s clean-up crew. Studies have shown that in the absence of vultures, carcasses can take at least three times as long (sometimes much longer) to decompose, and the numbers of scavengers, the time they spend at a carcass and the opportunities for disease transmission among these scavengers, can increase 3-fold.”
What happened to India’s 40 million vultures? – probing this question, Chris Bowden, Globally Threatened Species Officer & SAVE Programme Manager and Co-chair IUCN Vulture Specialist Group, shares his thoughts. “4th September is International Vulture Awareness Day, and despite the recent drastic declines, India still supports remnant populations of nine of the world’s 23 vulture species, but five of those nine species are Red-listed by IUCN, and four are at the very highest risk of total extinction.”
“Vultures play an integral role in our ecosystem because of their scavenging abilities quicker than Saprophytes. They are the best-known scavengers to humankind. Often in the North and North Eastern Part of India, large flocks of vultures are seen scavenging on dead cattle, which help in restoring the nutrient and carbon cycle as well,” informs Dr. Sanchari Biswas, Conservation Biologist.
Vultures have been an integral part of Parsi religion and culture. This religion forbids the burial or cremation of their dead. They hold a ‘sky burial’ where the corpse is left in the open, letting nature take its course. In India, for Parsis, leave the dead bodies at the ceremonial centres such as the Towers of Silence in Mumbai. Vultures are responsible for clearing the bodies left there. With the decreasing population of these scavengers in the past few years, this community is facing various problems.
Possible threats and restorative initiatives
Across the world, several organizations and environmentalists have come forward to create awareness and taken measures to restore vultures’ population. BirdLife International is a global partnership of conservation organizations (NGOs) aims to conserve birds, their habitats and global biodiversity. Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE) is a group of 24 partners working together to recover Asia’s globally threatened vultures. SAVE addresses the scientifically agreed priority threats for vultures in India and neighbouring countries where yet smaller populations remain of these enigmatic species – in Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Myanmar and Cambodia. In India, Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology (SACON) has been studying the effects of various causative factors of vultures’ population decline.
A few factors are causing the dramatic decline of vultures. Because of developmental activities and urbanization for a decade, the number of vultures has decreased drastically. “The indiscriminate use of certain chemical agents like Diclofenac, as an additive in animal food, has led to this decline. Diclofenac tends to bioaccumulate quickly and kill pristine avian fauna. Also, few others are organo-chlorine pesticides, PCBs,” Dr. Biswas adds.
Earlier this year, Co-author Aditya Roy, SACON, said, when post mortems were carried out on dead vultures to collect necessary tissue samples, the results revealed gout symptoms, typical of NSAID intoxication.
Experts suggest immediate licences withdrawn of veterinary use of nimesulide. Ketoprofen and aceclofenac have a similar effect. Safe and affordable alternatives such as meloxicam are readily available. The recent ban of veterinary ketoprofen by the Bangladesh Government earlier this year is a desirable move.
“The good news is that replacement of the veterinary drugs with safe alternatives is already happening. Nepal is a glaring example. The country has ‘Vulture Safe Zones’, and the effective removal and control of veterinary drugs have already resulted in slowly increasing vulture populations. These steps and more urgent legislation for the remaining veterinary drugs in India, however, remain the key to vultures being safely released from the breeding centres and returning to India’s skies,” opines Chris Bowden.
Talking in length about the protection and conservation of African vultures, in particular, Salisha Chandra informs, “we are working hard to help these critical species soar again by addressing the numerous threats they face including poisoning, which accounts for 61% of vulture deaths, belief-based use contributing to 29% of vulture mortalities, electrocutions, and collisions accounting for 9% and 1% due to other causes.”
BirdLife’s list of ‘Preventing Extinction’ includes the vultures of Africa and Eurasia. Eight of the 16 species are Critically Endangered. Africa’s vultures are at the edge of extinction, declining between 80 to 97% across all species, making them the most endangered group of birds in the world. To address these threats, the BirdLife Partners and other stakeholders have implemented rapid response mechanisms to poisoning incidences, created over half a million hectares of safe vulture zones and engaged with various communities and stakeholders to raise awareness of the role of vultures and reduce the illegal trade in their parts. It is also working to influence policy and legislation to support vulture conservation across the continent. The organisation is hopeful that through these efforts, it can turn the tide for vultures in Africa and ensure that one needn’t have to see a world without these magnificent creatures.
What can you do as an individual?
As individuals, practicing more sustainable ways of reducing chemical toxicants are some of the best practices, besides creating public awareness. Natural additives for animal feeds can be encouraged. Moreover, one of the effective ways to sensitise the public is by including children. It can be delivered through campaigns at educational institutions, especially schools and colleges.