Breeding vultures in detention
Posted on June 23rd, 2009

Nava Thakuria

The vultures in the Indian sky are missing and the declination is too fast. The scientist and environmentalists apprehend that after Pakistan and Nepal the vulture population of India has been declined by more than 97% in the last few years.
There were about 40 million vultures in early Eighties in India , but a survey conducted by Bombay Natural History Society in 2007 revealed that there remained nearly 11,000 white-backed vultures, 1000 slender-billed vultures and 44,000 long-billed vultures in the country.

Among the nine species of vultures available in India, the white-backed, long-billed and slender-billed vultures are recognized as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. More over, they are listed as Schedule I species in the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, which is applicable to the tiger and one-horned rhino also.

Rapid urbanization, destruction of habitat (primarily the loss of high-rise trees, where the vultures go for nesting) and many other modern day factors (like the rampant use of pesticides-DDT, hitting aeroplan, other moving objects in the sky, electric power lines and even poisoning of vultures in some cases) have caused the declination of vulture population in South and Southeast Asia .

The vulture normally does not hunt living animals (in rare cases, the birds may kill the wounded or sick), but depends on carcasses of livestock and wildlife for their primary food supplement. The scavenging birds that way help in keeping the environment clean.

A matured vulture needs almost half-a-kg meat everyday. And the most common theory, except few opposition voices, emerges from here that vultures die of eating toxic meat with high percentage of diclofenac residue.

Dr Vibhu Prakash, the principal scientist for the vulture conservation breeding programme at BNHS, Mumbai claims that there is very strong evidence suggesting that diclofenac was the cause of the mortality of vultures. “We found that, over 75% of vultures which were discovered dead or died of visceral gout had diclofenac in their tissues,” he asserted.
The century old BNHS started a rigorous campaign against the diclofenac since 2003. India introduced the drugs in 1993 and later New Delhi banned the manufacture and importation of diclofenac for veterinary purposes in 2006. Nepal and Pakistan also followed the ban.

With an aim to preserve the vultures, the BNHS also propagated the concept of captive breeding as the only viable option to save the creatures. Dr Prakash highlighted that considering the fast declination of vultures and also the availability of diclofenac in the markets, the conservation breeding programme appears to be the only way of saving the species.
“By bringing some vultures in captivity, the life of these vultures is saved and once they start breeding, they would augment their population. The vultures will be released back in the wild once we are sure that there is no diclofenac available in system,” he narrated.

With the permission from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (GoI) and supports from a number of international funding organizations like Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (UK), Zoological Society of London , Peregrine Fund (US), the reputed wildlife research organization today runs three vulture conservation breeding centres at Pinjore of Haryana, Rajabhatkhawa of West Bengal and Rani of Assam.

But many donot subscribe the theory of captive breeding of vultures. Dr. Anil Kumar Chhangani, a wildlife expert from Department of Zoology, JNV University, Jodhpur also expressed skepticism at the process of vulture captive breeding as there was no such expertise among Indian organizations.

Anil, who was associated with IUCN Birds and Mammals Breeding Specialist Group said, “The captive breeding should not be the only way to conserve vultures. Rather a countrywide rescue programme for the vultures should be encouraged.”
Similar views were expressed by Soumyadeep Datta, an Assam based environmental activist saying, “The matured vultures select their partners in the wild for breeding and the birds lay eggs in such a situation, which cannot be arranged in the captivity. Moreover, vultures are monogamous birds and they maintain the loyalty of conjugal lives till deaths. Only one egg is expected from a pair in one season. The caring mother continues its close bond with the baby till the chick attains maturity by five years.”

Datta, the director of Nature’s Beckon also asserted that the indiscriminate lifting of chicks, as done by the BNHS people in Assam, from the nests would only disrupt the male-female ratio of the vultures. “We suspect that collecting babies from the nests will put negative impact on the sex ratio and finally the population of vulture in our region,” Datta said.
The members of Nature’s Beckon suspect that the BNHS people had started capturing vulture chick and adults in Assam since 2005. In the long period, they must have captured nearly 100 adult and semi-adult vultures from the State and most of them were taken to the captive breeding centres of Haryana and West Bengal.

Maximum number of vultures was captured from Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts, where as Goalpara, Dhubri, Lakhimpur, Sibsagar and Jorhat districts of Assam were also targeted by the BNHS people. Those captured vultures were first brought to Guwahati by road and then flown to New Delhi and once again taken road to arrive at Pinjore. On the other hand, trapped vultures were taken to Rajabhatkhoa completely by road from the place of capture.

“As per the law, while capturing wildlife from their natural habitat for the purpose of scientific studies, the State forest department should be involved and the forest officials must be present on the site. But the BNHS people did not follow the guideline. Even they did not inform the State veterinary department in the process, which is mandatory. So we will never know the exact number of birds, which had been taken away. Moreover any casualties at the time of capturing chicks and adult vultures will also be out of our notice,” Datta pointed out.

Asad Rahmani, the director of BNHS, has however denied allegation that removing some chicks from the nests would disrupt the sex ratio of vultures. He argues that the sex of any chick/young is random (except in some reptiles where it is temperature dependent). In every conception, there are equal chances that it could be a male or a female. In any large population of animals, this includes human being also the sex ratio is statistically 1:1 (or 50:50).

Responding to the queries of this writer, Rahmani also rejected the accusation that the BNHS people lifted nearly 100 adult and semi-adult vultures from Assam, saying “After proper permissions, we have taken less than 55 chicks, out of which 35 are in Assam at our Rani Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre.”

He also disapproved the allegation of deaths of several chicks during transportation (from Assam to West Bengal and Haryana) and asserted, “No chick died during transport or handling. We have our own qualified vets involved in the vulture capture, transportation and breeding programme.”

It is however for records that Rahmani faced public outrage at Guijan of Tinchukia district of Assam during one of his recent visits to the State. The local people had protested against the capturing of vultures from their localities and the incident was covered by both the print and visual media of the region.

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