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Flying high again: Getting vultures back in the sky in Southern India

Feb 19, 2013

With the ban on an anti-inflammatory drug that was known to cause renal failure in vultures and a project created by a World Bank-supported fund, once dwindling vulture populations in the Western Ghats region of southern India are slowly starting to recover.



A few years ago, Subbiah Bharathidasan realised he wasn’t seeing vultures circling the skies anymore. Having grown up in a leather manufacturing town in southern India, he was used to seeing large numbers of the scavenging birds which were attracted by animal carcasses.

When he looked into it, 'Bharathi' as he is known, discovered that vulture populations right across India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan had gone into catastrophic decline in the late 1990s.

The cause proved to be a veterinary anti-inflammatory drug called Diclofenac, administered to cattle to reduce joint pain so that ageing animals would keep working. When cattle died with the drug still in their systems, vultures that ingested their flesh died in vast numbers from renal failure. Three vulture species crashed, with losses of between 97 and 99 per cent of their populations. As a result, Asian vultures - once very common - fell into the ranks of the most endangered birds in the world.

An uphill task

With the alarm raised, governments across South Asia banned Diclofenac in 2006. Slowly, populations have been starting to recover but it’s an uphill battle - especially as some livestock owners are illegally using the human version of Diclofenac to relieve pain and inflammation in their animals. The human version of the drug still has fatal consequences for vultures.

Through the World Bank-supported Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, Bharathi is now leading a project in the Western Ghats area of southern India where one of the last viable wild populations of Indian vultures resides on the banks of the Moyar River.

Bharathi travels from village to village in the state of Tamil Nadu recruiting volunteers to his 'Vulture Brigades' and spreading the word about the dangers of Diclofenac. Crowds flock to the travelling puppet show about vultures that he helped create with local artists. The Vulture Brigades spread the word about Diclofenac and importantly, monitor local vulture communities - watching nests, counting breeding pairs and reporting any signs of fatalities through exposure to Diclofenac.

In just two years, Bharathi has managed to inspire and recruit 36,000 volunteers across the state - and their numbers continue to grow.

At Anaikatty village, Bharathi has persuaded the highly successful village volleyball team to join the Vulture Brigade. At a recent CEPF visit to the village, the volleyball team and other members of the community crammed into a communal hall to discuss the vulture issue with Bharathi, Jack Tordoff from CEPF and the World Bank’s biodiversity specialist Valerie Hickey.

Gauging Effectiveness of Drug Ban

Vulture watchers in the village fill out data sheets, documenting the number and sub-species they observe as well as the types of carcasses they see vultures feeding on. All the information is collected and provided to the State Forest Department and used to gauge the effectiveness of the Diclofenac ban.

Close by, in the Madumalai Tiger Reserve, M. Sivakumar - a ranger with the Forest Department for the past 14 years - has also become a keen vulture watcher. Each day, he combs the area for sightings of tiger, elephant and the native 'bison' called Gaur. He is alarmed by the crash in vulture numbers and so, takes a special interest in the riverside location where a small population appears to be doing well.

“I worry about the decline of the vultures,” he says. “They have a right to live in this world just like us. And without them, carcasses of dead animals are left to rot and maybe spread disease into the waterways.” In recent times, his teams have been forced to bury the carcasses of wild animals like elephants which once would have been quickly dealt with by vultures.

The CEPF project is one of many across the region aimed at rebuilding vulture populations. Recent research of vulture populations in Pakistan by the Peregrine Fund indicates that banning Diclofenac has had a major impact on populations there. In the country’s largest known breeding colony of long-billed vultures in south-east Pakistan, numbers of birds have increased by 55 percent since the ban became effective.

Bharathi, whose travels also take him as far away as New Delhi to lobby ministers and parliamentarians on the need to save vultures, says he does it for his children. “I want to do everything I can to pass on to them a beautiful world,” he says. “This is the only asset that I can give to my children and this society.”

He is sure that before too long, vultures will be back in large numbers, circling the skies once more.

Meanwhile, some reports by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) also reveal that there has been a 99 per cent crash in the vulture population from the mid of 1990s till now. The main reason for the depleting population was found to be a veterinary drug given to cattle, whose carcass the vultures are known to consume.

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. 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.

SOURCE: World Bank

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