The crash in the population of vultures, nature’s scavengers, in India from estimated four crore in the early 1980s to less than a lakh by 2007 is unprecedented in the animal world.
To save them from certain extinction, the government of India’s Action Plan for Vulture Conservation in India — 2020-2025, which was recently presented to the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) secretariat, advocates the prevention of misuse of veterinary non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) by ensuring their sale only on prescription.
This would ensure that the banned drugs are not used in veterinary treatment, says the Foreword by Union Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar in the report.
The vulture conservation plan with an outlay of Rs 207.50 crore, part of the Gandhinagar Declaration adopted by CMS Parties in 2020, also strongly recommends the veterinary treatment should be given only by qualified veterinarians that would prevent overuse of NSAIDs in treating livestock as toxicity of most of the drugs is dose dependent.
Also, the scientific manner of disposal of livestock carcasses will ensure that the vultures do not get exposed to the carcasses of animals that died during treatment. This should be done as soon as possible, says the five-year plan.
CMS, the only United Nations treaty that addresses migratory species and their habitats, provides an international legal framework for collaborative conservation across borders.
Hailing the vulture action plan, a spokesperson for CMS said that India presented a report on conservation initiatives during the first year of its COP (Conference of Parties) presidency.
The comprehensive plan, which the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change is implementing with its two crucial counterparts, Health and Family Welfare; and Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying, aims for conservation breeding programme of vultures by establishing more centres in different parts of the country.
Interestingly, two other species — the red-headed vulture and the Egyptian vulture — are also included in the breeding programme.
The 118-page plan takes cognizance of the causes of mortality other than veterinary drug poisoning of vulture food.
The poisoning of dead domestic animals by the owners to kill a rogue predator often is a problem for vultures in some parts of the country. Though it is not as serious a problem as poisoning of food by veterinary painkiller, which is far more widespread, it still needs attention, says the action plan quoting Union Minister of State for Environment Babul Supriyo.
Secretary Environment R.P. Gupta believes the banning of vulture toxic drugs is cumbersome and time consuming. So, it is better to be judicious in using the drugs and make the environment safe for the vultures.
The action plan admits the Vulture Safe Zone programme has been initiated for conservation of remnant vulture population.
However, work on establishing Vulture Safe Zones has not started in all states and requires a lot more urgency.
Vultures were very common in India till the 1980’s. During this period, the populations of the three resident Gyps species — the oriental white-backed, the long-billed and the slender-billed — in the country was estimated at 40 million individuals.
The overall population however crashed by over 90 per cent during the mid-90’s. By 2007, 99 per cent of the three species had been wiped out.
These three species are now listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, the highest threat category ahead of extinction.
In 2004, the cause of their crash was established as diclofenac, a veterinary drug.
When the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are administered to cattle, and if the cow or buffalo dies within a few days and is consumed by vultures, it causes gout, kidney failure and death in the following days.
Subsequently, the Drug Controller General of India in 2006 banned the veterinary use of diclofenac. In 2015, it also restricted the vial size of the human formulation of diclofenac to prevent its misuse in treating cattle.
Besides prevention of poisoning of the principal food of vultures, the cattle carcasses, with veterinary non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, the Action Plan for Vulture Conservation 2020-2025 proposes to establish additional conservation breeding centres in the country.
At present, there are eight centres in the country. While the primary focus of these centres is breeding of vultures, they also serve as vulture conservation centres.
For example, the in-situ conservation efforts are coordinated by the biologists based at the centres. The samples and information collected from the wild is analyzed and stored at these centres.
Given that the centres have well-equipped facilities for veterinary care, laboratory, sample processing and storage facilities, they also help in identifying the cause of mortality in vultures in the region by providing all the necessary veterinary and laboratory support.
The plan says certain regions of the country cannot be fully covered by the existing network of breeding centres. So it is proposed to set up one centre each in Uttar Pradesh, Tripura, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, which will cover most parts of the country.
The populations of red-headed vulture and the Egyptian vulture have also crashed by over 80 per cent over the years and it is important to set up a conservation breeding programme for these species.
It is proposed to initiate the conservation breeding programme for both species in the vulture conservation breeding centres by creating additional infrastructure.
Also four rescue centres have been proposed for different geographical areas like Pinjore in the north, Bhopal in Central India, Guwahati in northeast India and Hyderabad in South India.
The centres will be established five km from the breeding centres such that veterinary expertise of the breeding centres could be utilized for treatment of sick and injured birds.
Currently there is no dedicated vulture rescue centres to treat the injured in accidents and fall sick by unintentional poisoning.
It is proposed to have at least one vulture safe zone in each state for the conservation of the remnant populations.
To know the exact bird count, the plan proposed to carry out coordinated nationwide vulture count, once in four years in February, by involving state Forest Departments, BNHS, research Institutes, etc.
Responding to the action plan, Rhys Green, Saving Asia’s Vultures From Extinction (SAVE) Chair, said this important plan covers an impressive range of actions, from testing the safety to vultures of veterinary drugs, linked with the regulation of their use, to conservation breeding to maintain a safe captive population.
“The plan includes the appointment of a national committee with representation of the different government departments whose work affects vulture conservation. SAVE welcomes this plan and offers the national committee any technical assistance it might want.”