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Vulture Conservation in India – Causes and consequences of decline in Vulture population

Vulture Conservation in India – Causes and consequences of decline in Vulture population


  • GS 3 II Environment II Biodiversity II Conservation Efforts

Why in the news?

For several years, researchers battled to understand what might be the cause of the deaths.


  • Charles Darwin thought vultures were “disgusting.”From a human perspective, perhaps they are, but vultures are nature’s most successful scavengers, and they provide us with an extensive array of ecological, economic, and cultural services. Most notably, vultures dispose of carrion and other organic refuse, providing a free and highly effective sanitation service.
  • The vulture-governed cleaning service protects the health of humans, domesticated animals, and wildlife because the abundance of other scavengers, some of which are well-known diseasereservoirs, increases substantially at carcasses without vultures
  • India also moved a IUCN motion in 2004 for vulture conservation, which was accepted in the form of the IUCN resolution which“called upon Gyps vulture Range countries to begin action to prevent all uses of diclofenac in veterinary applications that allow diclofenac to be present in carcasses of domestic livestock available as food for vultures;
    • establishment ofIUCN South Asian Task Force under the auspices of the IUCN; Range countries to develop and implement national vulture recovery plans, including conservation breeding and release
  • Status of Population of Gyps Vultures in the Indian Subcontinent:Surveys on the population status of vultures have been carried out and reasons for their sudden decline studied by various avian experts.
    • Decline of vulture populations in India was first recorded at the Keoladeo Ghana National Park, Rajasthan during mid 1980’s to mid 1990’s, followed by Northern India road counts.
    • Declines have been projected in excess of 97% over a 12 year period in India and 92% in a 3 year period in Pakistan (Virani, 2006). Nepal has also experienced similar reductions.
  • Symptoms of Morbidity:The phenomenon of ‘Neck drooping’, though reported in Eurasian vultures, had never been observed in India before the period of decline.
    • ‘Neck drooping’ was first observed in Keoladeo National Park, where birds would exhibit this behaviour for protracted periods over several weeks before collapsing and falling out of trees, at the point of, or just prior to death

Causes of decline:

  • Avulture’s population decline can be due to many factors – poaching, epidemics, habitat destruction – but none explained the rapidity, scale and expanse of the decline across South Asia.
  • The Probable Cause of the Sudden Decline in Vultures Population:The Asian vulture population crash was first revealed in 1999 with investigations on the cause of decline beginning in 2000. In India, the initial hypotheses for the drastic decline in population were non-availability of food (dead livestock) as theywere perhaps being removed for commercial purposes, or an unknown viral epidemic disease.
  • Identification of Diclofenac as the Probable Cause:An alternative hypothesis was the introduction of a new risk factor in the environment, to which the birds were exposed, just prior to the onset of decline in vulture populations.
    • The veterinary analgesic drug Diclofenac,which was introduced for veterinary use in the late 1980s in the subcontinent,and to which vultures could plausibly be exposed through consumption of carcasses of livestock treated with the drug, provided that sufficient concentrations of unmetabolized Diclofenac remained.
  • Experiments showed that captive vultures are highly susceptible to Diclofenac, and are killed by kidney failure within a short time of feeding on the carcass of an animal treated with the normal veterinary dose
  • Cheap and multiple formulations of Diclofenac are widely available in Pakistan, India, and Nepal which are routinely used to treat livestock. Modeling results show that very low rate of carcass contamination can drive a massive decline in the field, and surveys have shown that this level is present.

Consequences of declines:

  • Communities of facultative scavengers are highly structured (not random) and complex, and birds contribute most to this structure because they are the most specialized scavengers.
  • In localized regions where vultures are functionally extinct, such as in India, the absence of vultures at carcasses appears to have driven a rapid increase in the abundance of opportunistic species such as feral dogs and rats
  • Feral dogs have been shown to compete directly with vultures for food and are capable of displacing vultures from carcasses. In areas adjacent to communal lands in Zimbabwe, feral dogs dominated carcasses,but inside protected reserves, vultures were the major scavengers at carcasses
  • In Kenya, in the absence of vultures, carcass decomposition time nearly tripled, and both the number of scavenging mammals and the time they spent at carcasses increased threefold. Further, there was a nearly threefold increase in the number of contacts between mammalian scavengers at carcasses without vultures, suggesting that the demise of vultures could facilitate disease transmission at carcasses

A health crisis and a cultural dilemma

  • Beyond those concerned with conservation, few mourned the passing of the vultures. Like with most creatures, humans have a schizophrenic relationship with vultures.
  • In India, it is worshipped as Jatayu, the vulture god of the epic Ramayana who died protecting Goddess Sita.
  • Yet, vultures have always been viewed with distaste and associated with morbidity as harbingers of death. In common lexicon, a ‘vulture’ has negative connotations, used as a metaphor to describe someone who preys on the weak or who benefits from the misfortune of others.
  • The bird plays a valuable role in the ecosystem as a scavenger. Their speedy, efficient disposal of bodies does not allow deadly bacteria to develop and spread.
  • The dramatic decline of vultures created a vacuum, and millions of carcasses were left rotting, increasing the possibility of the spread of diseases such as TB, anthrax, brucellosis, foot-and-mouth etc.
  • Other scavengers such as rats and feral dogs moved in but they lack the efficiency of vultures whose metabolism is a true ‘dead-end’ for pathogens. Dogs and rats, instead, become carriers of the pathogens spreading disease.
  • The decimation of vultures also had another unexpected consequence. With the near extinction of vultures, the Parsi or Zoroastrian community is finding it difficult to sustain their unique funeral rituals, where they dispose their dead in ‘Towers of Silence’ to be consumed by scavenger birds of prey, mainly vultures.
  • The decline in white-rumped vulture populations was 43.9 percent

Saving Vultures- Action taken till now:

  • India banned the veterinary use of diclofenac in 2006, since in that year the Vulture Action Plan, initiated by the Environment Ministry, recommended the ban and also prioritized identifying safe diclofenac substitutes.
  • Pakistan and Nepal saw similar revivals, since both the countries had also banned the veterinary use of diclofenac.
  • The Jatayu Conservation Breeding Centre (JCBC) in Pinjore – a joint effort of the Bombay Natural History Society and the Haryana Forest Department – is the flagship of eight such breeding centres in India. A total of 162 vultures of all three affected species have been bred and raised in captivity.
  • At Pinjorecentre, there is vigorous monitoring of the diclofenac ban, and awareness campaigns are carried out with pharmacies and cattle owners within these safe zones.

What more can be done?

  • Other measures to arrest the decline include establishment of more safe zones, protecting its breeding sites, which continue to be destroyed for real estate, industry, infrastructure and other development projects — a case in point being the Ken-Betwa river linking, which will submerge a crucial nesting site of the long-billed vultures in Ken river gorge in Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh.
  • Clearance has also been accorded to a ropeway in Girnar Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat, a nesting site of critically endangered long-billed vultures. This is one of the few sites where vulture populations had recorded an increase in their populations.
  • Other threats that can slow recoveries also need attention. Transmission lines and wind turbines are known to take an increasing toll of vultures. Poisoned cattle carcasses targeting leopards, lions or tigers inadvertently kill large numbers of vultures as has been seen in both India and Africa.


India is country with wide range of species and each living organism has its own role in ecosystem, to maintain the ecosystem and ecological balance from single cell zooplanktons to human being all have their own significant role in maintaining the ecosystem. Every creature is important for balance of nature so safety and presence of each of the living organism is important.

Mains oriented question:

It is older the ages practice to use animals for medicine success or failure by pharmaceutical companies many a time it is done illegally which is one of the main cause for spreading disease or mutation in gene of the any animal, how ethically it is wrong explain. (200 words)