After years of grit and determination, eight critically endangered white-rumped vultures, six of them captive-bred, were reintroduced into the wild last week, for the first time in India since the vulture conservation and breeding centre was set up in the lower Shivaliks in September 2001.
For biologists, the release of the vultures is a landmark occasion after January 2007 when the first white-rumped chick was born in captivity in the centre.
“The release of vultures is a great occasion for biologists across the globe. The next crucial step is ensuring the safety of the environment in a vulture safe zone, an excited Vibhu Prakash, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) Principal Scientist and centre head, revealed.
The released vultures, comprising six captive-bred and two rescued ones from the wild, are of the age seven-eight years. Each of them has been tagged with a 30-gram device for satellite transmitter that allow them to monitor their movements and survival, Prakash explained.
Nepal was the first country in Asia to release eight captive-bred white-rumped vultures in November 2017 but this release is the first in India, and a major step.
Not far from the bustling Chandigarh, lies Asia’s largest breeding centre for vultures — the Jatayu Conservation Breeding Centre. The centre is located on the edge of the Bir Shikargaha Wildlife Sanctuary in Morni hills, where the eight vultures were released.
It is a joint project of Haryana and the BNHS which has had major support from the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), The Rufford Foundation and the British government’s Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species Fund — to establish the centre and investigate the catastrophic declines of three critically endangered Gyps species of vultures in India.
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At the Pinjore centre, three of the nine Indian species of vultures — the white-rumped, the long-billed and the slender-billed — have been bred in captivity after their populations crashed by 90 per cent in the mid-1990s. The birds are now listed as Critically Endangered listed by the IUCN, the highest threat category ahead of extinction.
Prakash, who along with his wife Nikita devoted their life for conserving vultures, said the Covid-19 pandemic has delayed their release that was earlier planned in April.
The Bir Shikargaha sanctuary has been declared a vulture safe zone. The sanctuary extends transboundary into Himachal Pradesh where the wildlife awareness among the villagers is quite high.
“We will monitor the behaviour of vultures in the wild through the satellite transmitters. If any of the released vulture die or get injured, we can quickly recover them and determine what happened. The satellite telemetry will be key for us to know the cause of death and prevent other vultures dying from that cause,” he said.
The vulture, a nature’s scavenger, cleans the environment of animal carcasses. Villagers rely on them to dispose of cattle carcasses.
The reason, say biologists, for bringing the vultures to the brink of extinction in South Asia mainly to the extensive use of diclofenac in treating cattle. Vultures that consumed the carcass of animals treated with diclofenac died with symptoms of kidney failure.
The Indian government banned its veterinary use in 2006, and although this was a crucial step, it has not been fully effective, and there are also now other vulture-toxic drugs in use, warn scientists.
Chris Bowden of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who has been coordinating the programme in South Asia, mentioned that: “We really hope these released birds will survive, but there is a lot more to do to ensure their environment is safe”
“But unfortunately,” he warned, “it also shows there are still significant and alarming amounts of the drug out there, and so this release is a very important trial”.
This release is a preliminary test of Asia’s first Gyps Vulture Reintroduction Programme under which the captive-bred birds are to be introduced in the wild, and has been helpful in developing plans for these more significant and endangered birds.