A VIP audience held its breath for the two scavenger birds to flap their big wings and fly out into the wild, but the Himalayan Griffons sat silently on a perch inside the aviary, their home for over 10 years. Even a goat carcass outside the aviary could not persuade the birds, for long acclimatised to their artificial environment, to step out.
Minutes earlier, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal and Minister of State for Environment and Forest and Climate Prakash Javadekar lifted the front netting of the aviary to formally launch Asia’s first ‘Gyps Vulture Reintroduction Programme’.
From the control room, the scientists at Jatayu Conservation Breeding Centre did not take their eyes off the two birds, the first to be reintroduced into the wild, 10 years after they were rescued and brought to the centre.
“Himalayan Griffons are not endangered, but they are closely related to the critically endangered resident Gyps species of vultures. They were selected for release so that their behaviour could be tested, before we decide to take the big step of releasing the critically endangered species (White-backed vulture) to augment the wild population,” said Dr Vibhu Prakash, principal scientist, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). It is hoped the two birds will then act as guides for the Gyps vultures captive-bred at the centre, which will be released later.
The behaviour and movement of birds will be closely monitored with the help of leg rings and wing tag on their body. As the birds still seem hesitant to come out of the aviary, Dr Prakash says, “It will take time. They have been in captivity for ten years. Maybe once the wild vultures from the forest start feeding on the carcass, they will also come and join them. Vultures have a tendency to live in flocks.”
In preparation for Friday, last year, on November 13, the two birds were released into a pre-release aviary from the first aviary in which they spent ten years. It was larger then the previous one and offered a clear view of outside surrounding. They were fed on goat carcass with skin as they would find in forests. Some wild vultures were also attracted outside the aviary by putting a carcass outside to encourage interaction between the two kinds of birds.
Even after their release, the birds will be provided food outside the aviary for at least a year. If the birds show any deficiencies, they will be caught and those deficiencies will be removed before releasing them again. “It is just the beginning. The first step,” smiled Dr Prakash.
Javadekar inducted another set of 10 vultures into the pre-release aviary on Friday. He named one of the birds Jodh Singh after Jodhpur, the Pinjore forest where the breeding centre is located.
The ‘Gyps Vulture Reintroduction Programme’ was launched under the Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction programme, jointly run by the Bombay Natural History Society and the Haryana government, to conserve the endangered vulture species, after environmentalists raised concern over depleting vulture species in 2002. At present, roughly 50,000 species of vultures are left in the country. The objective is to reintroduce into the wild 20 vultures of each of the three endangered species every year, once the first release is successful. The three species are the white backed, the long-billed and the slender-billed, all belonging to the Gyps family of vultures.
On the occasion, Javadekar also handed over ten captive bred vultures which have siblings at the centre to Van Vihar, National Park, Madhya Pradesh as part of genetic management of the captive vulture populations.
Forest Minister Rao Narbir Singh said the government would make efforts to ensure that the drug, Diclofenac, which is toxic to vultures, was not used for treating cattle and there is adequate awareness regarding its ill-effects.
Fatal drug led to dip in vulture population
Massive decline in the population of vulture species started in 1990s, due to the veterinary use of Diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug to treat cattle. When vultures fed on carcass of cattle with diclofenac in their body, they died. As a result, the government banned the veterinary use of the drug in 2006 and multi-vial usage of the drug for human consumption in 2015.