Distressing evidence recorded for the first time by still cameras installed in nests of white-rumped vultures, on big trees in the Western Ghats, shows chicks of the critically endangered species starving to death.
This has led the Maharashtra government to plan ‘vulture restaurants’, providing carcasses of cattle for the birds to feed on at specific places, especially during the breeding season. While the state has four such nesting sites currently, only one, at Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary in Raigad district, is active.
In a unique initiative, the Maharashtra forest department and ELA Foundation had used the services of expert mountaineers (including some who have climbed Mount Everest) to install digital trap cameras with daylight and infrared night vision in the occupied nests of vultures, both on high trees and tall, inaccessible cliffs in the Western Ghats. The observations lasted from March to May this year.
The cameras recorded that seven vulture chicks, barely two-three months old, had died after waiting for parents to get back with food for 10 days, in May this year. The video footage from these cameras also showed that when the concerned parent vulture tried rectal probing of the chicks to get them to defecate, they could not do so as their bowels were empty.
The cameras recorded 55 Gyps vultures at the three main study sites in the Western Ghats. The chicks died at Chirgao village in Raigad district.
A total of 11 visits to the site were made between February and May 2015 and 19 nests identified with 14 chicks, Sunil Limaye, Chief Conservator of Forests, Wildlife Division (Pune), told The Indian Express. A total of 17 nests were found active on March 15 this year, said Dr Satish Pande, ornithologist and founder of ELA foundation. Out of these, 14 had chicks of 6 to 8 weeks age at the onset of the study. By May 2015, seven chicks had died.
“This was mainly because there was no food. The breeding season is in the winter months and while adult vultures can stay without food for a few months, the chicks need to be fed,” Dr Pande said.
One of the aims of their study was to obtain scientific data on the ecology, breeding and behaviour patterns of vultures for conservation of two endangered species — Gyps bengalensis and Gyps indicus.
The Gyps vultures numbers have crashed 95 to 99 per cent in the past decade globally, mainly due to the use of Diclofenac, a painkiller drug, in veterinary practice.
“The vultures who eat carcasses of animals treated with diclofenac soon die of kidney failure. While the manufacture of veterinary diclofenac was banned in 2006, the drug formulated for humans is still available. Recently the Drug Controller General Authority of India approved the draft to make diclofenac available for humans only in 3 ml vials instead of 10-15 ml vials,” said Dr Vibhu Prakash, principal scientist, Bombay Natural History Society.
“We would buy dead cattle, ensure they are diclofenac-free and then feed them to vultures at the vulture restaurants,” Limaye said.