With drop in numbers,vulture research takes wing

The vulture population in Gujarat has dropped by a whopping 65 per cent since 2005. Sensing that diclofenac may not be the only significant factor in the steady decline of vultures

Written by Adam Halliday | Published: October 7, 2012 2:34 am

The vulture population in Gujarat has dropped by a whopping 65 per cent since 2005. Sensing that diclofenac may not be the only significant factor in the steady decline of vultures,the state-run Gujarat Ecological Education and Research (GEER) Foundation,which coordinated the last four statewide surveys,is expanding research into other areas—increasingly scarce carcasses and loss of nesting sites.

The foundation has announced that an upcoming research would focus on Gaps in research on Vulture Ecology/Conservation.

Veterinary formulations of diclofenac,an anti-inflammatory drug that causes renal failure and visceral gout in vultures,were banned in 2006. But the drug is still available for human use.

Despite the ban in Gujarat,consecutive surveys since 2005 have found the vulture population to be steadily declining. However,the rate of decline appears to have slowed down slightly in the last two years as per the last survey conducted in May.

“Veterinary science tells us that diclofenac finds its way from cattle carcasses into vultures and causes renal failure and,eventually,death. This is indisputable and there are reports that diclofenac is still being used illegally for humans and livestock,but it has also been observed that the availability of carcasses has declined,leading to food shortage for the scavengers. In Gujarat,what happens in panjrapols (shelters for destitute cattle) is an important pointer,” said Bharat Pathak,director of GEER foundation.

“It used to be that the people who maintained these panjrapols would offer small sums to workers to take the carcasses away from the area. But now,it is the opposite. Workers are going to panjrapols for carcasses and,if there are any,pay for them. This is because there is commercial benefit from such carcasses now,every part is recycled and sold and in the process,vultures are left with little to feed on,” he explains.

Kartikeya Sarabhai,director of the city-based Centre for Environment Education (CEE),a centre of excellence under the Environment Ministry,said that proposals have been made to use panjrapols in a broader way for conservation,beyond what the Jain community had originally established them for.

“When we survey vultures,their population was always higher around panjrapols. This led us to believe that panjrapols could be used as very effective conservation instruments,especially because cattle can be monitored and when they die,their bodies can feed vultures without posing any toxic effects,” said Sarabhai.

Bakul Trivedi,secretary of the Bird Conservation Society,Gujarat,agreed that commercial use of livestock carcasses may be one of three major factors in the vulture population decline.

“Besides the scarcity of carcasses,large,old,trees that vultures prefer to nest in are also becoming scarce,” he said. The third major reason is the prevalence of visceral gout in vultures as tests on carcasses conducted by Bombay Natural History Society have shown.

GEER Foundation’s Pathak said future research would look into all these factors,particularly focusing on nesting site decline (environmentalists have long held the view that vultures are disliked by people and trees where they nest are often cut down to drive them away) and reconciliation of data as head counts often vary due to differences in survey methods.

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