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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Wooing the vulture: Tracing 15 years of journey in Pinjore

Vultures were listed as critically endangered species by IUCN. In the 1980s, the vulture population in the country was estimated about in crores but by 2007, a 99 percent declined was reported in the number of these three species.

Written by Saurabh Prashar | Pinjore | Published: July 29, 2019 11:31:24 am
Wooing the vulture: Tracing 15 years of journey in Pinjore The founder stock of 123 vultures of three species was collected from various states included Assam, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Haryana.

Jatayu conservation breeding centre (JCBC) for vultures, situated just outside Bir Shikargah Wildlife Sanctuary in Morni hills of the Shivalik ranges around 8km from the city of Pinjore off the busy Chandigarh-Shimla highway is going to complete its 15-year old long journey in September 2019.

The centre started functioning as a breeding centre in September 2004 and a Memorandum-of-Understanding (MoU) was signed between Bombay Natural History Society, which manages JCBC and Haryana Forest Department, for 15 years.

The JCBC was started with merely a dozen pairs of rescued vultures and today, the centre houses 333 vultures of three resident Gyps species – Slender-billed vulture, White-backed vulture and Long-billed vulture.

Dr Vibhu Prakash, head of JCBC and Principal Scientist with BNHS, said, “There were two objectives behind establishing this centre. First: To establish a founder population of 25 pairs of each of 3 species including Oriental white-backed, Long-billed and Slender-billed vultures. Second: To produce a population of at least 200 birds of each of the three species and reintroduce them into the wild within 10 years from the beginning of the release program. We have almost managed to achieve the first objective. And for second, we will have to wait for sometime. We have started the preparations of achieving the second objective of our conservation plan. Indeed, we have prepared the birds , which will be released in the wilderness but tracking of these released raptors was also necessary. Last year, we got the permission of deploying the Platform transmitter terminals (PTT) with eight white-rumped vultures for tracking their locations and monitor their behavior when they will be released in the wilderness. The PTT was necessary for the conservation plan. Earlier, I Union Department of Telecommunications took some time to process our request but I am glad that we have entered the second phase of this conservation journey.”

The founder stock of 123 vultures of three species was collected from various states included Assam, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Haryana. By 2019, under the watchful eyes of Dr. Vibhu Prakash and his wife Nikita, 43 Slender-billed, 115 Oriental white-backed and 175 Long-billed vultures were successfully hatched and fledged at the centre.

It is not a short-term conservation plan. For the first 15 years, we decided to raise around 100 pairs of gyps in the captivity. And for the next around 15 years, the pairs will be released in wilderness. The centre has successfully released its one pair of Himalayan Griffon vulture in 2016 and the soft-release of 8 birds of Oriental white-backed vultures is scheduled this year. These eight vultures were pre-released last year and currently kept in pre-release aviary. Six vultures out of the eight are among those which have been reared at the centre and two were rescued as adults and kept in the captivity at the centre”, Dr Vibhu Parkash, Ph. D. d, says.

Adopting artificial incubation methods for the hatching of vulture chicks along with natural process, Jatayu received first successful hatching of two chicks through the natural process in 2008. And the first successful hatching of the Oriental white-backed vulture and Long-billed vulture eggs through artificial incubation was in 2010 and of Slender-billed vulture eggs in 2012.

The fine use of double-clutching and chick swapping techniques in the centre is credited to be the one of the reasons behind the successful breeding and first phase of the conservation plan.

“A pair of vulture produce only one egg once in a year. In this case, if the egg is lost within couple of weeks of laying, the pair immediately prefers to produce another egg. We successfully adopted this double-clutching and chick swapping technique in the centre wherein the first clutch egg on hatching in incubator is swapped at 12-15 days age with a second clutch egg laid on the nest, which is then incubated and reared in nursery aviaries. So the parents rear the first clutch nestling while we rear the second clutch nestling.

The centre has ten octagon incubators with forced-air heating and efficient temperature and humidity controls, have been utilized for incubating vulture eggs. These incubators and accessories are thoroughly cleaned and sanitised with F10, a strong but safe disinfectant, before putting to use. Arrangements are there for 24×7 power supply to these ten octagon incubators. Double clutching was first attempted in 2011 and chick swapping in 2014 respectively.

Nikita says, “The conservation is not only about the rearing an endangered species in the captivity and later releaseing them in the wilderness. It includes a long battle against the threats looming outside the centre. And one such threat was the rampant use of a drug called diclofenac. A campaign was launched and with the collaboration of State forest departments, health departments of the adjoining states, a ban was put on the manufacturing and sale of diclofenace drug here. Later, MHA banned the use of this drug nationwide in 2006. Before releasing the vultures from the centre, we have to ensure that diclofenac is not being used in the 100km radius of JCBC. State governments of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal has allowed us to collect the sample of animal carcasses to check the presence of diclofenac in these. These states are within 100km radius of our conservation and breeding centre.”

Vultures were listed as critically endangered species by IUCN. In the 1980s, the vulture population in the country was estimated about in crores but by 2007, a 99 percent declined was reported in the number of these three species.

Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF), wildlife, VS Tanwar, said, “We have decided to extend the MoU with BNHS for next 15 year from September, 2019 to September, 2034. There are total four vulture breeding centres in India and JCBC in Haryana is the foremost in the ranking. People from other centres came here for pursuing the research. We believe in the next fifteen years, VCBC will achieve its second objective. We are moving in the right direction.”

Three other vulture breeding centres are at Rani in Guwahati (Assam), Buxa in West Bengal, and Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. Four more centres, which are only vulture protection centres are at Junagarh in Gujarat, Nandankanan in Orissa, Hyderabad in Telangana and Muta in Rachi. The last four centres managed by state zoos in collaboration with Central Zoo Authority (CZA)

Apart from rearing the vultures in captivity, scientists also successfully managed to attract wild vultures from faraway places in Himachal to here making them familiarize with the captive vultures hence when these captive birds will be released in the wild, they will easily adjust with them.

“We fed the captive vultures with 2kg goat meat each twice in a week. The days are Monday and Friday. On these days, we also put goat meat for the wild vultures nearby the enclosures of captive vultures in the centre. We have started receiving tremendous results. Vulture is a social animal and it adjusts with creatures of same species easily. Indeed, a pair of vulture which was reared in captivity showed signs of hesitation once it got released but later we found that the pair had successfully joined a wild colony of vultures”, Dr. Vibhu Parkash says.

There are 20 aviaries, equipped with highresolution CCTV cameras, divided in six sections for keeping vultures of different age classes and those which can be injured or sick while in captivity. These included eight nursery aviaries having the capacity to rear at least 32 nestlings at a time, five colony aviaries for the sub-adult and adult birds, three holding aviaries for housing the juveniles raptors, four hospital aviaries for housing injured of sick vultures, two display aviaries, in which vultures were placed for the display to visitors. Three quarantine aviaries are located around 5km distance from the centre.

The centre is spread on five acres of land provided by Haryana Forest Department. A Food Processing Room for goats (meal of vultures) is also there. Every week fresh supply of goats come from Ambala and for ensuring that the mammals are infection-free and not administrated diclofenac, these were kept in the care of the centre for 10 days before the carcasses are fed to vultures, said a staff member.

The funding for running this centre was earlier received from international conservation organisations like UK Royal Society for Protection of Birds and the Darwin Initiative of Survival of Species but now most of it comes from MoEF&CCThere is a staff of around two dozen people, all of them residents of local areas, for managing day to day chore sat the centre except for scientific research. “Most of the employees at JCBC are locals.

How it came to Pinjore in Haryana

Dr Vibhu Prakash said, “Pinjore was never in my mind for setting up this centre. Ironically, I was pursuing my plans with UP government in 2001. I was in the contact of then Chief Wildlife Warden of Haryana, Dr. RD Jakati for rehabilitating an vulture housed at a mini zoo in Pinjore Garden. I rehabilitated the injured vulture successfully. Jakati was impressed but at the same time he was also very worried about the declining population of this scavenger particularly in Haryana. A plan was chalked out and I was invited for the research here. For the first two years, it was only a Vulture Care Centre made for the treatment of rescued scavengers from the faraway states. Jatayu Conservation Breeding Centre (JCBC) came in the existence when the care centre turned into full fledged Conservation and Breeding centre in 2004. A MoU was signed between BNHS and Haryana Forest Department for 15 years. The MoU is going to end in this September, 2019.” Dr Vibhu Prakash, a pioneering figure in the vulture conservation, is Ph.Dd and associated with BNHS since 1980s. As he was invited to pursue the conservation at Pinjore, he along with his wife, Nitika, shifted from Mumbai to Haryana in 2002. The couple is residing at HMT Housing Complex near Pinjore.

It was in the winter of 2006 when rock bees which had a big hive next to the center got agitated when a Crested Honey Buzzard attacked their hive. A large swarm of bees entered one of the enclosure. The furious bees attacked the vultures and shockingly three of the vultures later died due to bee sting. “It was a tragedy for me. Three vultures, which were died, were hand reared. It was a loss for me. But nobody can prevent it. Bees always become agitated once there hive is disturbed and sting the living being viciously who come in their way”, Dr Vibhu Prakash, says.

“Vulture is a shy raptor. It is scared of human beings. A vulture, especially a chick, remains nervous for many hours or even days if approached or handled by humans. I always tryto convince people for not getting close to the enclosures of vultures but I get upset when an overenthusiastic cameraman goes too close to the enclosures. In fact, I have plans to make a watch tower for visitors near the centre”, Dr Vibhu Prakash says.

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