For 24 hours after the gates of their aviary were thrown open, the two Himalayan Griffon vultures that were held captive for the last 10 years refused to fly away. But the patience of the scientists at the ‘Jatayu Conservation Breeding Centre’ in Pinjore paid off when one of them finally came off the perch, and took a low-speed flight out to freedom, to be followed minutes later by the second.
With that, the birds became the first in Asia to be successfully reintroduced into the wild under the vulture re-introduction programme after being rescued. The programme was initiated at the breeding centre in 2004 and is being run by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) in collaboration with the Haryana government.
“It was sudden,” says Dr Vibhu Prakash, principal scientist, BNHS. “And within 15-20 minutes, the second bird also glided out into the forest. In fact, we had kept a goat carcass outside the aviary presuming that they would be encouraged to come out because of food. But this is nature. No matter, how much you learn about it, it is still difficult to predict,” he smiles. The flight was captured by CCTV cameras.
One of the birds flew far into the forest and was spotted once near Kaushalya river which flows a few kilometres away from the breeding centre while the other one has remained in the vicinity of the centre where it spent its last 10 years. “Unlike the first one, it hangs around the aviary for sometime every day. It sits atop the aviary, from where it can have a clear view of the birds inside, and then flies away after sometime,” says Dr Prakash.
The team of scientists says they are also not expecting the two birds to fly far and never be seen again. “Their survival is foremost. But we did not want them to disappear. Though prevalence of Diclofenac is low in the area, there are dangers. They must survive first. If they fall sick, they can be attacked too. But being free is important,” says Dr Prakash, visibly concerned.
The centre would provide food in the form of skin-less goat carcass for at least a year to ensure the birds are fed. A survey has already been conducted of the Bir Shikargaha forest to ensure it’s safe for the birds, and if there is ample supply of water. Residents of nearby villages have been educated about ill-effects of Diclofenac drug and urged not to use it for veterinary purpose.
Few days later, some white-backed vultures which had been interacting with the birds when they were in the pre-release aviary, came near the aviary, but the birds had flown away by then. The team at the breeding centre had been ensuring regular interaction between the captive birds and free-ranging birds to facilitate their union with the flock once they are released.
Pamphlets have also been distributed to encourage villagers to inform the scientists of breeding centre whenever they spot the two birds with orange-coloured wing tags and leg rings used for identification. In the absence of satellite transmitters called platform transmitter terminal (PTT), it is difficult for them to monitor their movement.
The scientists now aim to re-introduce a vulture from any of the critically endangered species into the forest later in the year. “But we will do it only after we get permission for PTT, because we do not want to take any risk of not being able to track them,” says Dr Prakash.
Set up in 2000, the Jatayu Breeding and Conservation Centre has been producing 40 vultures every year through breeding. It caters to three critically endangered species, namely long-billed vultures, white-backed vultures and slender-billed vultures.