The Asian Vulture Crisis of the 1990s

India had a very high number of vultures in the 1980s. The white rumped vulture alone had a population of about 60 million then. In total, India had 9 species of vultures, which were the following:

  • Indian Vulture –Gyps indicus.
  • Red-Headed Vulture –Sarcogyps calvus.
  • Slender-Billed Vulture –Gyps tenuirostris.
  • White-rumped Vulture –Gyps bengalensis.
  • Cinereous Vulture –Aegypius monachus.
  • Himalayan Vulture –Gyps himalayensis.
  • Bearded Vulture –Gypaetus barbatus.
  • Egyptian Vulture –Neophron percnopterus.
  • Himalayan Griffon Vulture –Gyps fulvus

But a mere decade later, from 1990 to 2000, India saw a decline of 98% in four species of vultures: the White-rumped, Indian, Slender billed, and the red-headed vulture, giving all of them the conservation of status. After seeing these names, we can identify that the gyps species vultures were the most vulnerable. Biologists and ecologists identified two solid causes of this population crash.

Diclofenac Poisoning

  • Diclofenac was a commonly used painkiller for cattle. Studies of dead vulture bodies in the 1980s revealed that 99% of all dead vultures had a considerable amount of diclofenac.
  • Scientists said that if even 1% of all carcasses have diclofenac in them, there was possibility of extinction for the affected vultures. However, studied showed that 10% of all carcasses had the chemical in them.
  • This time, the government of India’s response was prompt. Within a few months, they banned diclofenac completely. This reduced percentage of the chemical in carcasses from 10% to 6%.
  • Poor farmers and livestock owners requested that an alternative be provided. To solve this problem, 7 drugs were tested with livestock, and a drug called meloxicam resulted in 0% mortality of scavengers.
  • This brings a ray of hope for Indian vulture species, but there is one more factor which affects them.

Vultures feed on a cow

Diclofenac bought in 2009
Red-headed Vulture at its nest

Lack of nesting sites

  • Vultures’ nesting sites are very remote and difficult to access. They nest high up on trees on top of cliffs. They may also nest in rock crevices, mammal burrows or abandoned heron or stork nests. However these sites are always at a very high altitude.These areas are often considered wastelands and are sanctioned for industrial use or mining.
  • With very few nesting sites, there is a lot of competition to find a site.
  • Most vultures nest close to humans, as it ensures them extra food (from livestock). However, like many other scavengers, vultures are also considered bad fortune in many indian cultures and thus, they are driven away from their nests by humans.
  • However, this doesn’t affect them as badly as diclofenac, it slows down the recovery process.

Vulture Conservation in India

Vibhu Prakash-Jatayu Conservation Breeding Centre

After studying the ecology of India Spotted Eagles in Bharatpur, Vibhu Prakash established a database on the distribution and statuses of indian raptors. After this, he documented the decline in vulture populations in India. Raising concerns on this issue, he founded the Jatayu Conservation Breeding centre in 2001. He is now a Principal Scientist at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS)

The Jatayu Conservation Breeding Centre is a form of ex-situ conservation (off-site conservation to create a gene bank for a species or breed them in captivity) for vultures. It focuses on three species of vultures of the gyps genus- White backed, Slender-billed, and Indian vulture. It has a main centre in Pinjore in Haryana, and others in Ranchi, Hyderabad, and

  • 25 pairs of each species are housed in one centre. Each centre has a metal grill on top to prevent other animals, especially leopards and monkeys from attacking the vultures. Underneath the metal grill there is a soft net so that the birds do not get hurt.
  • Before a vulture is brought to the main aviary, it is put in a quarantine aviary for 45 days to check for any sign of disease. Blood and faeces samples are taken and tested every week.
  • 70% of the birds part of the breeding programme are nestlings that were taken from trees.
  • 30% of the birds part of the breeding programme are adults which were trapped and brought in.
  • The vultures feed only on tested chemical free goats, as slaughtering cattle is not allowed in India.
  • Each vulture is given a leg and wing tag with its identification and a microchip with all other details.
  • After feeding, most vultures like to take a bath. They are social birds and like to share space, food, perches, etc.
  • When sun is bright and pleasant, they spread their wings and sunbathe for a while until they get too hot. They keep flapping their wings to keep their pectoral muscles in shape so that they will be able to fly when released.
  • The vultures start mating September onward. They start making their nests immediately and take almost 2 months to build it. The programme had initially made the nests and provided it to the vulture. Instead, the vultures tore these ready-made nests apart and built their own nests with the material. Since then, the centre has been providing just the material to the birds and allowed them to building their own nest.
  • The vultures start laying eggs in December and roll it around 5-6 times a day. Despite sharing perches in other times. During the nesting season, no other birds is allowed to come even near the nest. On the day of the hatching, the parents wet the eggshell to make it softer for a faster hatching. The chick is kept in the warmth of the parents’ stomach for about 45 days.
  • The programme takes advantage of a nesting behaviour of raptors: they lay an egg again within 3 weeks if the first egg is lost. So, the first egg is taken away by the centre staff and put in an incubator. Thus the programme creates 2 chicks from 1 pair, though a pair can take care only of one chick per season. However, to make even the incubated chicks as good as the ones raised by the parents, the two are swapped when both are strong enough to survive the change.

Image credits
Featured Image: : © Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Vultures feed on a cow: By Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE – Indian White-backed Vultures (Gyps bengalensis) feeding on a dead cow, CC BY-SA 2.0,
Diclofenac bought in 2009: By Jacob Graham Savoie – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Red-headed Vulture at its nest: By Vipul Lunia – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Vibhu Prakash: Conservation India

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